Coalition Building and Alliance Politics: Midnight Oil’s “Beds Are Burning”
par Kate Marr-Laing
The Indigenous land rights movement in Australia was taken up in full force by musicians throughout the mid-to-late 20th century. The movement is often described as having started with a walk-off demonstration in 1966 by the Gurindji people, an Indigenous people of the territory now known as Australia, who marched in protest of unfair work and living conditions (Lawford 2016). Many Indigenous artists gave voice to the injustices suffered at the hands of the settler state-system in songs that embodied the hope, despair, and resilience underpinning Indigenous society. One such artist was Archie Roach, who won a human rights award for a song, “Took the Children Away,” that referred to the Stolen Generations of Indigenous Australian children who had been removed from their homes and separated from their families by the Australian settler government. Songs such as “Took the Children Away” were originally written and performed as way of storytelling, projecting a message of struggle which came to emphasize—for those relating to the stories being told—the importance of protest and the necessity to advocate for the advancement of reconciliation and decolonization in Australia (Ross 2016). A defiant call for civil rights became prevalent in Australian Indigenous musics over the next few decades, a message that during the heyday of Australian protest music in the ‘80s and ‘90s would also be memorably taken up by the all-white Australian rock band Midnight Oil (Ross 2016).
In this paper, I analyze the role of Midnight Oil’s song “Beds Are Burning” in challenging settler understandings of settler-Indigenous relations in Australia within the context of two commemorative events: Australia’s Bicentennial in 1988, and the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. In its use of Indigenous protest messages, its performance in spaces made largely impermeable to Indigenous politics and inaccessible to Indigenous people, and its open challenge to white audiences to consider their positionality within the social and political hierarchies established by the colonial state, I argue that the song “Beds Are Burning” was an effective political tool.
Midnight Oil gained a cult following in Australia after the release of their first album in 1978. At the time, the songs that touched on global issues such as climate change, corporate greed, and nuclear proliferation quickly garnered international attention (Ankeny [n.d.]). With the release of the album Diesel and Dust in 1987, the band’s focus shifted to domestic politics. The album was indeed released two years after Midnight Oil’s Blackfella-Whitefella tour, in which they performed in Indigenous communities along with two bands composed primarily of Indigenous members, namely Warumpi Band and Gondwanaland (Mueller 2014). One song on the album, “Beds Are Burning,” has been described as the “executive summary” of the album’s “powerful, pleading rattle of the national conscious” (Mueller 2014). The song presents a clear political demand in a catchy, rock and roll style: the return of land to Australia’s Indigenous people.
The song describes the land of the Pintupi people, then follows, in the last lines of the chorus, with a call for the settler population to return the land to the Indigenous people to which it belongs:“The time has come, a fact’s a fact / It belongs to them, let’s give it back” (Ross 2016). This expressed desire of land return had long been put forth by Indigenous communities in Australia, in particular during the land rights movement. It had then been taken up by Indigenous musicians, most famously by the Indigenous Australian rock band Yothu Yindi in their song “Treaty,” a song written in collaboration with Midnight Oil’s lead singer, Peter Garrett (Ross 2016). Midnight Oil thus worked to insert into their music messages that had been voiced by Indigenous artists and members of the communities they had visited during their 1986 tour, therefore presenting and expanding on a viewpoint long-established by grassroots Indigenous activists themselves. Yet unlike the Indigenous artists and people from which they drew inspiration, Midnight Oil had a global reach. In addition, the band could make strategic use of their influence as models of white accountability and responsibility. In this sense, their status as a popular, all-white band contributed to enact a coalition-building practice and process of alliance between settler and Indigenous Australians through the release and performance of “Beds Are Burning.”
The song was released in the months leading up to the culmination of Australia’s bicentennial celebrations of 1988. The year-long celebrations were met with numerous Indigenous protest actions. The re-enactment of the arrival of the British First Fleet to Australia’s shores, a crucial part of the celebration, was being touted as an erasure of the history of the island and its inhabitants before its occupation in 1788 (Pose 2009). Over 40,000 people participated in the protest, which carried the slogan: “White Australia has a Black History” (Pose 2009). The purpose of the protest was to delegitimize the celebration of the “discovery” of Australia while raising awareness of the violent colonial history of the nation and the continued struggles of its Indigenous inhabitants today.
At the time, Midnight Oil had both a strong domestic and international following. The incorporation of protest messages established by Indigenous activists into their music thus inserted debates surrounding Indigenous rights into mainstream discourses and consciousness. And while the use of Indigenous activists’ messages within the highly profitable rock music of an all-white band could be considered a practice of exploitation and appropriation, here I will engage with the song’s reception by white audiences, and more specifically on its capacity to bridge divides between settler audiences and Indigenous populations through the very whiteness of the band. “Beds Are Burning” reinforced the broader protest’s reminder to Australia—and to the world—that the country was founded on a genocide which continues to have repercussions for Indigenous populations today (Ross 2016). Midnight Oil was able to effectuate this while still appealing to their broad, international, and largely non-Indigenous audience, spreading awareness for the issues of Indigenous rights in Australia and engaging white audiences in the protest.
