In 2005 when I was doing my music degree, I had an assignment in which I had to write an a cappella vocal piece. So I created a short song in response to the way Australia treated refugees.
Back then, they would lock refugees up in the Woomera detention centre in South Australia and leave them there, sometimes for months, occasionally for years. There were protests, riots, people sewing their lips together. All were heavily covered by the media.
I was not very politically active back then, but it seemed so obvious to me that this was just wrong and I felt so small and useless. So I wrote that song, if nothing else to state to the world, “I am not okay with this”.
It was a good song. I thought so. My teacher thought so. But he said something that struck me so deeply that I still remember it clearly almost 15 years later: the problem with political songs is they quickly become irrelevant.
Man, I wish that was true. Compared to how we treat refugees today, 2005 seems positively halcyon.
Which brings me to Airlock.
The end of the world
The show’s full name is Airlock: A Nihilistic Cabaret about the End of the World. It’s eight original songs, a fusion of contemporary music theatre and pop.
It’s dark, and very funny – like a series of Disney villain songs, if the Disney villains were all socially selfish conservative hypocrites as opposed to say, magical octopi.
The premise is that we’re all in a bunker preparing for the imminent end of the world. Before we close the airlock door we let in a few stragglers – the last great hope for humanity.
But instead of being inspiring leaders, teachers, scientists or artists, they are, for the most part, great big assholes who only think about themselves. And yeah, it’s political, and I make no apologies for that.
I wrote the show when I was artist in residence at Red Rattler in Marrickville in the second half of 2017. Astute readers will click that that was right in the middle of the euphemistically called Same Sex Marriage Survey.
I’m a gay guy and grew up in a country town in the 80s and 90s and so thought myself pretty impervious to the homophobic rubbish people spray around. For me, it’s never been as bad since as it was back then.
But I was surprised by how badly I was affected by the whole thing. I felt exactly like I did when I was 15: small, weak and powerless.
I didn’t plan to write a political show. But I needed an outlet to get all the gross feelings of powerlessness out of me. These songs emerged – songs about the some of the forces that us queer folk have to constantly fight against for our basic human rights.
There’s the hyper-conservative politician, the Murdoch press editorialist who’s obsessed with other people’s sex lives (hi Miranda Devine), and the internet troll who contributes nothing to society but gleefully shits all over other people’s contributions.
But it’s not all external finger pointing: there’s a hyper-poppy tune about how we all hide away in our social media echo-chamber bubble (that’s the song I sing, and I am no pop performer, but holy cow is it fun), as well as a song, a very personal one, about how badly gay men treat each other emotionally. Sometimes there’s an enemy within.
Believe it or not, I am an optimistic person.
I was raised in a Catholic family. I know that in progressive circles these days that’s like saying you were raised in a cult, but I had a loving home and still today my parents are very supportive of me.
They march in Mardi Gras and were even in the national pro-SSM ad back in 2017 (it was so weird seeing these enormous pictures of my parents on billboards at the airport).
They are of the demographic that normally wouldn’t give a fat rats about being politically active, and the fact that they can be very active queer allies and also go to church every other day gives me a lot of hope for the future.
So there’s also some Christian morality in Airlock. I don’t mean the hypocritical garbage that people like Israel Folau bang on about. I mean the true, core meaning of Christianity, which is “treat others and you would wish to be treated”, so the “moral” of the show is a song called “Don’t be a dick” which is basically the same thing. (Also that song was a finalist in the Vanda & Young Songwriting competition last year, which is kind of neat).
The performance of Airlock at the Bondi Feast (July 19 and 20) will be the third time the show’s had an airing.
I have strangers come up to me on the street and tell me how much they liked the show, and how important it felt to them that artists are saying these kinds of things. It’s a novel experience. I’m flattered, and the artist in me is stoked that my work is getting attention.
But I can’t help but wish that the themes in this show would quickly become irrelevant, just like my old teacher predicted they would.