Sydney Morning Herald

Rock Of Ages Hard On Young Ears

Author: Jon Casimir

If today’s music awards leave you confused, hey, maybe you are just too old.

THE week of the ARIA Awards is always fun in a big office. All those thirtysomethings and fortysomethings wandering around muttering things like “Who are all these bands I’ve never heard of?” and “What is the difference between Best Rock and Best Pop Release anyway?”

The first question is, as you’d expect, just age showing like an unruly petticoat. The unfortunate thing for baby boomers is that because their generation gap was delayed, it seems to have become stronger now that it’s here, it’s packing a powerful disorientation punch. The problem dates back to the ’80s time-freeze. The ’50s had a sizable gap between the listening habits of parents and children. So did the ’60s and ’70s. But in the ’80s, the train never left the platform. Who can forget watching Elton John and George Michael, icons of their respective generations, on stage together at Live Aid?

The fact that music could reach across generations was why so much of the ’80s sucked. It was a decade when people under 25 thought it was perfectly all right to like a band like Dire Straits, who were old fogeys before they began. It also meant a generation was lulled into a false sense of security, and didn’t expect the pendulum to swing away.

The question about the pop/rock divide is, however, a perfectly rational response to the model of confusion that the ARIA Awards have always presented their categories rarely make much sense. It’s hard not to sympathise with the organisers, though. There are simply not enough obvious gongs to make a decent night of it. Beyond the top dozen awards, they’re scratching for reasons to give the statuettes away.

They can’t present an hour-long awards ceremony. because everyone knows that to earn the required gravitas, awards nights must bat on forever like Mark Taylor. So, to fill out the extra couple of hours, and to appease various lobby groups within the industry, a slew of often dubious nods has been grafted onto the ARIA agenda.

This is what leads to the genre confusion. Because, honestly, how Best Australian Rock Release and Best Australian Pop Release differ from Best Australian Single and Best Australian Album is anybody’s guess. How they differ from each other isn’t exactly obvious either. The facetious answer is that rock is a pretty much outdated art form involving guitars, while pop is anything that sits in your record shop like a big-eyed puppy in a pound, pleading with you to take it home. Rock is what your parents grew up with and pop is everything that leans as much towards commerce as art. But the messy young rock band the Living End are as pop as you can get, while Natalie Imbruglia’s smash pop album has guitars all over it. Who can work it out?

And if the Living End are one of the biggest local success stories of 1998, then what are they doing in the Alternative Release category? Similarly, if Regurgitator are one of the highest selling rock acts in the country (and their last album was classic pop), can it really be considered alternative? And alternative to what?

How come Indigenous Music get a token category of their own, despite the fact that it’s mostly skin colour rather than sound which unites the acts? How come Folk, World Music and something called Traditional are lumped in together? And why do they present awards for Highest Selling Australian Single and Highest Selling Australian Album, particularly when the ARIAS have almost always confused what is good with what is commercially successful anyway? You could argue that the winners of these categories have already had all the reward they need in cold, hard sales. On the other hand, at least, they are two awards based on understandable criteria.

And they are also the only two awards likely to be given to acts that those climbing the north face of 30 are familiar with. Perhaps it’s worth keeping those categories, just to keep the oldies happy.

Jon Casimir is a thirtysomething Herald music critic. He wishes only that he hadn’t heard of some of these hands.