Politicians are a bit like pop stars, or like to think they are. Paul Keating compared himself to one of the more highbrow pop stars, calling himself ‘the Placido Domingo of Australian politics’. During the John Howard years, I wrote a newspaper column comparing Howard to Kylie Minogue, suggesting that the secret of both Howard’s and Minogue’s continued success was the same: being ‘safe and predictable’. That was what Minogue was, and Howard professed to be, impossible as that is in politics. Neither was ‘cool’, but both were consistent. As voters and record-buyers agreed, it’s better the devil you know.
The headline — ‘Respect for a pair of stayers’ — suggested that my analogy was a compliment. I’ve always found Minogue’s music to be slightly annoying, so I wasn’t trying to be kind, but as the editor of that page now helms The Spectator Australia, I’ll let it pass. Asked about the comparison on ABC Radio, Howard said that he was flattered, adding that Minogue was very talented and hard-working.
So if Howard was Kylie, who was Kevin Rudd? Not long ago, I would have suggested the late country star John Denver: nerdy but somehow cool, seemingly wholesome, rising to success on the shoulders of the Green movement. Now, however, it seems that Rudd wasn’t the durable John Denver, but one of the many flash-in-the-pan stars who arrive in a blaze of glory, top the charts, then fizzle within three years — like John Paul Young, or Rick Astley. Or Mark Latham. Whether Rudd makes a comeback in another position (à la Mark Holden), we’ll just have to wait and see.
If we must play such juvenile party games, however, the obvious question now is: ‘Which pop star is Julia Gillard?’ In her case, the question isn’t as dumb as it sounds. Some politicians have an element of pop star about them, winning fans with a charisma that suggests freshness and relative youth: the Kennedys, Obama, Gorbachev, the early Tony Blair, even Keating for a time. To an extent, there is still something of that in Gillard.
But who, in these early days, does Gillard look set to emulate? Working-class hero Bruce Springsteen? Jimmy Barnes, his Aussie equivalent? Perhaps it was Gillard’s ‘bogan’ background that made her a fan of Springsteen’s album Born to Run (the Sgt. Pepper for unpretentious people). In truth, however, we really should choose a woman. Much as we’d like to think that we’ve moved to a stage where her ‘Australia’s first female PM’ status wouldn’t matter, it is truly significant. It could decide the election, and suggests that Australian culture is finally moving forw… sorry, ‘changing’.
Should we choose a feminist hero, like Aretha Franklin or those more dubious ‘girl power’ advocates, the Spice Girls? No, Gillard has the support of females, but she doesn’t have a feminist platform. It is Gillard herself who seems pro-woman, not her policies.
What of Tina Turner? Like Gillard, Turner won success as the second-billed member of a duo. Following dramatic breakups, Turner and Gillard both became stars on their own. Oh, and they both enjoy the AFL (Turner promoted them in 1990, and we know of Gillard’s love for the Western Bulldogs). Yet, despite all attempts to portray him as foul-mouthed and bad-tempered, it is unfair to compare Rudd to the violent Ike Turner.
Kylie Minogue’s name comes up again. Like Minogue, Gillard’s cheerful and friendly presence on television (quizzed on Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?, laughing along with a computer-generated host on David Tench Tonight, flirting with Tony Abbott on Today) disguised a ruthless ambition. However, while Minogue has built her career on ‘safe and predictable’, Gillard has always been bold and adventurous — in image, at least.
Indeed, the superstar whose career Gillard’s most resembles (so far) is Madonna, and not just because the media is so intrigued by her hair. Madonna, you might recall, was a strong and exciting presence when she first appeared in the 1980s. Like Gillard, she won frowns from morals campaigners, who seemed to be in the minority. (Pop stars are not expected to be God-fearing married women, but Madonna’s morality was considered dubious even for a singer.) However, she was still an inspiration, a role model for young women in particular (who were the right age for Madonna, and are now the right age for Gillard).
Madonna’s only problem was in the songs. They were always written to please the masses, but rather than mirroring her exciting image, they simply gave a new voice to banal lyrics and the same musical styles that were already heard in countless dance records. In pop music, of course, that might not matter. One of the first Madonna features in Time magazine was a dual profile, comparing the singer to another New York pop chanteuse, the endearing Cyndi Lauper. A music ‘expert’ predicted that, while Lauper would go on forever, Madonna’s career would be brief.
Instead, the opposite happened. Madonna’s secret is that, whenever her fans are on the verge of losing interest, she has presented a new image, almost as an ‘alternative’ to herself. Like Kylie Minogue, or John Howard, she is a ‘one-note’ icon of the 1980s who surprised everyone by staying relevant.
Like Madonna, Gillard is a master of reinvention, changing her policies to reflect popular trends. Naturally, that is what you get from something so blatantly commercial as a major party. (If you want a respected ‘indie’ band with a passionate following that never tops the charts, try the Greens.) Recently she has promised a return to ‘the real Julia’, as her carefully scripted campaign has proven about as popular as the more forced moments of Madonna’s film career (think, if you must, of Shanghai Surprise or Swept Away). Reinvention can only take you so far.
If her current ploy fails, she might be remembered as the Cyndi Lauper of Australian politics. But if she continues to follow Madonna’s lead, consciously or otherwise, she could also be around for some time.