The Enduring Power Of Delta Goodrem, Australia’s Most Enigmatic Popstar

Delta Goodrem simply doesn't seem to inhabit the world that the rest of us do at all. She's not in a castle perched on a hill, a stone's throw away from a slum. She's living on Mars.

delta goodrem photo

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The video for ‘Wings’ is simple. Delta Goodrem, dressed in white, stands in a bare room, singing directly to camera. A light breeze tousles her famous blonde hair, which is draped over her shoulders like a priceless scarf.

The word you’d use in pitch meetings to describe the look of the clip is ‘timeless’. But it’s not really timeless. Nothing about Goodrem is. The ‘Wings’ clip, like much of Goodrem’s music and image, is quintessential of a time. Just not our time.

In her smooth, idealised album covers and music videos, Goodrem exists in a Pleasantville of her own making — a strange quasi-reality, both familiar and not. Her world is an approximation of the early two-thousands. But it’s not the two-thousands as they actually happened. It’s an imaginary two-thousands, one without the Iraq war; a sanitised version of the era free from suffering, and poverty, and pain.

Yet somehow, despite being as disconnected from the rest of us as she sometimes appears, Goodrem never comes across as “elite” in all the negative ways that word can be taken. She’s not haughty, or entitled, or cruel.

She’s different, of course. Goodrem’s been a celebrity since she was a teenager, a double-threat actress and singer who has had tabloid cameras shoved in her face during the time the rest of us were struggling with acne and algebra homework. And she doesn’t shy away from that difference, either. On the front cover of her fourth album, Child of the Universe, she sits in front of an ornate piano, clad in a sparkling dress, her arms covered in bangles. There’s only one word an image like that screams: luxury.

But that wealth and success isn’t pointed in the way that the wealth and success of say, Gal Gadot is, the Wonder Woman actress who had the ignorance to drop a celebrity sing-along in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Goodrem’s not Marie Antoinette; a dangerously unaware autocrat who is eating cake while the rest of us are starving.

Goodrem simply doesn’t seem to inhabit the world that the rest of us do at all. She’s literally not on the same planet. She’s not in a castle perched on a hill, a stone’s throw away from a slum. She’s living on Mars.

Or no: she’s on Planet Goodrem. On Planet Goodrem, everything has a breezy, gentle, stylised quality. Nobody’s ever stubbed their toe on Planet Goodrem, or gotten a paper cut, or fallen over in the shower. Her music and her image don’t project the sense that she is ignoring pain and discomfort. They project the sense that she’s simply not aware of what that pain is. Each Delta Goodrem album could be retitled, I Have Never Run For The Bus.

Born To Try

Of course, it’s not true that Goodrem is unaware of actual, real-world pain. That’s just the projection. In actual fact, Goodrem’s origin story was one born out of hardship.

The same year that she dropped Innocent Eyes, her stunning debut record, she revealed that she had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The news made headlines around Australia. Fans sent her letters and get-well cards. And ‘Born To Try’, the song that made her name, took on a new, autobiographical quality. It became a song with a real-world, specific focus: a rallying cry not for Goodrem’s fans, but for Goodrem herself.

And yet, surprisingly, this struggle didn’t become Goodrem’s defining quality. The mainstream media usually has the habit of keeping only one thing in its mind at once. But Goodrem was too complicated and nuanced even then to be reduced to simply her illness. Instead, she became a scattered, disparate set of factoids. An actress and a singer. Defiant and approachable. Mainstream and anachronistic. The critics loved her. But they couldn’t capture her, or explain her.

Part of that was a deliberate move by Goodrem. From the very beginning, she has always demonstrated an acute understanding of what she needs to do to surprise people.

After all, when the public started getting used to the relatable, human quality she projected during her regular role on Neighbours, she shook it up with a turn in Hating Alison Ashley, playing the villain. In that film, Goodrem’s china doll quality is used against itself. Her perfection, her wholesomeness; the film weaponises these things, making them seem unpleasant and alienating. Already, she was shaking up the narrative.

Her second album, Mistaken Identity, took the same approach. Released a year after Innocent Eyes, it had the mainstream gloss of that debut, featuring everything from a duet with Brian McFadden of Westlife, to a big, bombastic ballad in the form of ‘You are My Rock’. But it was stranger than her first album, and darker.

