We Need To Talk About Ableism In The Australian Music Industry

The now infamous triple j tweet highlighted the fault lines within the music industry - but our reckoning with ableism hasn't even begun.

ableism music industry photo

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A day after the now notorious triple j “did it hurt?” tweet, I released the first single from an album I’ve been working on for two years.

The song is about my time on the dole, specifically the time I spent dealing with private disability job providers in my mid-20s. I turn 31 in a month, and still feel deeply weird whenever I put out any music, something I only started doing in earnest in 2018, at the age of 28. The weirdness doesn’t stem from the fact that I’m over 30, but rather from the fact that I’m able to put out anything at all after such a long struggle to do so. To answer the first part of triple j’s question: yes it did.

I have had trouble identifying as “disabled.” It is a term that brings with it a lot of weight, many meanings, and a boatload of contradictory biases. When the label was first applied to me I thought “ah nah, I’m fine.” My mum taught disabled children for 20 years, low-functioning kids who existed in a constant state of intense need and requirements. I wasn’t in a wheelchair, and I wasn’t in hospital every other week to keep me alive. I was just a weirdo, is all.

Diagnostically, however, I was told I had ADD, OCD, depression, and bipolar, and midway into my 20s, that was all bundled up with “high functioning” autism. There was that and my chronic pain, which had plagued me since I was nine. These things came together to label me as “disabled,” for whatever that is worth.

Autistics and maniacs are, well, obsessives, and my first obsession (besides dinosaurs) was song. Although I’ve never been a gifted musician in any technical sense, songs had spilled out of me since I was small. I’d kill hours as a kid making up ditties, ballads, and entire musicals for myself, my cousins, and my friends. In my hard to wrangle ping-ponging mind, which stuttered and tripped over the smallest of tasks, melody and lyrics would spill out of the cacophony all but fully formed.

In the same way that I’ve never been lost for words, I’ve never been lost for songs.

Lost And Found

As I entered teendom and early adulthood, wanting only to be the next Bob Dylan or Daniel Johnston, I found the songs came faster and faster, until, suddenly, they were arriving faster than I could spew them out. At around 20, maybe 21, songs got tangled in the strings of the pendulum of my emerging bipolar. I can only explain the feeling as like trying to stop a runaway train with a broken brake handle by shovelling more and more coal into the engine, compulsively.

After a while, obsessive thinking and depressive ideation pulled me into loops of paralysis that made me not just unable to pick up my guitar, but fearful of it. The last time I played live music for an actual audience was in 2014 in a small portside country music bar in Nagasake, to a room full of forgiving Japanese musicians and businessmen, and the gentle love of my unreservedly supportive partner. After that, the anxiety, the obsessiveness, and the resulting manic interludes that came with making music made me pack it up.

In the same way that I’ve never been lost for words, I’ve never been lost for songs.

I spent the years between 21 and 27 burying my desire to make music deep, deep within me. It was for the best, I reasoned, as I wasn’t really any good and no one cared to hear it, anyway. Besides, I had no time. That period in my 20s felt like a gauntlet of health issues: two hip surgeries, exhausting pain, and the loosening grip on the reigns of mania. My worsening OCD made songwriting increasingly unpalatable. Every pattern had a counter pattern and every rhyme a counter-rhyme and so on until I would sit there in wet-lipped stupefaction rolling over all possibilities and decisions until none were able to be made. To even think of a song soon began like putting my hand on a hot stove.

I received an official autism diagnosis late 2016, at the tail end of a year where my mania blew up most facets of my life (if you followed me online then: Jesus, I am sorry!). This diagnosis, unlike the others, unlocked something within me. I now had the tools to kinda understand this thing, the means to sorta navigate it, and felt as though I’d been given a compass and a map to chart his new continent of the self.

Obsessive thinking and depressive ideation pulled me into loops of paralysis that made me not just unable to pick up my guitar, but fearful of it.

After years of meds that either made my swings worse (I hate you, Cymbalta) or filled my head with nothing but glue, I was given treatment that allowed me to wrestle back control and direction for the first time in years. By October I had realised my lifelong dream of moving to New York (if then only as an exploratory mission). I found myself picking up my guitar and singing again for the first time in years. In a year’s time, I had written almost 50 new songs. A new friend back in Fremantle helped me record and release my first track, and by the end of 2019 I was back in New York, with my roommate, working together on a full-length album of my songs, a lifelong dream that I had all but buried three years prior.

It had taken me almost a decade to get back to a point where I was merely capable of picking up my guitar and tinkering with it again. When I could, a great hurt undid itself. It felt so natural: the songs came so freely and easily as they had when I was younger. With that happiness came shame: shame in myself for denying myself, shame in myself for keeping my songs quiet, shame for all the self-hatred and self-denial that comes easier and easier with every mental health setback and beatdown.

