Of all the music I’ve stumbled upon in the past few years, my very favorite is Australian political rock band Midnight Oil. I am officially obsessed with Midnight Oil. My fascination with all things Australian led me to them, and my love of them makes me more fascinated with Australia, and around and around we go. If any of you readers are from that part of the world, I’m sure you realize I’m about 20 years behind the times on this one, but you probably also realize that not much pop culture makes it from there to here, so I hope I’ll be forgiven.
Always critical of Australian racial and environmental politics, Midnight Oil’s songs increasingly focused on indigenous issues, and in 1993 they wrote this song:
I love this song.
The title of the song is the name of a woman reported to be the last full-blood aboriginal speaker of Tasmanian, a now-extinct language. She and Albert Namatjira stand as symbols for the plight of aboriginal peoples in the wake of European colonization (and “What for?” the band asks). The song generated some controversy when it first came out, partially because the band announced in their liner notes that Truganini was “the sole surviving Tasmanian aborigine,” which was news to the 7,000 other surviving Tasmanian aborigines. And appropriating a person as a symbol to make a political point, especially a member of an ethnic community traditionally dominated by the ethnic community the band members belong to, was deeply controversial and hurtful to some. In fact, it’s kind of an example of exactly the kinds of treatment the song is protesting.
I can imagine some people brushing off this kind of criticism as mere cultural hypersensitivity, but it seems that Midnight Oil, to their credit, reacted to the backlash by attempting to become more deeply, and sensitively, connected to the aboriginal communities they had offended. I think that’s the best we can hope for sometimes; try as we might, we don’t know enough about each other or understand enough to always avoid offense, but hopefully our missteps at least lead to conversation and clarity. That’s one of the reasons I love this song. Plus the line about “I see Namatjira with dignity” gets me all choked up. Plus the heroine is a last speaker.
Plus it’s a damn good song.