Down Under by Men at Work

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Do you come from a land down under?
Where women glow and men plunder Read full Lyrics
Remnants of the first colonial settler on Kangaroo Island off the southern coast of Australia near Adelaide. They have fairy penguins on this island!<br>Photo: Erik PaulsenRemnants of the first colonial settler on Kangaroo Island off the southern coast of Australia near Adelaide. They have fairy penguins on this island!
Photo: Erik Paulsen
What are we to do with Australia? It's just so funny and awkward compared to the rest of the world. It's upside-down down there and the rest of us guess that gravity doesn't work and you need magnetic boots to keep from falling off or something. And they talk funny and have strange animals and ride to work in the pouch of a kangaroo past the Sydney Opera House and everybody's named "Bruce," which is awkward for the women.

That's the thing with Oz, is that the rest of the world never notices it except when some popular piece of media wafts through popular culture, like Finding Nemo or Crocodile Dundee. Then the rest of the English-speaking world spends a week or two badly imitating an Australian accent, asking natives to describe just what, exactly, is the big deal with Vegemite, and then they forget about it and it's time to ignore Australia again.

Men At Work did their best to keep Australia in the headlines for more than a week or two. They'd already had a hit single - "Who Can It Be Now?" - in 1981, when "Down Under" came out from their album Business As Usual and blew away all former records for hits coming out of Australia. Riding the crest of the new wave genre, it broke number-one in both the United States and the United Kingdom simultaneously. Men At Work stayed a popular band through the first half of the 1980s, then, like pied pipers whose job was done, they broke up by about 1985. Except for the occasional brief reunion appearance for special events, that seems to have been the end of their story.

The Dog Fence in the Outback <br>Photo: Erik PaulsenThe Dog Fence in the Outback
Photo: Erik Paulsen
Not every group is lucky enough to have their song adopted as the unofficial national anthem. Australians have taken to "Down Under" so well that it becomes part of everything from Qantas airline advertisements to Olympic events. The song is repeatedly covered, sampled, and referenced in virtually any media that has anything to do with Australia or even New Zealand.

Now consider the irony: This is a protest song. No kidding, there it is in band leader Colin Hay's own words: "The chorus is really about the selling of Australia in many ways, the over-development of the country. It was a song about the loss of spirit in that country. It's really about the plundering of the country by greedy people." Huh? Oh, so that's what we'd "better run," we'd "better take cover" from. This does make sense; Australia has been mightily impacted by globalization, as their culture becomes diluted with U.S. and UK culture. Corporations have moved in, set up franchises, and left the Ozzies wondering where their heritage went and why it's now only possible to obtain it in a die-cast metal souvenir that costs $9.95.

Even though the song is taken in a different spirit from how it's intended, it does express a lot of the flavor of Australian culture. The humor of the story told by the song has that off-center skid to it that's characteristic of Australian playfulness. The words are quirky and proudly cultural; debate rages to this day how, exactly, one "chunders." The line "Do you speak-a my language?" has "speak-a" for apparently no reason besides "it sounded cool and helped the verse scan." And another irony is that reggae, the style of the song, is Jamaican, not Australian, and yet to this day non-natives think that all Australian music is reggae.

Colin Hay was the leader and basically brains of Men At Work. Since the breakup he's continued a successful solo career. Though he's now traveling all over the world and has even said in interviews that almost any country feels like home to him, he actually hails from Melbourne, Australia, and thus this is the place of origin of this song as well as any other. If you visit, mind the dropbears; we hear they're bloody fierce to tourists.

Pete Trbovich
July 27, 2009
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