I had to forgive myself, and my past self’s impatience. That took an acceptance of ‘disabled’ that I had until then not been willing to permit. The turning point came when I was given the opportunity to interview Grant Gronewold, AKA HTMLflowers, for Swampland magazine. Grant, having spent his life fighting cystic fibrosis, was coming from a whole other sphere of illness to me. His art and his music is a caustic acid bath for middle-brow notions of sickness, medicine, and ‘disability’.

“Ticking Off The Disabled Box”

This brings me back to the triple j tweet, or more to the point, the discourse around it. I don’t think triple j were doing anything other than making fun of cranky older listeners, but the conversation the tin-eared joke sparked is one I ultimately found to be exhausting and lacking.

Ageism, we know, disproportionately affects different groups. Most of the online conversation hinged on how it applies to women, who are horribly treated and discarded by the industry machine. Then there were conversations about race and class, how the privileged have access to the opportunities that those without do not, and how the game is most definitely rigged in one side’s favour.

There was the usual spurt of columns and panels and industry tokenism and scraping and bowing and chest-thumping that comes whenever this conversation arises. The usual racket — but also, tellingly, the usual silence.

Ableism, as it applies to industry (or anything, to be honest) is difficult to argue and expound upon because of how it blankets over myriad issues and illnesses with one catch-all term. The chronically ill, the neurodivergent, the dying, the paralysed, and “the rest” are all thrown together into the same straightjacket and told to “make our case” before an audience that’s usually just close friends and family, like an open mic held in a derelict hospice ward.

Jack Meakins is one part of the Perth band Alter Boy, a ‘queerlectro’ pop seven-piece who bill themselves as a “Cute Deaf boy band,” with four of the seven members being Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing.

“I began learning Auslan as an adult,” Meakins told me. “After a year and a half, myself and the other HOH person in the class, Molly/Aaron, worked together on translating a song. It triggered a conversation on the music industry and what looks like for deaf/HOH people. We find a lot of spaces around Perth aren’t really accessible and we make a conscious effort to make sure the spaces we play are.”

“There are a lot of opinions rooted in ableism that have actually given us this platform,” he continued, describing the hearing communities fascination with the “beauty” of Auslan. “We have been booked for what feels like quite tokenistic reasons, ticking off the “disabled” box.”

Yet despite this fascination, Jack tells me they still struggle to get organisers to book interpreters on time for their shows. “We aim to play venues that are accessible, and we have cancelled shows before.”

The chronically ill, the neurodivergent, the dying, the paralysed, and “the rest” are all thrown together into the same straightjacket.

Just as I often fret that I am not autistic “enough” to warrant the label, Jack explains there are similar anxieties in the Deaf/HoH community. “There is a lot of elitism that seems rooted in ableism,” he says before explaining the communities tendency to divide itself between “capital ‘D’ Deaf” and “lowercase deaf”. Disability, in its murkiest state, exists in a state of flux, sliding up and down, for want of a better word, a spectrum.

“Ultimately it means that we have to combat that internalised ableism, while also making sure we take what they say on board. We will never dismiss a disabled person out of hand the way we might when an abled person contacts us.”

Jack has some straightforward advice regarding what is required of those in the industry wanting to combat ableism: “Self reflection. Listen to disabled people. Identify your own biases and work to uproot them.”

The Industry Is Completely Unwelcoming

‘Identify and uproot’ seems straightforward enough on the surface. But I’m beginning to think that disability itself is a radical act, especially in spaces that bang on about inclusion but refuse to do the work that inclusion demands.

Work is the crux of it, in the end. Music is labour. Illness and disability gobble energy, wealth, and time up like nothing else. Music is expensive to make, in money, time, and energy. It’s emotionally exhausting, socially co-dependant, and in every sense of the word, demanding.

But disability isn’t just expensive, it’s costly. We are bled dry by treatment, medication, therapies. If that doesn’t exhaust our finances, it exhausts our willpower. There’s little left of us that’s able to rehearse, write, perform, or navigate the murky waters of the tumultuous “scene”. The mere act of creation can be dangerously triggering, and as I did, you might assess the risk and decide to put down tools.

All of this consideration takes place within an industry that gives us little. From its small bar gigs to its stadiums to its scene-kid politicking to its big business endgame, the business of making music is largely unaccommodating of our needs. Efforts to address this need to move beyond mere tokenism, conversation, and into action.

It’s a slow process, a hard process, for all parties. I think the reason so many of the most outspoken disabled artists tend to be in their late 20s and 30s is that’s around the point where someone is a disability comes into their own — when they have worn the label like a dusty old cloak, and have worked its parameters to accommodate the size and breadth of their art, ambition, and health.

With disability, ageism cuts both ways: these voices were there at 18, 21, and 25. You just didn’t make space for them.

Patrick Marlborough is a writer, comedian, musician, and author based in Walyalup (Fremantle) Western Australia being barked at by their dog, Buckley.