I used to think Australia Day was the ideal birthday. It’s a public holiday, it’s usually warm, and there are frequently fireworks which I like to imagine are in my honour. And it arrives just as the summer holidays have wound down, giving you one last hurrah before the serious portion of the year kicks in.
That said, 26 January is never going to be a morally unambiguous day. Tacky jingoism and an uncomfortable history of colonisation tend to complicate a day which, in my view, should largely be about giving me presents. This reached its nadir a few years ago, when the day got hijacked by Big Day Out yobbos wearing their flags as capes like bogan superheroes with the power to fly through the air while making ignorant comments about immigration.
Nowadays, my birthday has become less of an occasion for me to seek even more attention than usual, and more of an uncomfortable reminder of the ageing process. My birthday makes me feel ancient, like the hint of arthritis in my left knee, and my inability to see the point of Snapchat. But this year, being born on the day when Captain Arthur Phillip planted his flag in Sydney Cove and declared that he couldn’t see any natives anywhere, so he may as well just claim the whole thing, what, came with an additional complication.
Australia Day is also the day when triple j plays the Hottest 100, of course. In the early years, I used to know most of the songs, and buy the compilation CDs so I could pretend to be a hardcore fan of bands I’d previously considered too cool for me, like Nine Inch Nails and You Am I. I’ve been listening in since the first year when they restricted the countdown to the previous year – I loved the 1993 countdown when Denis Leary’s ‘Asshole’ was number one, because I thought that was just about the funniest song ever. Gimme a break, I was 16.
This year, the Hottest 100 turned 20 (in its current songs-from-the-last-year format) and I turned 36, and the premiere kiddie/hipster countdown became a source of confusion. Because this was the first year when I had never even heard the number one song, ‘Thrift Shop‘. Not only that, I hadn’t even heard of it, or even of the artists – Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, and the questionably-named Wanz. Yes, even though it was number one on the ARIA chart last year, too.
What’s more, having heard it, I couldn’t see why anybody liked it. I still can’t.
There, I made the ultimate fogey comment: kids these days listen to weird music. Why can’t they go back to the good old days of people singing over their guitars, like that nice Kurt Cobain fella?
In previous years, I might have looked up Macklemore, Ryan Lewis and even Wanz on the internet so I could pretend to be informed when talking about them. This year, I still haven’t bothered – and it hasn’t been a problem, either, since nobody’s brought them up in conversation. All I can tell you is that ‘Macklemore’ sounds like it might be the mansion next door to Downton Abbey.
More damningly still – and I’m going to be honest, even though this is deeply embarrassing – of the 100 songs that made the cut, I only knew 17. And I’d only heard of the *artists* for about a third of the tracks. So thanks, triple j, for making me feel completely antiquated on my birthday.
What was I even doing listening to the Hottest 100, you may ask. After all, I work for one of the ABC’s decidedly non-youth networks. (Which is, I admit, the only reason I’ve heard of a few of the songs – ‘Little Talks’ and ‘I Got Burned’, for instance, which are on our playlist.) Well, I caught quite a bit of it because of an even more age-affirming decision – attending a Hottest 100 party.
Parties are nice, of course, especially on one’s birthday, when you can imagine that they’ve been thrown in your honour. And I like relaxed house parties in the middle of summer. This one had more than a hundred people at it, and giant speakers in the backyard blaring out triple j. All of which would be well and good, except that nearly everybody in attendance was more than a decade younger than me. I don’t know whether they were Generation Y or Z or even the one below. All I know is that when I started at university, most of them weren’t even in primary school.
I could see the confusion in some of their juvenile faces as they wondered who’d let the old man with the receding hairline in. Was I a neighbour, or perhaps even a parent? The incomprehension was mutual. As I watched them dancing to the music, and splashing about in the pool, I felt even older than 36.
Fortunately, I had a few friends there, a very small number of whom were even my side of thirty. We chatted on the fringe of the seething morass who were dancing to Hottest 100 songs they knew every word of but which I couldn’t place. And I played backyard cricket with muscly guys in singlets who slogged the few deliveries I sent down that weren’t wide, and made me feel like John Howard. It was fun, but ultimately, I didn’t belong.
After a couple of hours, I took my leave of the few of those young scamps whom I knew, and got into the car which I was still sober enough to drive, and drove to a very pleasant dinner party. Everyone there was within a year or two of my age, had been a good friend for more than a decade. Almost all of them, as is practically standard for thirtysomethings of my acquaintance, had children.
After dinner, I asked the table for a moment of silence, and played them ‘Thrift Shop’. None of them had heard it, and none of them understood how it had been voted number one in the Hottest 100. We didn’t even get all the way through it before I switched the stereo back to good old Mix 80s. I sighed in relief, knowing that here, I was among my peers.
I drove home at the sensible hour of 11pm, because even though it was a Saturday night on a long weekend, some of those in attendance were pregnant, and others had to pick their children up from the obliging grandparents who had been minding them. Spending time with those friends made me feel like the other extreme – a relatively free spirit, a person who at least got invited to and was sufficiently childless to attend parties full of groovy twentysomethings, even if they didn’t really fit in at them.
As I drove, I kept listening to triple j, where twentysomething Nina Las Vegas was DJing a Hottest 100 after-party, and I formulated an ingenious plan to make sure that today’s experience was never repeated. If I spent more time listening to triple j, then maybe, just maybe, I’d know more than 17 songs in next year’s Hottest 100.