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The Best Kiwi Music Reminds Us of How Funny We Are


Written by Ricky Lai (he/him) | @rickylaitheokperson | Contributing Writer

Kiwis love being funny. It’s one of our cultural codes. If we’re not anthemically singing through things, we’re laughing them off. New Zealand is obviously far too young a country to claim ‘humour as a coping device’ as one of our special little inventions, like pavlova or 1080 poison, but for better or worse, our need to broach deeply repressed issues through tactical laughs has developed a pattern unique to us. Our smiles aren’t just hiding something – they’re essential. In our music, this is a lot more ingrained than you may have realised. The best Kiwi music isn’t just funny – it specifically reminds us of how funny we are, and how vital that sense of humour becomes as a respirator when faced with an infallible truth.

Believe me, this theme goes back far! Think the Sir Howard Morrison Quartet – which I’ll admit isn’t quite getting the room shaking these days – but listen to their greatest performance, ‘The Battle of Waikato’ (1959) and ask yourself if the tone, in spite of the subject matter, reminds you of honest Kiwi glee. Search up the live recording on YouTube – you won’t regret it. Handclaps, crowd hollers, hearty trumpet backings – it’s enough to distract you from the seriousness of New Zealand’s land war history. Morrison, who typically spun off old American folk songs, adapts Jimmy Driftwood’s ‘The Battle of New Orleans’ to tell the perspective of a Māori soldier with self-effacing ‘look back and laugh’ humour, speaking on behalf of an entire culture that was subsumed by their colonisers, and implicitly acknowledging what isn’t actually funny by spinning the folktale as if it is. Its final verse, by which the audience’s laughter can usually be heard, can be taken as either freeze-frame or gasp: ‘We stood quite still till we’d seen their faces well / Then we ran out and faced ‘em and we really gave them– well…’ 

A similar irony scathes in Auckland post-punk band Blam Blam Blam’s ‘There Is No Depression in New Zealand’ (1981). The year is vital. Muldoon was prime minister; the economy was tanking; it’s the time of the Springbok tour. Don McGlashan (perhaps the country’s greatest rock lyricist) knows too well that New Zealand is in denial of itself, and loves to believe itself as a safe, restful country free of racism, sexism, and so on. This chorus is beyond tongue-in-cheek: ‘There is no depression in New Zealand / there are no sheep on our farms.’ McGlashan plays this trick again on The Front Lawn’s ‘How Are You Doing’ (1989), rapping back and forth with Harry Sinclair like a casual yarn between neighbours about nothing in particular. (‘Oh yeah, it’s Kevin isn’t it?’ ‘What did you call me?’ ‘Kevin?’ ‘Yeah John.’ ‘Mike.’ ‘Mike!!!’ ‘Oh, ha ha ha!!’) The ridiculous convo briefly threatens to open up about sincerely hurting inside when Mike – or is it Kevin? – mentions he just lost his job, and that he’s not actually doing very well. ‘Emotional problems’, he calls it. The song immediately tangents after this, and the men start ping-ponging guesses with what city he now lives in: ‘Hamilton? Wellington? Palmerston North?’ ‘Grey Lynn.’ ‘Oh! Nice out there!’ Quite literally, the men are laughing off their problems, holding back from breaking character; not primed to speak meaningfully about their lives and instead through normative ‘Kiwi dad’ phrases.

Need I describe the glee of OMC’s ‘How Bizarre’ (1995)? That guitar melody? The ‘one crazy summer’ feeling? The Pasifika specificality of the storytelling – and pure love for the way we speak – that makes ‘Brother Pele’s in the back / Sweet Zina’s in the front’ arguably the best opening lines to a hit song from Aotearoa? It really feels like a yarn that you’d share over drinks, and I’m always charmed by the way Pauly Fuemana refuses to elaborate on what happened next. (‘Wanna know the rest – buy the rights!’) Some things really can only be experienced best through that specific pair of eyes, and the story’s proximity to the police force and the news media circus dictate exactly how you may choose to fill in the blanks depending on your identity as a ‘Kiwi’. It’s also just the sort of thing you’d say in a real convo. ‘Oh, trust – you had to be there!’

Of course, the new generation has words on the matter. Power-pop band The Beths might best appeal to millennial and Gen-Z Auckland as the product of a younger, self-effacing generation of underachievers intimidated by the prospect of professional adulthood. Getting wine-drunk, learning not to be too harsh on yourself, texting on public transport – all very real arbitrary matters in their prose. But ‘Expert in a Dying Field’ (2022) is their masterstroke. The narrator’s story – of studying a field that is slowly slumping out of relevance – is the perfect ‘student life’ metaphor for a breakup, but the song has a secondary layer about studying and the workforce that’s been haunting me. The narrator of the song has clearly been hurt by a broken relationship to the point that they’ve refrained from engaging with love until they’ve studied the field of romance; taken notes, memorised the right beats; but the wiser of us know that love is no studious degree. Like most careers, you learn the things on the way; it’s practical, not just theoretical! The Beths have created the perfect song that satirises Auckland’s careerist ‘live to work’ attitude and spear the irony that fussing over the permutations of human emotion, in fear of actually experiencing it yourself, will only distance yourself from becoming the better person you know that you would like to be. ‘Plausible deniability – I swear I’ve never heard of it!’

Here’s the reassuring thing: it’s always been like this. We’ve been venting our concerns with humour for decades, and those concerns haven’t changed. My last example is the simplest, and my favourite. Those of us sweating grievance over the cost of living – and especially of groceries! – will perhaps be humoured by Max McCauley’s adorable country hoedown ‘The Bluff Oyster Song’ (1969). The sound is fuzzy, and the guy doesn’t hide his accent. The bloke’s from Southland, and he seems just as local as either you or I, enjoying his innocuous pastime of eating yummy oysters and washing them down with a glass of stout; a hobby that he’s having trouble entertaining lately because the prices are too high to afford both! ‘My stomach thinks my throat’s cut / Well, what a way to be!’ Geez, I mean – anybody else?


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