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.