As previously flagged, The Public Apology has shortlisted two contenders – rock god Michael Hutchence and cricketing deity Shane Warne – as it seeks to determine who was THE Australian of the 1990s. In Part III of this gripping four-part series, TPA features editor Ben Shine looks at how these two men, each a genius in his own right, measure up against the 90s ‘ethos’…
An old pal from my childhood, Dr Seuss, once remarked that ‘sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple’.
The old Doc was right about many things, however when it comes to determining who was THE Australian of the 1990s, he could not have gotten it more wrong. Indeed, the question of which Australian best encapsulated this vital decade is not only ridiculously complicated (or just plain ridiculous), but so is its answer.
As such, in order to answer this most vexing question I have chosen to abandon the criteria used by my fellow The Public Apology scribes. While I will maintain their absurdly-appropriate scoring system, whereby marks are randomly attributed to each contestant out of 600, like a rusty chainsaw through an overgrown thicket I will seek to forge a new path in this difficult debate.
Instead of scything through the dense foliage, I will casually meander down a circuitous path to make a convoluted, yet spirited argument, so please stick with me because I think the final destination is going to be pretty close to Truthville, USA.
So let’s begin. If we are to judge the Australian of the 1990s, we first need to figure out what the nineties was all about, its essence, what it stood for, and the qualities that helped defined the period. Then we need to see how these two options, Hutchence and Warne, measure up against the nineties’ ethos.
Then, and only then, can we assess who was the Australian to best define the period 1990 to 2000.
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So, the nineties… Ten years which saw the Berlin Wall torn down, the internet enter the mainstream and the American President cop a famous jobba in the Oval Office.
The decade also saw the ratcheting up of globalisation, free trade and democracy on a scale surpassed only by the increase in pornography accessed in jpeg format.
But what was the vibe of the nineties? Is it possible to define a decade by the cultural phenomena that captured the world’s attention? If so, would it be slap bands or silk shirts? Grunge music or hip hop? Goatee beards or undercuts? Backstreet Boys or the Spice Girls? Ecstasy or heroin?
The nineties are all of those, and at the same time they are none of those.
Perhaps the best study on the ethos of the nineties is from a cultural institution from our current decade, the TV show Portlandia – a show which pays a certain homage to the nineties and most aptly describes the decade as a time when:
“People were talking about getting piercings and getting tribal tattoos… they were singing about saving the planet and forming bands… when people were content to be un-ambitious… They’d sleep ‘til 11:00, and just hang out with their friends… I mean, they had no occupations, whatsoever… maybe working a couple hours a week at a coffee shop”
In the eyes of Portlandia, the nineties embodied that mid-20s crash-on-your-friends-couch-for-a-couple-of-months malaise. An era defined by people’s lack of ambition, the feeling of never wanting or having to grow up and face real-life responsibilities, and of course a penchant for doing weird stuff like getting eyebrow rings *tips hat to Drazic from Heartbreak High*.
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Of course Hutch and Shane had ambition. Both men’s success was not only down to luck. They worked hard, had dreams of being on top of the world and realised those dreams. In spite of their sizeable ambitions, it’s clear that both of them often went about their careers in a less than professional way.
Hutchence was a performer in the true sense of the world. He is better known as an on-stage hunk (a nineties term) oozing sexual magnetism, not as a diligent musical artist spending hours perfecting his craft. Indeed, while some artists prefer to guzzle salt water before they perform, Hutchence was more likely to guzzle a smorgasbord of drugs prior to taking the stage.
And while Warne (probably) didn’t imbibe as many illicit substances as Hutchence pre-performance, there’s just something so ‘nineties’ about being one of the world’s best professional athletes while at the same time fighting a public battle with weight, cigarettes, baked beans, alcohol and fidelity. It’s so innocently amateur. Almost as if his craft was secondary to his other interests.
Both of these gentlemen excelled at doing weird stuff.
Michael Hutchence’s penchant for weird sexual shit is well established. There was strangling Paula Yates mid-coitus, then the alleged wank/suicide. I am sure there is more, but I didn’t watch the second instalment of Never Tear Us Apart, so you’ll have to do your own research there. What matters is the guy was universally admired as a fantastical sexual pest/god.
In comparison Warne’s sexual indiscretions are slightly less severe. His sexcapades have not resulted in any deaths that we know of, although being set-up by an English tabloid with two prostitutes and taking it in your stride when the pictures are published is pretty good. Bagging Liz Hurley also warrants mention.
Where Warne excels is in the other weird shit.
He wore a single Nike earring in one ear during the nineties, a period in which the ear chosen supposedly represented your sexuality and yet nobody could remember which one was which – a risky manoeuvrer indeed, and one that speaks to Warne’s flirtatious streak.
Warne consistently failed to give up smoking cigarettes, and was once caught smoking in public days after pocketing $200,000 through a sponsorship arrangement to do so. And then there was that time he performed fellatio on a scotch and dry at the races.
He’s also messed around with his mate’s band… well, not really, but he did make an excellent cameo in Jimmy Barnes’ hit-single ‘(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher’ from the seminal 1991 record Soul Deep (1:00 mark), which I highly recommend viewing.
Most recently (i.e. Just last week), Shane Warne has announced that he’s penned a song that he’s trying to get produced, in the same week as he denied being in a relationship with a 20-something Sydney hairdresser.
The beauty of Warne is that he will keep on producing these hilariously childish, life imitating art moments, and that why the nation loves him.
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To borrow a quote from my childhood companion again: “adults are just obsolete children and the hell with them.” While Dr Seuss could be accused of underplaying the complicated nature of answering difficult questions, in this one sentence he got the vibe of the nineties. It was a time of lethargic rebellion, and young adults refusing to become obsolete children.
And two Australians who danced on the world stage – but never grew up – perfectly embodied this ethos.
Hutch and Warne were just two big kids having a good time, refusing to accept adulthood and all its pitfalls, indulging in whatever they chose. And that’s why they were both so perfectly suited to the nineties.
But when both men embody this ethos so comprehensively, how does one choose the best Australian of the decade? Arbitrarily, of course.
Michael Hutchence’s greatest contribution to the INXS discography, Kick, sold 490,000 records in Australia, so he will receive a score of 490 out of 600.
Only marginally ahead is Shane Warne, who took 708 wickets at Test level – the second highest of all-time, so he will receive a score of 708 out of 600.
FINAL TALLY: WARNE 708/600, HUTCHENCE 490/600
By Ben Shine