The Pop Culture That Made Us
The Writers' Roundtable is an open-ended discussion forum in which a question or idea is posed, to be discussed at length by our team of contributors.
This month’s question: Which piece of popular culture, more than any other, made you who you are today?
- Richard S. He: Madonna
- Simon Di Berardino: Opeth – Blackwater Park
- Ash Beks: Radiohead – Kid A
- Anthony Kellaris: The White Stripes – “The Hardest Button to Button” music video
- Luke Lewis: Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand
- Bradley J. Dixon: No Doubt – “Just a Girl” music video
Richard S. He: Madonna
As a cynical, metal-fixated 16-year-old, scrolling through my iTunes, I somehow found myself asking, “Why aren’t half these artists female?” Popular culture still has so many more male artists depicting equally male characters that girls are simply expected to identify with them, but society rarely demands the reverse of boys. It lit a fire in my mind — why shouldn’t my heroes be women? Going from singer-songwriters, to indie, to overt pop, I found myself taking one of the world’s most (in)famous women very seriously.
Madonna’s 1990 best-of, The Immaculate Collection, is something of a bible for pop music. The songs are roundly excellent, spanning so many genres and influences at will, but they’re just the beginning. Deliberately courting controversy, she made the cultural conversation around her just as fascinating as the music itself; reconciling overt feminism with sexual empowerment, demanding that she be taken as seriously as any male, highbrow artist. Each video was an event, each one a new, entirely distinct identity, each part of a greater whole. It’s a distinctly feminine approach to artistic expression - “Vogue”, her crowning achievement, is a series of metaphors for pop as fashion, self-empowerment, Hollywood, escapism, transcending your circumstances; life as a series of rituals on one huge dancefloor, Madonna at its center. Equally beloved, hated and misunderstood, Madonna is all things to all people.
Personally, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Madonna untangled so many of the knots that’d formed in my brain since childhood - the relentless ambition, the notion of guilty pleasures, even society’s prescribed gender roles. Her “Like a Virgin” video was the first time I truly understood the notion of gender as more than biology; her writhing sexuality is so commanding, so deliberate, that it draws attention to its own calculatedness. She conquers her faceless love interest, yet she’s passively carried off in his arms: everything is a performance.
Ever since, I’ve tried to pursue diversity for its own sake, embracing all my contradictions and identities. I started a joke; I still have about half a book’s worth of unfinished business to write about her. I’ve never felt more lucid, or liberated, than when I’m listening to Madonna’s music, or watching her videos. Few performers ever stared into a camera with such intensity. It feels like I’m staring right back at her.
Simon Di Berardino: Opeth – Blackwater Park
I was a teenage metalhead. If that sounds a lot like a classic drive-in horror film, it’s because it kind of was. From the awkward shoulder length hair to the all-black wardrobe and the stencils of Big 4 metal band logos on my pencil case, I was the ultimate suburban cliché. Only problem was, I was about 15 years late.
From around the ages of 14–16 I lived on a healthy diet of Anthrax, Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Overkill and Annihilator, as well as the checkbox requirement of loving Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Everything else was garbage. If it wasn’t recorded in the 1980s or earlier, it could go to hell. It had to be fast, ferocious and technical. Sometimes (and only sometimes) there might be a ballad that would allow itself to slip between the cracks of rock solid metal mayhem, but for the most part it was heavy metal, 24/7.
That is until someone recommended me Opeth’s Blackwater Park. Released in 2001, I wouldn’t find out about it until a couple of years later, and even then my initial reaction was to write it off. The guttural vocals and the disparate passages of clean singing and acoustic guitar frustrated me, and even though the thing was a veritable riff factory, I couldn’t inaugurate it into my patented thrash repertoire.
Something strange happened though when I went back to school the next day. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Every now and then I’d catch myself remembering patterns or riffs and I’d feel the urge to revisit it. So I went home, put on the headphones, and from there, everything changed. I became obsessed. The album essentially became my mantra for a solid year. I was enamoured with the band and their labyrinthine songwriting, evocative lyrics and brutally beautiful dynamic range. I even gave them the privilege of being tagged as “Opeth Metal” in my Winamp genre field, because I couldn’t compare them to anyone else (I know, right?).
I look back now and see that moment as a definite shift in not only my musical appreciation, but also my growth as a person capable of new experiences and comprehending the confusion and fear inherent in their onset. The extreme parts of Opeth led me down the road towards death and black metal, drone, noise and experimental music whereas the pretty parts exposed me to alternative, indie, folk and electronic music. Most importantly though, it allowed me to suspend the trepidation of embarking into the unknown. It might sound silly, but these baby steps were absolutely crucial to developing out of my suburban mindset.
I don’t really listen to Opeth much anymore (outside of the holy trinity of My Arms, Your Hearse, Still Life and Blackwater Park), but I guess I owe them a lot.
Ash Beks: Radiohead – Kid A
I still vividly remember how shocked I was by the strangeness of this album the first time I heard it. I would have been around 14 or 15 at the time and any kind of music considered “different” was completely untouched by my ears at that point. I had had a pretty passive music intake throughout my childhood and Radiohead were something of a gateway band, enabling me to explore the boundaries beyond what I had since considered normal. The album aided my ability to interpret art and explore how far bands can push their sound while still remaining somewhat accessible. Radiohead made my subsequent ventures in to the world of electronic, ambient and jazz music much smoother.
Anthony Kellaris: The White Stripes – “The Hardest Button to Button” music video
When a music video hits it’s unlike anything else. More than just a short film or a good song, if those two parts come together in just the right way they create something else entirely. It’s magic (just spend a couple of hours at ACMI’s Spectacle exhibition and see for yourself), and when I saw the Michel Gondry-directed video for The White Stripes’ “The Hardest Button to Button”, that magic floored me.
