Shannon Noll is oddly quite hip right now. Facebook groups with names like ‘Shannon Noll was robbed of winning hit TV show Australian Idol 2003′ have – improbably – tens of thousands of likes.
In 2016, campaigners gathered 6000 signatures in a petition to have Nollsy play at the regional series of Groovin’ The Moo festivals. Buzzfeed – a website quick to take the pulse of modern youth – recently dispatched Brad Esposito to write 1800 words about the phenomenon of Shannon Noll memes in 2016.
Yes, that Shannon Noll. The one who got to #1 with that cover of Moving Pictures’ What About Me. The one who famously had the ‘flavour-saver’ soul patch. The one who last had a top 40 solo single in 2007, almost a decade ago.
These days, he’s an internet meme. Every post Nollsy makes on Facebook – usually advertising gigs in smallish pubs in outer suburbia – gets smartarse comments like the following: “Gonna be a bloody Ripa nollsy mate you’re a bloody legend mate. Hey mate can I grab ya BBQ off ya mate for Easter weekend bro thanks mate cheers mate, bloody legend cheers.” These smartarse comments get dozens of likes.
Fucking onya Nollsy! Yeah nah still putting up a fight against coming second. True blue Aussie hero onya son you’re a true inspiration ay. Good stuff legend cheers mate
For the internet in 2016, in other words, Nollsy has become the epitome of the good-natured knockabout Aussie bloke. Nollsy – or at least the mythical version of him in the memes – doesn’t care about your ‘soy skinny lattes’ or your Sydney housing prices, has probably never heard of #gamergate, and probably doesn’t watch Girls. Instead, he’s a throwback to the Australia of Kath & Kim, of The Castle, of Steve Irwin.
He’s the Australia of putting another snag on the barbie, the Oz of having a sneaky durry this arvo while bludging from work. As unlikely as it might seem, Nollsy being the height of uncool in 2003 – and there was nothing uncooler in Australia in 2003 than Shannon Noll – means that he’s almost something resembling ‘with it’. What goes around comes around.
Of course, ‘cool’ is generational. The word ‘hipster’ was originally coined in the mid-1940s to refer to young white guys who loved jazz. Bing Crosby, in the 1940s, was described as a ‘hipster’. Back then, Bing was one of the coolest things going. Fast forward three decades, and Bing was very very uncool indeed. When David Bowie recorded a Christmas duet with Bing Crosby in 1977, it was widely assumed that Bowie was trying to fuck with people. To quote Abe Simpson, “I used to be with it, but then they changed what it was. Now what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s it seems weird and scary to me.”
And if you nodded and smiled, thinking “ah, the Simpsons is so great, what an excellent reference!”, well, chances are you’re no longer with it either. After all, it’s been almost two decades since the best years of the show. At least half of the references in a Simpsons episode like ‘Homerpalooza’ (where that Abe Simpson quote comes from) now would likely go straight over most 15-year-old heads. Why would someone born after the Sydney Olympics know who Cypress Hill and the Smashing Pumpkins are?
Of course, pop culture is dominated by the young. Most people past the age of thirty get on with their lives – they’re usually too tired after a day spent looking after the kids or closing that business deal (or whatever) to worry about what’s hip and what’s cool. In contrast, young people have time and energy for pop culture. Young people who actively chase cool might even rise up the social ladder a bit.
Let’s say that the age of 18-24 is the peak age of cool – it’s the intended demographic of Triple J, for example. If you turn 18 this year, you were born in 1998. If you turn 24 this year, you were born in 1992. Which is to say that, if you are currently in the Peak Age of Cool, you were between the ages of 5 and 11 when Australian Idol happened in 2003.
Fuck oath Nollsy, true blue Aussie hero good on ya son. Cheers mate, Aussie legend, good on you Shaz.
And pre-teens are simply pop-culture sponges. They’re coming to television and music with more or less fresh eyes. They have no idea how good what they’re seeing and hearing is – after all, they have very little to compare it to. And they have little reason to worry about what’s cool – we humans only really try to emphasise our individuality during our teenage years, and cool is definitely about being individual.
So chances are that many people who fit squarely into the Triple J demographic these days were into Australian Idol in 2003. And most people, at some level, love all the daggy stuff they were exposed to as kids. The pop music of the era inevitably becomes the soundtrack to our childhood, and most people look upon their childhoods fondly. Childhood, after all, is a golden era before you had to worry about death and taxes, before you really understood politics or coolness, when you spent most of your time playing rather than working.
I’m 34, and so Madonna’s Cherish – released as a single when I was 7 – fills me with warm feelings these days, because more than most songs, it instantly takes me back to my childhood. A fair few grizzled old punk rockers in their mid-fifties almost certainly feel the same way about late 1960s bubblegum pop like Yummy Yummy Yummy by the Ohio Express. In the same way, Nollsy takes the current Triple J demographic back to their childhoods.
Watch: Madonna – Cherish
Of course, the Triple J demographic of 2016 are well aware that Nollsy – for all their fondness of him – was not dealt the strongest hand by his producers. His chart-topping cover of What About Me, in 2016, remains a pile of shit aesthetically. Thus the memes. How better to balance genuine fondness and genuine aesthetic horror than by making memes?
What’s more, the mainstream Australia that responded to Nollsy in 2003 doesn’t exist anymore. It’s no longer the enemy (after all, the mainstream is inevitably the enemy of cool, the thing that cool defines itself against). 2003 feels like a more innocent time. It was the year that the US invaded Iraq. In 2003, it seemed as if the war wouldn’t last long; few predicted that it would lead to the disaster that is ISIS a decade ago. 2003 was a time when the idea of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister was still vaguely humorous rather than upsetting.
And in truth, 2003 was about the last time there was an actual mainstream. It was a time before social media, a time before Upworthy and Buzzfeed, before Snapchat and Whatsapp. It’s pretty clear in 2016, for example, that chart pop is largely just a niche amongst niches rather than a true mainstream.
Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber are not mainstream pop stars in the same way that Shannon Noll was a mainstream pop star. Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber have specific niches that they’ve worked extremely well; they’re more like cult stars with very large cults than mainstream stars. In contrast, everyone and their mum and dad liked Shannon Noll. At least for a year or two before he got supplanted by the next crop of Idol contenders.
I look forward to the Dami Im memes of 2028.
Tim Byron has written for Max TV, Mess+Noise, The Guardian, The Big Issue, and The Vine. You can follow him on twitter here @hillsonghoods.