Curse-Laden PhD Advice That Doesn’t Use The Word ‘Journey’

Or, This Is Probably Why I’ll Never Be Invited To Speak To Prospective PhD Candidates.

(Obviously, all of the below is entirely predicated on my own experiences as a twenty-something, full-time, final year, scholarship-funded Modern History PhD candidate. I’m also notoriously cynical, endlessly grumpy, and have a predilection for swearing that continually disappoints my mother. You have been warned.)

For advice that is less curse-laden and probably more helpful, I’d recommend starting with The Thesis Whisperer and The Guardian’s Higher Education Network series.

Intelligence Counts For Nothing
Congratulations, clever clogs – you worked your way through undergrad and Honours/Masters, got excellent marks, wrote some undoubtedly brilliant essays, and they let you into a PhD program. What a bright little bunny you are!

Unfortunately, that now counts for absolute shit.

Every other person doing a PhD is just as smart as you – in most cases, they’re actually smarter. Your brains got you in the door. That’s it. You are no longer the smartest person in the room. Deal with it.

In fact, learn to embrace it.

It’s All About Hard Work
“Work smarter, not harder” is an adage that you need to KILL WITH FIRE, quickly and thoroughly. The PhD is a goddamn slog. Most of what you read, write, think, and research will not make it within the same postcode of your final thesis. You will not, unless you are a particularly blessed individual, be able to get this shit done on time if you stick to the suggested forty hours of work per week. You can try to take shortcuts (and lord knows I have), but these will be torn to shreds faster than you can say ‘First Page of Google Scholar Results.’

Work hard. Work harder.

You’ve Got To Have A Solid Fucking Reason Not To Quit
Confession time, kiddos: sitting in my desk drawer at work is a printed and filled-out copy of my university’s equivalent of the ‘Withdrawal from PhD Program’ form. All that’s needed is the signatures of my supervisor and head of department, and the date. That form has been there since midway through my second year of candidature – on particularly bad days, it accompanies me to thesis meetings, just in case. So why haven’t I quit yet?

Pure, antagonistic, rage-filled stubbornness.

Obviously, lovely supervisors, good support systems, genuine passion, and breakthroughs in my work have all contributed to me staying in the program. But most days, the thing that keeps me going is one sentence: “Fuck everyone, fuck everything, I’m gonna finish this fucking thing if it fucking kills me.”

(I did warn you about the swearing).

Find your reason. Find a few more reasons. Stick them on post-it notes. Tattoo them onto your forehead. Because most days, quitting the PhD and doing literally anything else with your time will seem like the better option.

Find Your PhD People
Hopefully, by the time you embark on a PhD, you’ve already got a fairly solid support system of lovely non-PhD people – friends, families, partners, housemates, pets, friendly baristas, etc. But no matter how excellent those people are, they will have ABSOLUTELY NO FUCKING IDEA what this PhD process entails. They may be sympathetic, but they won’t understand.

What you’re really going to need is hardcore, ‘Oh-God-I-Had-That-Exact-Existential-Crisis-Last-Week-I-Feel-You-Bro’ empathy – so find your PhD People. Make friends with people in your cohort. Join writing groups. Go to department / conference / academic events and network the fuck out of the postgrad attendees (they’ll be the ones trying to make a full meal out of the complimentary canapés). These people will save your arse countless times, and they get it.

(And make sure you’re that person for them, too. Be supportive. Be kind. Don’t be a dick.)

And On That Note – Supervisors
For those of you hoping that your thesis supervisors will understand all of the above – nope. Sure, they’ve done PhDs, and they’ll have an insight into this process that few other people in your life will have. But supervisors are, by their very nature, practicing academics (like “practicing witches,” but with fewer toadstools). This means that they’ll naturally have a slightly rosy-eyed view of the PhD process – after all, it worked for them in the way it’s designed to work.

Even the best supervisors – and I’m privileged enough to have two extraordinarily excellent exemplars of such – won’t quite get it. That’s ok. Get their feedback on your work, cop the (inevitable) criticism, and then go whinge to your aforementioned PhD People.