The stop-motion video embodied everything The White Stripes and Gondry stood for, and it sparked a fire in me that has yet to go out. There was more passion in those three and a half minutes than anything I’d seen until that point. Both Jack White and Gondry are enormously talented creators in their own fields, but what sets them apart is their ability to step back from themselves and let that passion take over. White may be one of the greatest guitarists out there, but most of his body of work (and certainly the songs he’ll be remembered for) are deceptively simple. They jettison grandeur and get straight to the point with a simple riff and a few chords. The result is flawed as hell, but that doesn’t matter, because it’s brilliant where it counts.
While I was already well and truly taken with music at that point, the “Hardest Button to Button” video also acted as a gateway to the world of Michel Gondry and his contemporaries. It made me truly aware for the first time of the things you could do with a camera, the ways you could break the rules to make it do what you wanted it to do. That video got me to put down the guitar for a minute and instead had me spending school nights in my room making 30-second stop motion videos with my mum’s digital camera and some Play-Doh and butcher’s paper.
Like most of my fellow contributors at The Essential, my two great loves will always be music and film. And while there are many overlaps between the two, “The Hardest Button to Button” stands firmly in the centre of the two, pushing outwards and driving me to find new things to fall in love with on either side every day. There’s no way the version of me writing this exists without the “Hardest Button to Button” video.
Luke Lewis: Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand
I’m 12 years old, sitting in the back room of my guitar teacher’s house when he asks, “Have you heard of this guy Franz Ferdinand? He has a cool song out. It goes like this.” He then teaches me “Take Me Out”, and my life is changed forever.
Now, my guitar teacher, despite his expertise on the instrument, was obviously no history buff. And despite his knowledge of current trends in music, he was obviously no post-punk revivalist. As my 12-year-old self discovered after some research on the family PC, Franz Ferdinand were in fact a band made up of four men, named after the Archduke of Austria whose assassination triggered WWI. After downloading Franz Ferdinand, their amazing self-titled debut, I became obsessed. I remember trawling Limewire, downloading anything I could find that had Franz in the description. They were the first band whose members’ individual names I memorized, still a mark of respect I reserve for those groups I truly admire. And they revealed the world of indie music to me. After Franz this floodgate opened and I was drenched in music. I discovered Bloc Party, The Hives, The White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys, Interpol and of course The Strokes. I borrowed their first two albums (from Ash Beks, another contributor to The Essential) and another love affair began. But Franz Ferdinand were the headline act. I always had time for them. I’d discovered this music that was all mine. My parents didn’t know it until I showed them, it was me making my own way in the world for the first time that I can remember. I wouldn’t be writing this if not for Franz, the band, and probably their namesake too (though that’s a bit of a stretch).
My Dad gave me a healthy musical upbringing. Mostly The Beatles, which he recorded onto tapes to play in our car, but there was also The Rolling Stones, The Ramones, The Boss, Led Zeppelin and other behemoths of old. But his finger had fallen off the pulse after 1977, and that left so much for me to discover. The Smiths, My Bloody Valentine, Blur, The Pixies, Television, to name but a few, all unleashed upon my ears. Something about Franz Ferdinand and their cool song hit me like nothing else I’d heard, and inspired in me this thirst for more and more and more. I still love scratchy guitars, garage/art rock, and lyrical play. I definitely attribute the way I am now, from my haircut to my favourite albums, to Franz Ferdinand, and their debut album.
Bradley J. Dixon: No Doubt – “Just a Girl” music video
One day in 1995 I happened to find my older brother watching the video clip for No Doubt’s “Just a Girl”, and something about it stopped me in my tracks. My initial attraction to the clip, and to No Doubt, would almost certainly have been an attraction to Gwen Stefani: her raspy, baby-doll voice; her bare midriff and platinum blonde hair accentuated by the high-contrast 90s cinematography; her palpable fuck-you punk attitude hitting all the right buttons for an 11-year-old boy. But on another level, somewhere deeper, she was planting ideas that have stuck with me ever since.
Growing up as one of six boys in the mostly conservative, middle class eastern suburbs of Melbourne, feminism was never a topic of conversation. At home, at school, and among my friends, it was just nowhere near as consuming as the pressing issues of the day: sports, Pogs, and the mythological Croydon milk bar that was said to be still selling Fags. I don’t recall ever giving gender disparity a single conscious thought — which, as one of six boys in the mostly conservative, middle class eastern suburbs of Melbourne, I never had to do.
But with each viewing of “Just a Girl”, Stefani’s forceful sarcasm gradually broke through my comfortable middle class male bubble and challenged me in ways I had never been challenged before. The ideas presented in “Just a Girl” were, for a chart-topping single of the time, unusually direct (this was a year before the Spice Girls turned girl power into a global phenomenon), but also surface-level enough to resonate with someone first becoming exposed to feminist ideas: “I’m just a girl, little ol’ me, don’t let me out of your sight / I’m just a girl, all pretty and petite, so don’t let me have any rights”. It wasn’t much, but it was a start, and it got me considering my place in the world for the first time. (And it is, of course, mildly horrifying that my first exposure to such ideas came not from a family member or a teacher but from a pop star.)
Learning about feminism from a woman in whom my first interest was mostly physical was an irony lost on me until much later, but regardless, the result was clear: I didn’t know it at the time, but long before I became a disciple of Karen Pickering and the two Clems (Ford and Bastow), I’d found a feminist role model. No Doubt were, musically, a fleeting interest — yet another hand-me-down from an older brother — but in terms of its influence on me as a person, there isn’t a more important piece of pop culture.