Sunday, August 12, 2012

Men At Work: Sneaking Some Bitterness "Down Under" A Goofy Surface

"Ha ha, we're Australian!" That's pretty much what the appeal of this song seemed to be to the people who I caught listening to it. Friends in college would play "Down Under" and get this little grin on their faces, as if to say, "Remember these silly guys from Australia who had a couple of hits and they were from Australia and wasn't that really funny?" Sorry, but I tend to look for more from my music.

Then I actually read about the song on Wikipedia. Here's what singer Colin Hay says:
The chorus is really about the selling of Australia in many ways, the over-development of the country. It was a song about the loss of spirit in that country. It's really about the plundering of the country by greedy people. It is ultimately about celebrating the country, but not in a nationalistic way and not in a flag-waving sense. It's really more than that.

It's ironic to me that so many people thought it was about a specific thing and that really wasn't the intention behind the song. If you listen to 'Born In The USA,' it's a similar song in that there's a lot of nuance missed because people like drinking beer and throwing their arms up in the air and feeling nationalistic. It's ultimately a song about celebration, but it's a matter of what you choose to celebrate about a country or a place. White people haven't been in Australia all that long, and it's truly an awesome place, but one of the most interesting and exciting things about the country is what was there before. The true heritage of a country often gets lost in the name of progress and development.
Hmm. Well ... now I kind of liked it! Let's look at some of these lyrics:
Do you come from a land down under?
Where women glow and men plunder?
Can't you hear, can't you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover
It's not particularly honorable to "plunder," is it? People might hear "plunder" and think, "oh, like pirates, cool!" But maybe they meant "plunder" in a more critical sense, like how white people "plundered" the Aboriginies and "plundered" the country's natural resources. Some of the song's slang was probably lost on American ears. For example, to "chunder" is to vomit. In that sense, to sing "I come from a land down under/Where beer does flow and men chunder" is to not be as blindly celebratory of your countrymen as one might have otherwise assumed. And why is there thunder? Why do we need to "run" and "take cover"?! Sounds more ominous than patriotic if you ask me.

Now after listening more carefully, I realized the song was a bit darker than I had assumed. Instead of "We come from Australia, which is so weird and quirky," it's more like, "We come from from Australia, and we're supposed to feel kinship with complete strangers just because we share these weird and quirky things, but that's just the surface crap that sells to the foreigners, and maybe we really do have things in common, but those sorts of things, like a history of exploitation and our origins as a giant penal colony, aren't as appealing in a brochure." Just what does it mean to really come from a land down under? Eh, Crocodile Dundee?

So basically, it's a good song that was misunderstood and happened to appeal to stupid people. Or, to put it another way, Men at Work were expressing ambivalence about the selling of Australia, but the selling of Australia is exactly what made the song a hit in the first place, and exactly why people in America still like it. The only lyric anyone actually quotes is "I come from a land down under/when women glow and men plunder." Who cares what they're really trying to say.

Makes me want to go and stick my head "down under" a toilet. And when I do, it better flush in the right direction.

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