Australians Worship Strange American Idols


Sydney Opera House

Since my arrival in Australia more than a month ago, I’ve come to take four things for granted.

  1. People will be outgoing and friendly, slap me on the back, and call me “mate.”
  2. I’ll drink a lot of beer. It’s to Australians what wine is to Argentines. I still prefer brunettes (and whiskey and coke), but Pure Blonde on tap is simply irresistible.
  3. I’ll spend a ton of money. In the five weeks and two days that I’ve been here, the exchange rate has gone from AUS $1 = US $.92 to AUS $1 = US $.97. I suspect the Australian dollar will achieve parity with the U.S. dollar by the time I leave in two weeks, sort of putting Argentine inflation into perspective.
  4. Although U.S. tourists are relatively rare, I’m still guaranteed to see and hear a lot of Americans — if not on the streets, in Australian pop culture.

Yes, just about everything big in Australia, it seems, is made in the U.S.A. The list of great Aussie entertainers is long and impressive — from Kylie Minogue and INXS to Cate Blanchett and Hugh Jackman — but Aussies themselves are not so impressed by their home-grown talent. “We love everything from America,” one local lady told me, “because we don’t have anything of our own.”

I can have a civilized, intelligent conversation about such hot topics as Joaquin Phoenix, Lindsay Lohan and Kim Kardashian, and we are all on the same page.

Despite the now-predictable American influence on pop culture here, when I turn on the TV, I’m still never quite sure what I’ll see, other than that it will be something old and something borrowed. There are reruns of Friends and Seinfeld, of course, as well as The Simpsons and those long-running Australian soaps Neighbours and Home and Away. Interestingly, though, Aussies are hooked on U.S. soaps, too. I wasn’t so surprised when I caught The Bold and the Beautiful because I know that show is massive overseas. But I wasn’t expecting to see an episode of All My Children from back when Babe was alive and still being played by Alexa Havins (circa mid ’00s), and a Days of Our Lives from earlier this year.

The other night at the Greyhound Hotel, a terrible bar in the St. Kilda district that I call my temporary home, after a drag queen made her grand entrance to the musical strains of General Hospital‘s opening theme from the ’90s (I half expected images of Robin, Stone, Jagger and Brenda, the way they were, to pop up on a screen behind her big, blonde wig), she went on to reference The Bold and the Beautiful‘s Sally Spectra. As Spectra portrayer Darlene Conley rolled over in her grave, I thanked my lucky soap stars that there wasn’t a flight of stars for me to tumble down in my total state of shock. How U.S. soap diva would that have been?

It’s much safer re-enacting my favorite scenes from The Golden Girls. I love that when I do it here, people laugh with me because they actually know what I’m talking about, and at dinner, I can have a civilized, intelligent conversation about such hot topics as Joaquin Phoenix, Lindsay Lohan and Kim Kardashian, and we are all on the same page. I’m still not sure why any Australian would even know what a Kardashian is, but if knowledge is the power to ridicule them, then I’m all for it.

Magnum P.I.

As for the most hyped U.S. TV show of all, Glee, so far there is no evidence that it’s as much of an obsession here as it is in England. But considering that the networks here are running episodes of Here’s Lucy, Green Acres, Hogan’s Heroes, I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched from the ’60s, The Rockford Files and Quincy M.E. from the ’70s, Knight Rider, The A-Team and Magnum P.I. from the ’80s, and most of the first-run U.S. series are several seasons behind (though, curiously, Late Night with David Letterman airs only one day after the fact in the U.S., and the Betty White show Hot in Cleveland is already screening here), Glee‘s Australian heyday still might be a decade or three away.

In the meantime, they’ve got Oprah Winfrey, who is set to bring her daytime talk show — along with 300 audience members — to Australia in December to tape several episodes of her final season. It’s one of the biggest news stories of the year, not just because her visit will cost taxpayers, who’ll be footing an AUS $3 million bill to get her here, while (hopefully) boosting the country’s tourism industry, but because, well, she’s Oprah.

No word yet on whether she’ll be featuring any musical guests, but if she does, she’d better make them retro, which, as in Argentina, seems to obsess practically everyone in Oz. Last weekend at Disgraceland, one of my favorite clubs in Melbourne, the DJ kept pulling little surprises that kept me on my toes and on the dancefloor. Sprinkled among the latest hits (loving Rihanna’s new single, but please, no more Katy Perry!) were dance remixes of Stevie Nicks’s “Stand Back” and the Sundays’ “Here’s Where the Story Ends.” My friend Marcus explained to me that the latest musical rage down under is to take some old ’80s hit and have an anonymous female singer record it over a thumping back beat. At least someone had the good sense to leave Stevie Nicks’s original vocal alone!

Meanwhile, over at Sircuit, the playlist has included “Fools Gold” by the Stone Roses (at my request, but kudos to the DJ for having it, and for knowing what it was) and a Belinda Carlisle double bill of “Summer Rain” and “Leave a Light On” (more kudos for skipping the obvious “Heaven Is a Place on Earth”). Madonna, however, remains a dancefloor no-show. I’ve yet to hear any of her songs anywhere in Oz. Maybe there’s not enough room for her and Kylie under the strobe lights.

In the live music arena, Pink’s Funhouse tour last year was the biggest road show to hit the continent in forever, and the six-concert layover of Whitney Houston’s Nothing but Love comeback tour received both negative and positive reviews in February and March. Currently, there are posters all over Melbourne advertising the upcoming Three Dog Night/Turtles concert and an October 15 Smashing Pumpkins show, while Tim McGraw and Faith Hill brought U.S. country music to Oz, with a recent stop in Sydney.

But perhaps the most telling indicator of Aussie pop cultural sensibilities lie in the choice of entertainment for this weekend’s Australian Football League championship match between the St. Kilda Saints and the Collingwood Magpies: Lionel Richie. Lionel Richie! “I thought that was strange, too,” chimed in Marcus, apparently as perplexed as I am by his fellow countrymen’s music taste. “Isn’t he known for romantic ballads?” Um, yes, romantic ballads from 30 years ago. That’s like getting Air Supply to perform at the Super Bowl half-time show, which, come to think of it, might actually get me to watch the Super Bowl.

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