Good music becomes great business

Missy Higgins It seems the height of cynicism when artists abandon their roots in pursuit of the almighty dollar. In the world of popular music the transition from intimate theatre or festival gigs to stadium rock shows defines the move from an authentic emphasis on great music, to 'music as spectacle' or a commercial exercise.

At least, that's the reaction I've been bracing for this year. And it's a viewpoint I sympathise with. In the past I've been one of its most fervent proponents. But this year I've had to take pause. One of my favourite musicians has made exactly that transition.

My 2007 started with a live music binge. I'm a Missy Higgins fan, and was thrilled to see her perform live on four occasions. First up was the Point Nepean music festival. Next came two gigs on consecutive nights at St Kilda's Palais Theatre. Then there was Live Earth, where she performed alongside a socially-aware supergroup comprising Kev Carmody, Paul Kelly and John Butler, before returning later for a hit-heavy solo set.

After two albums, Higgins deserves to be remembered as one of our great singer-songwriters. Her melodic ocker tones issue with great power from her deceptively diminutive frame. Her persona is open and engaging — she could be anyone's little sister. Her lyrics lack poetry, but shimmer with truth and insight. Her melodies soar.

It seems little wonder Australians have taken Higgins to heart. She is a celebrity with substance. Regardless of her fame, she's always maintained contact with her roots. This, after all, is the girl who invites her father and brother to perform on stage with her when she plays her home city of Melbourne.

But since the release of her second album, On A Clear Night, 2007 has become the Year of Missy. Her TV appearances rank alongside Kevin Rudd's in frequency. She's graced the covers of numerous music and pop culture magazines. Her singles 'Steer' and 'Where I Stood' have saturated radio play lists.

Talk about overload. Who could blame some former fans for accusing her of selling out? To top it off, she's about to set sail on her second national tour of 2007, performing bulky, indoor stadium shows.

That's right: stadium shows. This last point gives rise to speculation that Higgins' celebrity persona may have outgrown her artistic integrity. The shows are billed as being in 'intimate theatre mode', but unless you managed to score tickets in the first couple of rows, the word 'intimate' simply does not apply to the Sydney Entertainment Centre or Melbourne's Rod Laver Arena. Despite my joyful binge earlier this year, I wasn't convinced. I could not bring myself to invest in a ticket to see her perform on such a vast and impersonal scale.

But perhaps it's unfair to write the big stadium tour off as a cynical, commercially-driven exercise. It's possible the move to bigger venues could simply represent a genuine attempt on Higgins' part to reach as much of her growing fan base as possible.

After all, being popular doesn't necessarily make one a sell-out. A musician can be a commercial success and still maintain artistic integrity (Crowded House front man and songwriter extraordinaire Neil Finn is one example of this). And while it is cynical for an artist to abandon that integrity in pursuit of a dollar, it is equally cynical for fans to abandon the bandwagon just because it's getting crowded.

Higgins has proven throughout every step of her career that she will never be a mere slave to the machine of commerciality. Her TV spots and magazine photo shoots have been offset by appearances at Live Earth and the Walk Against Warming, as well as 2006's Rock for Rights concert. She has also been a champion of indigenous rights, having lent her voice to Cannot Buy My Soul, a tribute album celebrating indigenous songwriter Kev Carmody, and her face to the Too Big A Story indigenous rights ad campaign.

Her recent embrace of her ambiguous (in her words, 'fluid') sexuality is further indicative of a young woman determined to be herself, no matter how much the public or her record label might think they own her. In declaring to lesbian lifestyle magazine Cherrie that she is indeed a 'not-so-straight girl', she may well find herself representing gay rights as well.

The lyric of 'Steer' is a cheesy but determined declaration of Higgins' intention to control her destiny. If she can remain committed not only to writing great songs, but also to using her profile to promote important, humane issues, then that destiny will be worthwhile. And the Missy Higgins band wagon will never get too crowded.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.





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