Don’t Make Your Thesis Your Whole Life
The moment you start to neglect your social life, hobbies, interests, and loved ones for your PhD is the exact moment when your thesis becomes the sole dictator of your mood. Occasional sacrifices are necessary – missing a social event in order to meet a deadline, or cutting down on time spent on non-PhD interests is expected. But the key word there, my loves, is occasional.

Look, if you make your thesis your whole life you will (probably) complete in time, with glowing examiners reports and an imminent glittering academic career.

You will also be an anxious, isolated, mean, confused, boring, lonely, emotionally unstable wreck.

Choice is yours, babes.

As a final note: Do not underestimate the impact of PhD on your health. Be prepared for a delightful and ever-changing array of symptoms, maladies, anxieties, and generally weird body stuff. All universities (should) have access (direct or referral) to GPs, counselling, and support services for students. These are free, confidential, and run by people who have seen it all before (and worse). Make use of these, early and often. A completed PhD thesis isn’t worth a full-blown mental and physical breakdown.

Good luck, my darlings.


Paul Keating’s Creative Nation: a policy document that changed us


Today marks 20 years since the publication of Creative Nation. An ambitious and expansive project by Paul Keating’s Labor Government, it was the first Commonwealth cultural policy document in Australia’s history. Its initial impact was significant, with Keating committing A$252 million of additional spending over four years to the arts and cultural industries in Australia.

But Creative Nation’s legacy in Australian life since 1994 has been nothing short of profound.

[Read more at The Conversation]

“Be Everyfin’ Dat You Need.”

A confession: I love choirs. I sung in them as a kid, and a good portion of my YouTube browsing these days contains the search term “acapella version of [x].” There is something transformative about the way by which a group of disparate people can come together and re-imagine a song; and this transformation process, I would argue, is no more evident than when choirs take on Australian pop songs.

On Valentine’s Day 2010, athletic brand Puma released an advertising campaign that quickly went viral. Showcasing the Puma HardChorus – a group of football fans singing as a choir in the pub – the advertisement featured the men singing a football-chant inspired version of Savage Garden’s ‘Truly Madly Deeply.’ With the tagline “What do you do when Valentine’s Day falls on game day?” the advertisement was designed to be sent by football fans, absent on Valentine’s Day due to sporting commitments, to their loved one in lieu of actually missing the game (heaven forbid). The song was an Internet hit, spawning local versions throughout Europe. The original ‘Truly Madly Deeply’ was released by Australian pop band Savage Garden in March 1997, and reached the #1 on the Australian and US Billboard charts. In 2001, APRA named ‘Truly Madly Deeply’ one of the Top 30 Australian songs of all time. But pop music, so long the apparent domain of female fans, found a new interpretation in the Puma HardChorus – no longer a wistful pop song, ‘Truly Madly Deeply’ was now the love song de jour for drunken football fans in pubs, beer in one hand and smartphone in the other.

It’s almost impossible to talk about choirs without mentioning, however briefly, the behemoth that is the Glee franchise (and believe me, I tried.) To date, there have been four Australian songs featured on Glee: AC/DC’s ‘Highway To Hell’ (S01Ep14 ‘Hell-o’), Olivia Newton-Johns’ ‘Physical’ (S01Ep17 ‘Bad Reputation’), Crowded House’s ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ (S04Ep9 ‘Swan Song’), and Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ (S03Ep15 ‘Big Brother’). Of these, the first was sung by a ‘rival choir’ (yes, that’s a thing in this show), the second was sung by Newton-John and cast member Jane Lynch (rather than by a choir), and the third squeaks in as ‘Australian’ thanks to the long-standing tradition of appropriating Kiwi achievements as our own. (See also: Lorde).

The fourth, ‘Somebody That I Used To Know,’ was sung by two cast members (who play brothers on the show) rather than a choir, and is definitely a contender for Worst Gotye Cover Ever.

