Daily Song Study

Midnight Oil – Truganini

In songs on September 1, 2011 at 11:36 am

Topical songs have their pitfalls, as they can often become too earnest and sink under the weight of unbalanced focus on the subject. However, done well, they can also carry an urgency and power while teaching the listener a thing or two.

The Australian band Midnight Oil seldom did anything but topical songs, some better than others. Today’s example is one of their high points, recounting events that could easily be lost to the tides of history. The person referenced in the title was the last surviving member of the Palawa tribe in Tasmania, who died in 1876.

The song uses a recurring Australian problem (drought) to pose the question “What for?” meaning “why did Europeans bother to colonize this harsh place?” The song mentions two prominent indigenous Australians (Truganini and Albert Namatjira) whose lives were altered by European settlement and discusses current day sentiment towards the old country, namely the monarchy.

It’s a good way to bring the past into the present, and it’s executed using many of the band’s best techniques (unison group vocals, distinctive instrumental arrangements, driving beat). While certainly earnest, it places the musical listening experience over the need to get the message across, a lesson most aspiring writers of topical songs could stand to learn.

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  1. Never really liked this band, although some songs like this one are certainly fine songs. They make me not turn them off the radio but not want to go out and buy the album.

  2. On the whole, they did better singles than albums, although the album this one came off of (Earth and Sun and Moon, 1993) is actually very good all the way through. That seemed to be their peak for arrangements and melodies. After that, they tended to fall into the trap that many topical bands do, and the tunes sank under the weight of the message. Which makes a bit of sense, since that’s when frontman Peter Garrett got into elected office.

    I doubt there is any example of a musical artist whose output improved upon successfully entering politics…

  3. […] of the “Christian rock” box. Much like U2, the sound comes before the message, as it should in any tune wishing to make a point. GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

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