‘Extraordinary Day’, a slow-build that captures the precise moment that she learnt of her Hodgkin’s Lymphona diagnosis, finds the midpoint between Madonna and Portishead, wafting around the listener’s ears like smoke. ‘The Analyst’, on the other hand, wears the trappings of ‘Born To Try’ like a human skinsuit.

Underneath the piano, and the hooky melody, there lies the kind of horror and anger that pop usually only accepts when it comes from artists as monolithic as Tori Amos. “Prepare yourself to meet a girl who cannot sleep,” Goodrem sings at the start of that song, breathily.

More astonishing than that? Somehow, despite the bland state of Australian pop at the time, Goodrem made a subversive work of anti-art that debuted at number one in the charts. A strange story had gotten stranger. Not just that Goodrem was so good at throwing left-turns. But that, for some reason, the famously picky Australian public was going along with her.

At least, for a while.

The Voice and The Fall

Goodrem’s complicated nature was always going to backfire one way or the other. After all, popstars have their defining qualities for a reason — narratives need a static hero, and so musicians latch onto personas they can never fully let go of. Katy Perry is kooky. Rihanna is sexy. Taylor Swift is relatable. Beyoncé is fierce. There’s some movement within those boundaries, of course. But shake up these tags too much, and musicians end up seeming strange, or abrupt.

For Goodrem, that crisis was sparked thanks to her initial appearance as a judge on The Voice. For years, she had happily existed in her own bubble, building townships on the surface of Planet Goodrem. But the reality TV format thrust her into the limelight in an uncomfortable and inconsistent way.

The problem? For the first time in many years, she was surrounded by regular people. Seal and Joel Madden, her fellow judges, were very good at seeming down-to-earth and relaxed. The latter in particular had mastered the art of relatability many years before — a hat tipped backwards on his head, full of antic excitement, he came across like your best mate’s older brother.

Then there were the contestants. Brimming with nervous energy, they exuded a natural, uncomplicated discomfort with the machinations of the entertainment world that they had found themselves in the centre of. That, after all, was the narrative of the show: audiences were invited to watch “normal people” become stars.

For the first time, the media that had always been so supportive of the young singer, began to characterise her as ‘stuck-up.’

Goodrem was an uneasy point of contrast to that cast of characters. She was stately, impossibly beautiful, never a hair out of place. And that remove, in the wrong context, began to seem like aloofness. For the first time, the media that had always been so supportive of the young singer, began to characterise her as ‘stuck-up.’

That was wrong, of course. In fact, Goodrem was a good judge. Unlike other reality television stars, she actually engaged with her apprentices’ music. Her uncanny knack for understanding the expectations audiences have of their entertainers was coming into play — she could tell what song to drop and when. She just didn’t mug for the cameras, or pretend to be something that she wasn’t. And for a brief time, that meant her reputation took a beating.

What It Means To Love Delta

Around that first season of The Voice was the strangest time to be a Goodrem fan. I know because I was one then. I still am. To be honest, one way or the other, I’ve been trying to explicate Delta Goodrem for most of my adult life. After all, she was one of the first Australian stars that I encountered.

I emigrated to the country when I was 11 years old, towards the end of 2001. It was months after the Sydney Olympics, but the cultural life of the country was still very much tied up in that event. Morning show hosts dissected every impression of Sydney published by every foreign press outlet in the world. The shops overflowed with stuffed toy versions of characters I assumed were beloved, time-honoured national heroes. Actually, they were the Olympic mascots a panel of marketing specialists had dreamt up a few months previously, and the country would forget a few months later.

All that noise obscured Australian culture to me. I didn’t have a proper handle on my new home, or how it described itself. And then, a little while later, I met Delta.

It was early in the morning, I was tired, and the TV was turned to some news channel. I wasn’t really watching. I heard the host mutter something; a sudden burst of applause. Then, music. And there she was, in all her striking, wonderful strangeness, playing her way through ‘Born To Try’.  The song sent me lopsided. I couldn’t make sense of it. It was so emotionally sincere — so forceful. But it wasn’t like the other pop of the time. It wasn’t normal.

I stayed rattled by Goodrem for many years. I bought all her albums, even as I moved through a punk phase and became a full-blown metalhead. My friends laughed at me when they saw the Innocent Eyes CD on my shelf. Sometimes I tried to explain what she meant to me. But it was futile.