Of the four Australian songs covered on Glee, just one – the Gotye track – was originally released after the 1980s. In this, perhaps there is an argument to be made that Glee (produced largely by and for an American audience) is introducing the next generation of music consumers to not only Australian music, but also to older Australian songs previously the sole domain of their parent’s record collection. But the Glee cover versions tend to stick to the original formula, and so don’t occupy the same transformative space as ‘Truly Madly Deeply’ – and certainly, no Glee track has come close to replicating the changes wrought on a song by a choir than that achieved by the QANTAS ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ advertisement.

In March 1999, the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Column 8’ told the story of a traveller who, upon hearing a particular Australian pop song, “dissolved into homesick tears.” So distraught was the traveller that she reportedly cancelled the final leg of her year-long worldwide trip, and flew straight home to Sydney. The musical culprit wasn’t a pub rock classic, nor was it the national anthem; rather, the homesickness-inducing song was Peter Allen’s ‘I Still Call Australia Home,’ featured in an advertisement for national airline QANTAS. Written in 1980, the piano ballad became the pop song du jour for an expatriate narrative of nostalgic Australianness. But for QANTAS’ advertising campaigns, ‘I Still Call Australia’ wasn’t performed by the pop star responsible for the music and lyrics. Rather, the successive campaigns featured cover versions of the track, including contributions from Australian trumpeter James Morrison, female pop artist Kate Cebrano, country-rock musician James Blundell, and – in the campaign’s most famous instalments – by the National Boys and Australian Girls Choirs. In QANTAS’ Australianising of ‘I Still Call Australia Home,’ Peter Allen was a notable and telling absence. The flamboyant pop star, it seemed, was not ‘Australian’ enough to front a campaign invoking a particular type of national identity. Just as the Puma Hardchorus transformed ‘Truly Madly Deeply’ from a pop song into an anthem, so too did the National Boys and Australian Girls Choirs transform ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ from a pop song into an anthem, albeit one for homesick expats rather than drunken, football-mad Brits.

Two Decades Of Idina Menzel Belter Affirmation Anthems

Because I’ve been on a Broadway soundtrack binge of late, and no-one does the “fuck you” belter anthem quite as well – or as consistently – as Idina Menzel.

(Normally, I abhor the “we’re all great and special” lyrical trope. But somehow, in a musical, it’s acceptable; and, in the case of Wicked, it’s goddamn perfection.)

Song: ‘Take Me Or Leave Me’
Production: Rent (1996) [film version 2005]
Character: Maureen Johnson
A tiger in a cage
Can never see the sun
This diva needs her stage
Baby, let’s have fun!

Song: ‘Defying Gravity’
Production: Wicked (2003)
Character: Elphaba
And if I’m flying solo
At least I’m flying free
To those who’d ground me
Take a message back from me
Tell them how I am
Defying gravity

Song: ‘Let It Go’
Production: Frozen (2013)
Character: Queen Elsa of Arendelle
It’s time to see what I can do,
to test the limits and break through.
No right, no wrong, no rules for me.
I’m free!

(I Came In Like A) Wrecking Ball

Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’ is one of the most perfect pop songs of recent music history.

I could spend thousands of words detailing why and how Ms. Cyrus got it so right with her second Bangerz single (the construction! the D minor chord structure! the lyrics! the palpable heartbreak!), but what I’m more interested in is what happened (and continues to happen) to ‘Wrecking Ball’ when it is performed by other, non-Miley artists.

‘Wrecking Ball’ quickly became one of the most covered songs on the planet. The track was a go-to cover on BBC Radio 1’s ‘Live Lounge’ program, with both Haim (September 2013) and London Grammar (December 2013) performing their interpretations of Cyrus’ pop hit.

The Dixie Chicks covered the song in their 2014 tour shows.

And Angel Haze’s version of the song was heartbreakingly perfect.

One of the more recent covers came from Jerusalem-based band Tekoa, whose version included the use of wine glasses and beer bottles as instruments.

From the thousands of amateur covers uploaded to Youtube, the Sarah Blackwood / Jenni / Emily collaboration and the VoicePlay (feat. Sarah Vela) a capella version were among the best.