Over the following decades, the song topped the charts in countries with similar colonial histories such as Canada, the United States, and South Africa (Mueller 2014). With the increased coverage in mainstream media of Indigenous rights issues following the protests of the bicentennial celebrations, it is impossible to measure the direct effect that Midnight Oil had in raising awareness around the debated issues. However, it is clear that “Beds Are Burning” had a vast reach and a voice that managed to permeate white audiences more deeply than that of Indigenous activists. At the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, Midnight Oil’s performance of the song was generally positively received by the media. Their message was taken as a self-deprecating remark on Australian politics, as well as a critique of Olympism. In contrast, Indigenous-led protests were presented by major newspapers as a “hijacking” and a disruption of the Olympic events slated to be momentous occasions of reconciliation and promotion of Indigenous excellence, as Indigenous athletes were being foregrounded for competing in the games for the Australian nation (Lenskyj 1999, 77). In this sense, the access of Midnight Oil to settler spaces and imagination extended the reach of Indigenous protest messages while calling in white audiences to reconciliation efforts. This reach unsettled popularized depictions of Indigenous rights movements being an “Indigenous issue” and not a settler one, with the song telling a story of alliance and accountability between white settlers and Indigenous populations.
In this sense, the creation and performance of Midnight Oil’s “Beds Are Burning” is a coalition-building practice. The combination of white, settler Australian audiences and spaces with Indigenous musicians and their messages of protest created alliances between settler and Indigenous communities in locations where Indigenous activists could not. By challenging the collective consciousness and the identities of their white listeners, and specifically by re-situating their audience as settlers in the colonial state system, Midnight Oil contributed to coalition-building between white and Indigenous Australians and worked for the advancement of reconciliation.
As Amanda Edgar and Ashton Toone (2017) argued in their study of Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, audiences can use music to cultivate an anti-racist habitus. Through the blurring of the border between images put forth by the artist and the audience’s material world, music can create new worlds by enacting a re-situation and re-positioning of its audience in the real social and political world. “Beds Are Burning” achieved the same goal for white audiences by offering a re-positioning of white Australians as settlers with a stake in the issues the song discusses, rather than as the rightful claimants of the stolen land they now inhabit. The song did this through its simple lyrics demanding the return of stolen land by the settler state and the white population that upholds it. Rather than being allowed passive observance of protests against the state, Midnight Oil’s settler audiences were confronted with their active role in the perpetuation of the colonial violence enacted against Indigenous communities by social and state institutions.
While Edgar and Toone focus on the creation of musical spaces for the celebration and liberation of the oppressed in Lemonade, I argue here that Midnight Oil helped transform already-established political spaces into one's more cognizant of their role in the politics and plight of racialized minorities. Midnight Oil allowed a way for their white audiences to engage with the issues discussed in the song, the same issues dominating Australian media at the time of the song’s release. In the song, this engagement was framed from the standpoint of the settler, forcing a responsibility for stolen land onto the white audiences rather than only subverting it to the state. This message is clear when the band repeats the line “How do we sleep while our beds are burning,” which openly confronts the listener with their own complicity in the issues being highlighted by the protests. The song ultimately served as a reminder of the power at play in the exclusion of Indigenous voices from the bicentennial celebrations, and forced its audience to confront their position within the debates surrounding Indigenous rights and land claims at the time the song was released and throughout subsequent performances.
Not only did “Beds Are Burning” serve as a tool to transform the positionality of Midnight Oil’s audiences in primarily settler spaces and celebrations, but it was also effective in sharing these spaces with that of Indigenous protestors, further reinforcing the band’s own political influence as coalition-builders working towards the advancement of reconciliation. This coalition-building practice was evident in Midnight Oil’s performance at the closing ceremonies of the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney.
As Catriona Elder, Angela Pratt, and Cath Ellis discuss in their article on the event’s framing of reconciliation, these games had been framed as a momentous event celebrating the liberal, progressive state of Australia and its advancement “beyond the racism of the past” (2006, 183). Protests surrounded the games attempted to raise awareness of the failure of the state to effect the 10-year reconciliation processes promised by the Commonwealth Parliament in 1991. The games became the site for discussion of reconciliation in Australia, with narratives of reconciliation being implanted within white nationalist stories. The media and corporate sponsors presented Indigenous athletes as symbols of successful reconciliation through the “healing power of sport,” incorporating Indigenous athletic participation in nationalistic emancipatory narratives (Ibid.). In contrast, protests were framed by the Olympic Committee as “bad sportsmanship,” as a threat to the integrity of the games, as well as to the liberal and progressive international community represented in the Olympic event (Ibid., 184). The deliberate politicization of the games thus further marginalized Indigenous peoples by controlling the narrative behind the protests and excluding alternative political viewpoints from mainstream discourses surrounding the Games. In this way, the Olympics became a settler space dominated by non-Indigenous narratives presenting a conservative understanding of reconciliation that did not disrupt the power of the colonial state, and subverted decolonization initiatives.
