Music

The ‘Ironic’ Australian Festival Slot Is Officially A Thing, But Should It Be?

When it comes to embracing certain genres and acts, Australian festivals can't do it without a shield of irony.

Falls Festival Australian Music Festivals photo

The Falls Festival line-up has officially landed for the 2019/2020 new-year period, and the reaction so far has been considerably positive.

As always, there’s a wide variety of huge international stars — American chart-topper Halsey, indie veterans Vampire Weekend, nu-folk heroes Of Monsters & Men — as well as established Australian names like Peking Duk and PNAU helping to ring in the new decade. There’s a name on the bill, however, that is simultaneously the most surprising and unsurprising addition to the entire festivities: Whispering Jack himself, John Farnham.

From an outside perspective, it may be surprising to see Farnesy on a bill like Falls. After all, he’s several decades older than the rest of the performers and his normal performances in outdoor settings are usually reserved for more upmarket affairs like A Day On The Green. So, what’s he doing at Falls Festival? It’s simple, really: John Farnham is this years’ Falls Irony Slot.

For the third year in a row, Falls have booked an act that would otherwise be considered naff and hugely uncool — all because of Australia’s ongoing obsession with memes and upholding unfashionable kitsch with a hugely-ironic pride.

In 2017, it was Daryl Braithwaite — a man inducted into the ARIA Hall Of Fame that very same year (for the second time, no less!) — now having “Play ‘Horses,’” yelled at him by people that weren’t even born when it came out. The year following, it was Toto — winners of six Grammy awards and a band that’s gone triple-platinum in Australia alone, with a disinterested crowd impatiently waiting for them to play that song.

Now, following on from Farnesy’s cameo appearance with irony-overlords Client Liaison at their own festival, Farnham will be busting out all the hits for a crowd that are almost guaranteed to not give a shit. Until he plays ‘You’re The Voice’, of course, and then all the phones will go up and everyone will sing along, and for three minutes one of the otherwise most-respected names in the history of Australian music will actually have a moment of reverence. It’ll look great on Instagram stories, that’s for sure.

At Glastonbury, the festival has an unwritten rule that the Sunday afternoon slot on the main stage is the “Legends Slot.” It’s reserved for a veteran act to celebrate their career and their greatest hits. Our very own Kylie Minogue performed in the slot at the festival this year, with previous recipients including Dame Shirley Bassey, Dolly Parton and honorary Aussie Barry Gibb.

If festivals like Falls were booking Braithwaite, Toto and Farnham in this respect, perhaps it would be more understandable as to why they’ve been included. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t feel that’s how Australian festivals operate in 2019.

With the end of festivals like Homebake and the Big Day Out over the years, many Australian festivals have honed in on the younger target market (ie. the triple j demo) and latched onto them. They want quote-unquote “alternative” music, and that’s exactly what they get — that’s why Laneway has survived, and evolved into the biggest it’s ever been.

The closest Splendour in the Grass came to booking a heritage act on its main-stage this year was having Tina Arena as a guest during Matt Corby’s set. The average festival-goer in Australia refuses to interact with pop music unless it’s on some kind of irony level. Why else do you think our festival crowds still sing the chorus of ‘Hey Baby’ at the drop of a hat? It’s funny, dude.

Not to bring up Glastonbury again, but it’s worth noting that the last few years have seen the previously staunch rock festival incorporate acts like Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and Adele into the line-up. Meanwhile, festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza, and Primavera Sound have been proudly wearing pop on their line-ups for years.

As it stands, the only pop act not booked as a gag for a summer music festival without the triple j tick is Carly Rae Jepsen, who will appear at SandTunes at the end of the year. Aside from that, our festivals are dominated by hip-hop, indie and rock acts. Even a festival like Darwin’s BASSINTHEGRASS, which once sported acts like Vanessa Amorosi, Gabriella Cilmi and hometown heroine Jessica Mauboy, has since turned out line-ups indistinguishable from those on the east coast.

Most festivals in Australia are seemingly adverse to booking pop artists, unless they pass one of three tests: They got the triple j seal of approval before they blew up (Halsey, Amy Shark), they can be used as a punchline (Farnham, Braithwaite), or they’ve been snuck in via a Trojan horse of a “credible” artist (Tina Arena).

The average festival-goer in Australia refuses to interact with pop music unless it’s on some kind of irony level.

Take someone like Guy Sebastian, for instance. A veteran of Australian music, he’s someone who has put in the effort to maintain some degree of relevancy in an industry where it fades fast. Would he ever get straight-up booked for an Australian festival? Absolutely not. But, tack him onto a performance with a cool kid like Paces and he’s golden.

The Veronicas were played on triple j for the first time ever in 2019 — thanks to being associated with Allday. Recent Australia visitor Mark Ronson is responsible for forcing the station’s hand to play both Bruno Mars and Miley Cyrus — and get them into the Hottest 100. Speaking of, what about Taylor Swift? The average triple j listener wouldn’t be caught dead listening to the pop princess — they’d be too busy with some indie record that’s much cooler than hers. #Tay4Hottest100, though? Yeah, dude. That’d be so funny, dude. It’s fine to interact with pop music if you’re only kidding.

Of course, there’s something to be said for the Australian sense of humour that this is how veteran Aussie performers are treated by a younger generation. They can all take a joke — Barnesy loved the attention he got from all the ‘Big Enough’ memes, after all. No-one’s suggesting that these slots can’t be fun — and at the end of the day, the artists are still getting paid.

Having said that, there’s a real underlying sense that by booking artists of their stature the way that they currently are by festivals like Falls, we’re laughing at them rather than with them. If music festivals in Australia are going to evolve, if they are going to rise to the standard of international events, then they have to change.


David James Young is a writer and podcaster. He thinks ‘Pressure Down’ by John Farnham fucking slaps. Find out more at www.davidjamesyoung.com.