Even the Chatroulette Guy got involved, coming back from his wildly successful, bikini-and-beard-clad ‘Call Me Maybe’ lip-sync video to surprise users of the site with a re-enactment of the infamous Wrecking Ball clip.

But in April 2014, Australian indie-rock musician and Something For Kate frontman Paul Dempsey covered ‘Wrecking Ball’ for Triple M’s ‘Song Remains The Same’ segment – and this is where, for me at least, ‘Wrecking Ball’ covers get interesting. Dempsey has accrued a reputation for his cover songs – so much so, that his much-lauded 2013 ‘Shotgun Karaoke’ tour and album was comprised entirely of cover songs, originally performed backstage at Something For Kate gigs and uploaded to the band’s website.

‘Wrecking Ball’ was no different.

Both FasterLouder and described the performance as “perfect.” FasterLouder noted that Dempsey, “transforms ‘Wrecking Ball’ from pop song to a gut-wrenching ballad that, frankly, wouldn’t sound out of place on in a Something For Kate setlist,” while Pedestrian.Tv summarised the performance a little more succinctly: “he fucking nailed it.” The cover was so good that it made mainstream news outlets, with’s Andrew Bucklow writing, “There are thousands of covers of Miley Cyrus’ hit song Wrecking Ball … but none of them have ever been as good as this… Unlike Cyrus, Dempsey kept his clothes on for the performance.”

Loathe though I usually am to acknowledge the steaming, trolling cesspool of Youtube comments, some user responses to Dempsey’s cover are telling. ‘GM Wallace’, for example, commented, “This is what happens when you take a silly song by a silly girl (with silly video) and make something (much) better out of it…” while ‘Jason Spinks’ wrote, “It’s amazing how rock can make a crap song sound awesome!” The underlying message of both critical and user-based commentary was the same – ‘Wrecking Ball’ may be a Miley Cyrus song, but Paul Dempsey made it good.

Cyrus’ performative style (including her sartorial decisions and the racially-problematic twerking) can be a distraction from her music – though, I hasten to add, trying to separate music and performance is a fairly limiting means by which to analyse popular music. But what underpins the above commentary is two intertwined dichotomies – one of gender, and one of the rock/pop authenticity divide. As a young woman, Cyrus is inherently viewed as less ‘authentic’ in terms of musical credibility than someone like Dempsey; the connection between gender and musical authenticity goes as far back as the original rock/pop split in popular music in the late 1950s, and almost certainly earlier than that. Cyrus is a “silly girl” with a “silly song”, while Dempsey is (in the words of Bucklow) a “magnificent, beautiful bastard”. This authenticity label is further compounded by the fact that Cyrus is a pop star, with a team of songwriters and behind-the-scenes musicians crafting her work. Dempsey is a rock musician, albeit of the fairly indie persuasion. He plays his own guitar, and writes his own songs, and this – somehow – makes him a more ‘authentic’ musician than Cyrus.

For what it’s worth, this criticism (that pop stars are ‘less than,’ because other people help to write their songs) strikes me as a little bizarre. Songs, once released, no longer belong to the singer or the songwriter, but rather to the music culture within which the lyrics and music take on as many different meanings as there are listeners. It is also a criticism not flung at other genres of music – Broadway stars, for example, or opera singers, are not accused of being less talented than their rock music peers simply because their songs are scored by Sondheim or Wagner. Broadway and opera stars are virtuosos; pop stars are puppets.

It’s pervasive, boring, bollocks.

And finally, a confession. For as much as I am a rabid Something For Kate fangirl, and as much as I adore Paul Dempsey (to what some would describe as an unhealthy, fangirl-y degree), I prefer the ‘Wrecking Ball’ original. Miley Cyrus puts something into that song that Dempsey, brilliant though he is, does not. Miley 1, Dempsey 0.

You may send your vitriolic emails at will.

