On his latest earworm single The Boys, Max Quinn takes a hard look at hyper-masculine discourse and culture in Australia. Inspired by a conversation about a shoey, overheard in a sauna in regional Australia, Quinn unpacks the very Australian construct of “manliness” imploring us to rail against “the generational dick-swinging that has so often been excused as ratbag boy behaviour”.
In an attempt to explore this even further, Music Feeds’ Luke Bodley sat down with Max Quinn and together they talked about the origins of the song and the culture that inspired it. Here are some of the concepts they uncovered.
Many men man
Luke: The raucous. The rage. He lifts the Adidas to his bourbon lips. A shoelace bends; a fabric body floats in the concoction – equal parts foot sweat and vodka. The pride circles, turns from language to roar. They sway, glued shoulder-to-shoulder, crown-to-crown, their spindle-thin legs unable to carriage the hulking breadth of their upper bodies. A sea of semi-sentient isosceles triangles; larrikin geometry. They tilt their heads upwards and fill the room’s zenith with kaleidoscopic up-chuck.
These are ‘The Boys’.
In all seriousness, I am a member of this symposium. When I slipped from the womb, I was given unto the peachy pall of ‘maleness’ and ‘masculinity’. I possess a penis, and I quite like the oddities of my man-body (and others), so I am not displeased to have been involuntarily tossed into this camp.
But, this ‘camp’, its Australian form particularly, has its problems. And those problems find their root-origin in a culture, which, as described by Henry Lawson in While the Billy Boils, canvasses ‘the man’ as he who “with few natural advantages, works doggedly and with little reward, who struggles hard for a livelihood, and who displays enormous courage in so doing”. We are now aware that this dogged will, this unrewarded courage, was the golden mane donned by colonial imperialists.
Yet, us men continue in this tradition. This tradition of violent occupation via the dominant status afforded to our bodies and voices. I wish not to say that ‘will’ or ‘courage’ are vile in and of themselves, but when used to impose and imprint the ‘man-mark’ on spaces that are unmanned (in the true sense of the term), they become self-destructive weapons.
I talked to Max Quinn about his newest song The Boys and how Aussie men can channel their power and weakness to overcome the current crisis in male mental health and emotionality.
A sauna, a spa and a song
Max: The Boys came directly out of an experience that I had in a sauna, where these dudes were talking about doing shoeys and throwing up on their dicks at a urinal. I do not want to say that I am a super-evolved, civilised anti-shoey activist. But, over the course of a couple of years, I have started to think of music and life differently because I am not in a place of emotional distress. So when this happened, it kind of just rocked me, in a certain sense. Actually, it more marked me.
“The sauna was adjacent to a spa. It’s funny, I just got out of this sauna, sat in the spa for a few minutes and the lyrics started darting into my head. I was like, ‘this is it, I have to do this’, and the words poured onto my phone.
“It triggered this whole thing that I had been thinking about a lot. Many of my friends play in punk bands and it has become an all too common thing, you know, that construct of extreme masculinity, of male carelessness. It has become an issue of safety, particularly for women. I just cannot get down with it. It doesn’t make sense to me on any real or fundamental level.
“So I guess I am trying to become conscious and sensitive of what is happening around me and using that as the impetus for songwriting. This, in particular, is something that I believe in and feel.
“I grew up in Ballina, in regional New South Wales. Being a kid from a regional town who was not good at sports, was not even minutely athletic or particularly masculine – I weigh 70 kilos and have a matchstick body – sensitised me to hard and dusty masculinity. But, then I moved to the city and kind of forgot that that existed because I sheltered myself and was surrounded with people that thought the same way that I did.
“So to come face to face with this strange sauna-expression of masculinity was awakening. It was just one of those things, I had a little moment where I understood what it was and what I wanted to say about it.
“It is so easy to shelter yourself from this reality, especially when you are a dude who does not believe in or feel akin to masculine ‘boys boys’. You can cut yourself off from it and believe that you are doing the right thing, but realistically I know that that is not the right thing. I do not think that it is enough to let it happen and be reticent – fail to say anything – regardless of how intimidated you might feel.
“So, It was a real reminder for me, where I was like ‘Holy shit. This is happening. This is real.’ That moment of shock and then the following reflection is where The Boys came from. It is just fucking so gross. I am not interested in putting up with that shit anymore. My friends in the band recently put out a video called ‘It Takes One. It is that concept – if you see something, say something. And with this song, I am saying something.”