The Reclamation

In 2016, Goodrem released Wings of the Wild, her second album since she had become a judge on The Voice, and the first substantial body of work she’d released in almost half a decade. The time had been well spent. Wings of the Wild is a distillation of her entire approach — Planet Goodrem detailed in miniature.

Even the front cover feels like an entire statement of self. On it, Goodrem races a tiger. The image is slick, rendered in perfect detail, every single element carefully composed and arranged. It looks like a Botticelli. Which means that it also looks removed; distanced; ever-so-slightly, excitingly alien.

As for the songs themselves, they are some of the most intelligent and nuanced that Goodrem has ever released. ‘The River’ mixes gospel with rhythmic, insistent electro-pop; ‘Enough’ leans up against hip-hop; and ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’ darts around easy interpretation like a boxer. Even the album’s most upfront track, ‘I’m Not Giving Up’, eventually descends into a mess of complicated, frenetic instrumentation, on top which Goodrem’s voice crackles like a bonfire.

And yet it wasn’t the strength of the album alone that changed Goodrem’s reputation once more. Sure, it was another masterpiece, but Child of the Universe had been a masterpiece too, and the public had been so tied up in The Voice controversy that some overlooked it. Goodrem hadn’t changed. Her audience had.

Goodrem’s increasingly vocal fans online were now very young, many of them in their early teens. And unlike the generations that had come before them, this new wave of pop music lovers had a good enough grasp of nuance and irony to properly understand her.

After all, the internet is a training ground when it comes to developing conflicting thoughts. It’s a mess of distracting and disconnected facts, with a thousand sources of news imparting a thousand different things. The only way to deal with all those inconsistencies is to throw up your hands — to develop a sense of humour and a way of looking at the world that means being able to sit with inconsistencies.

That’s the key to Goodrem’s newfound fame. This new fanbase does not try to ignore her strangeness, or pretend that she’s a regular old popstar. Nowadays, Goodrem’s supporters walk the perfect line between self-awareness and genuine love.

Fans can tweet about Innocent Eyes being the greatest album ever written and mean it, while also invisibly acknowledging that it’s kinda ridiculous to say that Innocent Eyes is the greatest album ever made. We can talk about Delta in these inexplicable linguistic circles and be clearly making some kind of joke, while also kind of making no real joke at all.

Susan Sontag said camp means being alive to every possible way something can be taken. Loving Delta means the same thing.

Meeting Delta Goodrem

This is not my first attempt to get to the heart of the Goodrem phenomenon. I have been so fascinated with her for so long that back in 2018, I wrote an article about her new single, ‘Think About You’, and invited her to come to the offices of the publication at which I worked. She came, but could only make a day that I was away, at university. I was devastated. I spent that day sitting in the middle of a hot lecture room, barely able to focus, fixated on what I had missed out on.

After the visit, I grilled my colleagues for information. According to them, Goodrem had walked into the office asking after me. To my pride and embarrassment, she had read the review of ‘Think About You’. Pride because I was now known to Delta; embarrassment because I spent much of the review talking about how I felt the song was secretly about masturbation. When Goodrem learned I wasn’t there, she drew a bouquet of flowers on a piece of paper and left it on my desk.

It’s only our modern approach to irony that allows us to talk about Goodrem successfully.

My colleagues left the drawing on my desk. The next time I came in, I sat down in front of the thing, a little staggered. It was perfect. As soon as I saw it, touched it, I knew it was better than any actual meeting with Goodrem could ever be. Delta Goodrem has always been a thousand things at once. Any sit-down conversation with her would only work to settle some of those things.

And I didn’t want them settled. A simpler Delta is a more boring Delta. The whole point of her art, from the very moment that she released Innocent Eyes, has been the sense of tonal chaos that she has so carefully tried to curate. Why did I believe that she could explain herself in conversation? Why did I even want her to?

My colleagues backed that assessment up. When I asked what she was like, they couldn’t even answer. “Nice,” was the word they kept using. But I couldn’t dig much deeper than that. And eventually, happily, I stopped trying.

Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee who keeps the drawing that Delta did for him in a plastic sleeve in a very safe place. He tweets @Joseph_O_Earp.