A few years ago, in one of her career changes, Pauline Hanson recorded a country song. At the time she said: “if you listen to the words [of country music], it's what I've been trying to say in my speeches.” In many respects she was right because country music contains an underlying political message that is populist.
Populism is an elusive ideology that appears in many guises. It is difficult to place on a conventional left-right spectrum because it assumes both left and right forms. At its heart, however, lies the construction of an idealised heartland where traditional values and native identity remain intact, and communities are not confronted by threatening differences.
It is backward looking and nostalgic, seeking utopia in the past. It combines anti-elitism with admiration for the common people. In its agrarian form, it values the country over the city, which is frequently portrayed as corrupt, exploitative and parasitic, living on the wealth created by rural toil.
The virtual disappearance of One Nation and the adoption of many of Hanson's policies by the Howard Government has neutralised populism as an independent political force but its messages continue to be heard in Australian country music.
At the broadest level, country music's subject is the pain of loss. It is “losing and hurting” music, telling stories of lost loves, lost farms, lost identities, lost lives. Its symbolic roots are rural, wherever it is recorded or performed. The values underpinning life on the land are presented as basic and real, untainted by pretension or falseness. Lyrics emphasise the lives of ordinary people and their struggles: against alcoholism, a cheating partner, fate, or their own worst selves.
As John Howard knows, the “battler” is a powerful symbol of ordinary Australian-ness and country music claims to be the music of ordinary people. The fact that it is often disparaged by well-educated urban elites - a poll conducted in 1992 revealing that only 6 per cent of the tertiary educated were fans - enhances this reputation.
Country artists too, tend to emphasise their own country roots and humble beginnings Much of the music's appearance of authenticity is derived from the performers' ability to signal shared backgrounds with their audiences and make their songs appear autobiographical.
In the Australian context, populism's anti-system, anti-elitist message can be heard in numerous songs describing hardworking farmers forced off the land by a combination of natural and human agents, including banks and politicians.
Like populism, country music presents a black and white world: good women and bad; authentic and fake, city and country. In country music, city and country people are portrayed as inhabiting fundamentally different worlds. While country boys and girls may be seduced by city partners, these romances invariably fail and the prodigals return, with relief, to their country homes. Alternatively, they remain permanent exiles, pining for country homes and family.
The Australia of the imagination that they dream of is monocultural, not significantly different from the country described by the bush balladists at the turn of the last century, or the one that Pauline Hanson wanted to retrieve.
Much of country music's impact comes from its narrative strength, which is an important element of what distinguishes it from other commercially popular styles. Its musical predictability allows listeners to focus on the words and makes copying simple for amateur musicians.
The stories are easy to absorb because they are told succinctly - three minutes and 90 words or thereabouts became the standard - because of early recording limitations and radio stations' programming preferences. The story element of country music, which it shares with traditional Aboriginal music - the themes of sadness and loss, the celebration of place, and the music's ubiquity in country Australia - explain its popularity with Aboriginal performers and audiences.