Nietzsche’s Aussie battler
Luke: The penchant towards shoeys, wolf-whistling, physical intimidation and bush-bashing find fertile ground in dominant notions of Australian masculinity and nationhood. Figured as a lone battler deflecting mother nature’s more unforgiving fancies with a rucksack and a stick, the ‘white wanderer’ is still a fixture of normative Australian identity. Despite our multiculturalism, the mythology of terra nullius and white heroism buttresses modern male behaviour. It is almost as if all space is terra nullius, unoccupied, and must be clenched by the heroic ‘man-hand’.
Such a mythology finds a neat analogue in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Vincent Buckley highlights that Nietzsche’s centralising of the “metaphysical hero”, “the metaphysical adventurer who in his journey … asserts the value of his own will, his own integrity, his own exploration” (Utopianism and Vitalism in Australian Literature, 1959), aligns with notions of Australian masculinity.
My brothers, do not be disheartened, for this ‘will’ does not need to be curbed or stymied, merely redirected. I am not calling for the mass castration of all who bear the penis. I am not seeking to pluck tongues from the mouths of men. I am not suggesting that every man should shrink to an atom, a nothing.
But, if we are to live harmoniously in a world that is dotted with feminazis, trolls, Trumps, LGBTQIs and micro-subcultures, we must carefully criticise and reconfigure our personal notions of masculinity.
A larrikin voice
Max: “I wanted this song to represent the rougher part of Australia. Right now we are having an educated, almost critical dialogue about these masculine concepts and forces. But there are certain parts of Australia where this discourse does not even happen. I wanted to write The Boys in such a way, so that it could be sung unironically, and it would retain its meaning. You can still approach it with whatever level of irony that you please, though.
“This is part of the character-narratives style of songwriting. Lots of my favourite songwriters as I was growing up wrote in the narrative and character form like John K Sampson from the Weakerthans, and Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood from the band, Fountains of Wayne. They did make lots of dodgy pop songs, but there are some excellent character-narratives, some really good songs.
“There is this new album by Chris Collingwood called Look Park. It is a beauty in terms of actually finding interesting pop songs that possess a cool narrative tone. So I wanted to approach my music in the same way, to use third person and character and larrikinism to make it accessible. To be able to use these methods and ideas to pivot and turn ‘the meaning’ on its head.”
Men in crisis
Luke: In Australia, 76% of those who die by suicide are male. Clearly, Australian men are destabilised by the shifting axes of their power and position. The ‘hero’ of times past has passed.
The internet, an imbricated web of relations, will evade ‘his’ offensive and strike back, in its well-formed but formless way.
The quiet ones – the voices, silenced by ‘his’ once predominant noise-making, are speaking. The woman has flung her iron at the fridge, and taken flight. The enslaved have shook their shackles to breaking. As Toni Morrison exclaimed: “the definers want the power to name. And the defined are now taking that power away from them.”
The time of redefinition has come. Let go of the supposed verities that make you ‘man’. Stop locking and knotting your identity in obedience to the inchoate constructs of masculinity. Let masculinity become slippery and multifarious.
Listen. Listen to each other. Listen to the earth. Listen to yourself.
A larrikin heart
Max: “Being a man, it’s about standing up and being honest in the most authentic way that you can. It’s funny how life is just fundamentally weird and strange. I think that it is important to have a kind of discourse that addresses that. It’s amazing that campaigns like ‘It’s okay to talk’ can generate discussion – I saw people that I went to high school [with], you know, the boys, having emotionally raw conversations. It was progressive. I wish it was the prevailing attitude.
“I do think that there are signs of life. We are progressing or showing signs of progress in a certain way by being able to actually talk. As we continue to open up these conversations, I think that it will become more acceptable to just talk about oneself and one’s being. I am not only talking about mental health, which we have seen become a less shameful and stigmatised topic to address for men.
“Personally for me, though, when I was feeling really low and super depressed last year, I was really embarrassed. You know, ‘This doesn’t happen to me. I have nothing to complain about. I am a happy, educated, employed person with a sense of self who loves himself and what he does with his time.’ It was embarrassing.
“But I think that the more that you can create that sense of communal openness, the better things will be. I am talking about this in the context of masculine discourse and the way that it is acceptable to talk, to act and to behave around women and people who identify as queer, non-binary and everything across the spectrum.”
Max Quinn will launch new single ‘The Boys’ at Magic Johnson in Melbourne this Friday, October 14th, with very special guests Alex Lahey and Ruby Markwell from The Football Club. Each artist will perform solo acoustic sets. Capacity is limited, there will be no microphones, and tickets only available on the door.
If you help or information on mental health, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.