"Now my prayers have had an answer - and Delta Goodrem has got cancer."
That night at Melbourne's Hi-Fi Bar, when the subversive vocalist uttered these words as part of a spoken-word diatribe against vacuous pop music, the tension in the air was palpable. A few louts cheered. Others laughed, but with a nervous edge.
On stage, the poet, clad head to toe in a ridiculous silver foil jumpsuit, continued his rant unabated. But there was no question that he'd caused offence.
Noisome veterans of the Melbourne music underground, TISM (This is Serious Mum) have made a career out of poking ridicule at everyone from Adolf Hitler to Britney Spears. Many of those present at the gig would have discovered the band by way of their controversial hit, "He'll Never Be An Old Man River" (chorus: "I'm on the drug that killed River Phoenix"). Yet even the sympathetic audience seemed put out by the Delta slur.
A similar scenario was played out on ABC TV last month. The national broadcaster's resident ratbags, the team from The Chaser's War on Everything, are renowned for their subversive stunts. But even given their track record, team member Andrew Hansen's on-air performance of the now-notorious song "Eulogy" divided audiences, who seemed unsure whether this was gutsy subversive humour or merely bad taste.
The song, which parodied the fact that iconic Aussies Steve Irwin and Peter Brock and international figures Princess Di and John Lennon who went from maligned in life to admired after death, was deemed by many to have crossed the line. A spark of anger was fanned into an inferno by overzealous talkback radio listeners.
Welcome to the world of satire - a cerebral comic form that by its nature thrives on putting people offside. Even when done well, satire is almost invariably taken too literally by some who are so busy taking offence that they often miss the point.
Admittedly, in extreme cases it's easy to miss the point. TISM's Delta quip trod precariously on the outer limits of acceptability - the "Big C" being one of those subjects that's generally considered to be beyond joking. South Park genii Trey Parker and Matt Stone came close to crossing that same line during the all-singing, all-dancing musical number "Everyone's Got AIDS" in their 2004 film Team America.
Bad taste for bad taste's sake is one thing, but it's evident both TISM and The Chaser (and, to a lesser extent, the South Park boys) have more on their agenda than just causing offence. Good satire is about provoking new ways of thinking, naming the proverbial 'elephant in the room' or directing a well-aimed kick at deserving tall poppies.
So TISM's comment about Delta was not about Delta at all, but rather was intended as a pinprick to deflate the bubble of celebrity worship. This is a recurring theme in TISM's work. "Old Man River" imagines copycat groupies taking their emulation of their idols a step too far, and "Thou Shalt Not Britney Spear" lampooned the then teenaged pop star's use of her much publicised virginity as a PR pitch.
Similarly, The Chaser's "Eulogy" was less about the celebrities it referenced to than it was about public perceptions of those celebrities. The desire to puncture the 'cult of celebrity' is a significant aspect of the Chaser's 'war on everything'. Understood in this context, the song, while distasteful, highlighted our absurdly immoderate levels of veneration or disdain towards celebrities and how fickle that relationship often is.
If celebrity worship is one of the serious foibles of Western civilisation - and I'd suggest that it is - then The Chaser's acerbic ditty provided an efficient response.
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