Here We Are Now / Entertain Us

And way out in Seattle
Young Kurt Cobain
Snuck out to the greenhouse
Put a bullet in his brain
Snakes in the grass beneath our feet
Rain in the clouds above
Some moments last forever
But some flare out with love, love, love
– The Mountain Goats, ‘Love Love Love’

April 5th, 2014 marked the twenty year anniversary of the suicide of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. Anniversaries naturally invoke remembrance; for the (in)famous and the dead, this remembrance occurs on a global scale. marked the anniversary by “debunking the Nirvana myths,” while The Independent collated part of a photographic exhibition dedicated to the king of grunge. James Lachno’s piece in The Telegraph emphasised Nirvana’s role as “the ultimate soundtrack to teen rebellion,” and local media outlets around the world dedicated their remembrances to recounting the (often only) time Nirvana were in their individual geographical boundaries.

Music writers attempted more nuanced analyses of Cobain’s anniversary. Barnard Zuel in the Sydney Morning Herald asked whether Nirvana’s work truly stood the test of time (spoiler alert: yes, sort of), while Everett True used his column space in The Guardian blog to bemoan the mythologisation of Cobain since his death.

Australian music press websites also got in on the memorialisations. On Mess+Noise, Matt Shea detailed Nirvana’s only tour to Australia in 1992, interviewing individuals involved in the Australian Nirvana shows and writing, “It’s not often you get this close to pop-cultural history, and taken together these anecdotes make for a fascinating tale, littered with both funny and poignant moments.” Meanwhile, on sister site FasterLouder, Jaymz Clements examined the musical legacy of Nirvana, summarising, “So now Nirvana are a “classic” rock band who next week will be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, as Cobain and his generation-defining ethos dissolve into memory. But a memory as tactile as hearing ‘Aneurysm’ and losing your shit, or listening to Nevermind and still marvelling at those terrifyingly perfect riffs and hooks, or appreciating the intricacy of ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ and ‘All Apologies’? That’s a hell of a legacy.”

Alexis Petridis’ piece in The Guardian examined the dual anniversaries of Cobain’s death and the release of Blur’s seminal Britpop album Parklife. Discussing the dichotomy of grunge and Britpop, Petridis wrote, “It is an idea that is central to the posthumous myth of Kurt Cobain – that huge success and integrity are incompatible and that Cobain was an artist so principled he would rather kill himself than compromise his integrity. But Britpop and its practitioners suggested that precisely the opposite was true.”

In The Age, Simon Castles used the anniversary to examine the public perception of Cobain’s partner, fellow grunge rock icon Courtney Love. Castles noted, “In short, Love has been painted as part grunge Baby Jane, part Yoko Ono for Generation X, and part Lady Macbeth.”

Helen Razer’s analysis of the Kurt Cobain anniversary was characteristically more cynical then most. Writing for the Daily Review, Razer surmised, “When I was young, Kurt Cobain was a rebel angel banished to earth and loved by a fallen generation. When I was young, Kurt Cobain ate from the Tree of Knowledge and heaved up its toxic fruit in the troughs of popular culture. Now I am old, I have largely dropped such grandiose teen metaphor and find Kurt Cobain made music that became unbearable.”

At the time of Cobain’s death, Razer was working as a broadcaster on national alternative youth radio station Triple J. Below is Razer’s mid-1990s tribute to Cobain.

Speaking of Triple J, the radio collated archival audio pieces related to Cobain for the twentieth anniversary, paying tribute with, “This weekend marks 20 years since Cobain’s passing, but his legacy of relatable melancholia and emotive, distorted rock is still felt today. As the front man of Nirvana, he brought grunge to the masses and gave voice to an entire counterculture.”

Francis Leach, a Triple J broadcaster at the time of Cobain’s suicide,tweeted:

leach tweet nirvana

Rolling Stone paid tribute to Cobain with a series of memories and photos from bandmates, friends, family, and fans.

But perhaps the last word on Cobain should go to his former Nirvana bandmates, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic. In 1994, just months after Kurt’s death, Nirvana won the MTV award for Best Alternative Video (for ‘Heart Shaped Box’). Grohl’s acceptance speech, and Novoselic’s introduction to a Cobain tribute later in the awards broadcast, is below.

“It’d be silly to say that it doesn’t feel like something’s missing, and I think about Kurt every day, and I’d like to thank people for payin’ attention to our band.”