With the Olympics being politicized in a way that reinforced the Games as a settler-dominated space, the performance of “Beds Are Burning” brought Indigenous politics and peoples into that space in a way that disrupted the dominant, conservative reconciliation narrative that had been endorsed by mainstream media. Midnight Oil was given one of the few spots to perform in the closing ceremonies of the Sydney Olympics. The band walked on stage in plain grey jumpsuits, and once they had begun their performance of “Beds Are Burning,” they removed them to reveal black tracksuits on which “SORRY” was written in white. This was a direct act of protest against Prime Minister John Howard’s refusal to apologize to the Indigenous people for the Stolen Generations (Walker 2009, 153). The protest was not only a public embarrassment to the Prime Minister, who was present at the event, but it openly defied the International Olympic Committee’s rule prohibiting “political” or “propaganda” messages at the games (Lenskyj 2002, 221-222). Midnight Oil was then joined onstage by the Indigenous rock band Yothu Yindi in a collaborative re-working of “Beds Are Burning” and Yothu Yindi’s song “Treaty.”
In a call-and-response style, the two bands sang:
In a call-and-response style, the two bands sang:
Words are easy, words are cheap,
Midnight Oil followed with a response from “Beds Are Burning”, the chorus of which states:
The time has come, to say fair’s fair,
This performance of the song became a clear act of protest to the state’s approach to reconciliation politics, articulating a counter-narrative within the games whose message the government could not conceal nor control due to the popularity of the band and the visibility of the Olympic ceremony. The musical protest was a clear demonstration of solidarity and alliance between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. It exemplified the power of combining two political groups’ voices to fight a state system which has systematically excluded one of those groups from processes of reconciliation. With their performance, Midnight Oil allowed a more accurate representation of the reconciliation futures imagined by Indigenous rights activists to enter a space from which Indigenous people’s personal and political narratives had been excluded.
As I have previously addressed, it could be argued that Midnight Oil and their protest song is exploitative of the land rights movement due to the intense international following the band gained with the release of Diesel and Dust, as well as to the privileged access to the Olympic Games that this popularity afforded them. Their approach to advocating for Indigenous rights could also be considered an appropriation or a misrepresentation of Indigenous people’s political messages. For the purpose of exploring the coalition and alliance building effects of “Beds Are Burning” however, I consider the methods and the context of Midnight Oil’s 1988 release and 2000 performance of “Beds Are Burning” to have had a positive influence on reconciliation initiatives within Australia. While Midnight Oil was granted preferential access to the Olympic Games, they were granted this access despite the political nature of their song. It was within this space, and more broadly, through their large international platform, that they allowed Indigenous rights to enter the collective consciousness of their settler listeners, bringing increased attention to the arguments coming directly from Indigenous activists.
The message of their song was also written to reflect the sentiments of other Indigenous artists, activists, and communities with whom they had toured, and whom they had consulted before the writing of “Beds Are Burning” (Mueller 2014). While perhaps risking a pan-indigenizing effect that would homogenize the desires of various Indigenous groups and people, I consider their message to be powerful in its simplicity and generalizability. A more general message allows Indigenous peoples to ascribe their own interpretations and political meanings to a song created by white artists. In addition, I consider the band’s position as a political actor to be legitimate due to the framing of their political messages towards white settler populations. The band speaks from their position as settlers and includes themselves as participants within reconciliation efforts while inviting others to reconsider their positionality as well.
Midnight Oil has demonstrated the power of music, in particular its coalition-building capacity and its ability to influence alliance politics. With the release of “Beds Are Burning,” Midnight Oil rocketed Indigenous rights issues to the forefront of the cultural mainstream, bolstering its media coverage while reinforcing the messages of Indigenous activists in their plea for land return. The lyrics of the song frame the possession of land as a settler, rather than solely an Indigenous, issue, shifting the narrative of responsibility from the Indigenous communities to the exploitative white Australian population. Through the transformation of the settler spaces they have permeated, “Beds Are Burning” forced its white audiences to consider their relation, as Australian citizens, to Indigenous rights. With the platforms allowed to Midnight Oil because of their whiteness, the band inserted Indigenous people and their protests into settler spaces where reconciliation narratives were strictly controlled by the Australian state and mainstream media.
The history and context of the song, as well as the techniques used in its performance, make “Beds Are Burning” a protest song, one aimed at white audiences for the ultimate benefit of Indigenous peoples. While the political progress made due to this song may be difficult to measure, I argue that it had positive effect through its transforming of the collective consciousness of its white settler audiences and its combining of the people and the politics of both settler and Indigenous spaces. These effects influenced the relationship between settler and Indigenous protestors to reflect an alliance cognizant of the power and responsibility involved in being a settler in support of reconciliatory efforts, while inciting and inspiring coalition-building between these two groups in an effective defence against the oppressive methods of the Australian state.
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Midnight Oil official website: www.midnightoil.com/