Queer Music Review – Fun Machine’s ‘Bodies On’

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Fun Machine

As a slight departure from the usual gist of BinaryThis (i.e. critiquing dominant discourse and/or pictures of academically-themed cats) I’ve decided to do a music review. While considering music from a queer theory perspective is nothing new, it’s not often that we turn our lens from the pop culture machinations of the super-famous, to what’s being produced locally. So even though I know sh** all about music, I thought I’d take some time to consider a band from my hometown of Canberra, called Fun Machine and their newest album ‘Bodies On’. My feeling is that while we spend so long trying to recover interesting meanings from the big-name songs we hate/love, sometimes we might miss the very queer happenings right under our noses. Also I have a special place in my heart for this band- they did an ode to Skywhale (Canberra’s many-breasted whale hot air balloon) with Hannah Beasley last year, which is probably the best song OF ALL TIME (listen here!).

This is not the band, but it is what comes up on Google image search when you type in "fun machine"

This is not the band, but it is what comes up on Google image search when you type in “fun machine”

But before we begin, here’s a SUPER quick run down of what I mean when I say “queer theory perspective” (for a longer explanation of queer theory, see here or here). Questions I considered for this review are:
– How is the fixity of identity (such as sexuality, gender or human-ness) being challenged?
– What are the ways in which ideas of “normal” are being critiqued?
– Are there any other openings being made for ruptures/transformations of the way we usually understand the world?

An image from the band's page: apparently you can "NEVER have too much glitter"

An image from the band’s page: apparently you can “NEVER have too much glitter”

As you might notice from those questions, though queer theory has its historical foundations in gay and lesbian activism, a “queer” perspective (though connected to questions of identity) can be about more than just gender and sexuality: doing queer theory involves challenging the way we think. In this sense, “to queer” can mean to make the familiar seem strange. While I have literally no idea how these guys identify in terms of gender or sexuality, that’s not what a queer perspective necessarily needs to involve – it’s about shaking things up. Having said that, sometimes queer is just about glitter – which incidentally, these guys are definitely into.

One thing that I really love about this band is the way they switch between different vocalists, styles, instruments and subjects…Listening to their new album in full for the first time, I had no idea what to expect from one track to the next. They’re also certainly not one of those bands where all their songs sound the same (as a side note here, honestly when the Lana Del Ray song ‘Young and Beautiful‘ came out last year, I genuinely thought it was a re-release of one of her earlier songs. Silly me). Point is, Fun Machine are far from boring. But what of their queer themes? Oh god get to the queer themes already! I hear you say. Okay, here goes…

The first song on their album, ‘Naked Body’, has a rather exciting clip filmed right here in Canberra, involving a crowd of sweaty, body-painted locals:

The clip is richly queer: a montage of skin fills the screen in an ode to hands, breasts, hair, feet and sequins. Blending voices, singers Bec Taylor and Chris Endry sing/shout the lyrics Girl it’s just my naked body/You’ll never touch my naked body/Get your hands off this naked body claiming freedom to nudity, and ownership of their own bodies. Then there’s some loud guitary-drumy bits (I said I don’t know sh** about music) and on repeat we hear Don’t trust unnaked bodies followed by orgiastic images of a dancing crowd smeared in paint and glitter. We see the words “naked”, “fun”, and “rock” literally written on their bodies.

Exposed flesh bursts forth in 'Naked Body'

Exposed flesh bursts forth in ‘Naked Body’

The whole scene adds up to a reclamation of the exposed body as something to embrace, but “fun” is located in your own enjoyment and relationship with your body rather than becoming object to someone else’s desires. At the end of the video clip we see a “money shot” of glitter in an orgasmic rock finish. Transcending boundaries of gender and heteronormativity, music is the polyamorous lover that brings bodies to climax. Here, nakedness is not about being seen, but about being “true” to yourself and your own desires, not the expected norms of sexiness.

‘Shave’ is the fourth track off their album, which also boasts a locally made vid. This was obviously done on a shoe-string budget (I love how you can see the pieces of paper they’ve pasted together for the backdrop):

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Brady Bunch for the 21st century in ‘Shave’

The clip starts with a colourful grid of local faces, a kind of modern-day Brady Bunch where “family” is no longer recognisable as the norm of mother-father-children, but rather the connections you have to your community and the people around you. The video involves these faces (also sporting neon makeup and jewels) lip-syncing Come back to me my love/And watch me as I shave. Faces are interspersed with surreal scenes that push the limits of reality: Barbie’s head has been replaced with the Hulk; a plastic wolf is bleeding from the mouth; a monkey mask is covered in candy bananas. The song finishes by asking Are you dancing/Gorgeous/Chaos/Hard Lust? More glitter bursts from a balloon, and a picture of Australia’s Prime Minister is smashed with an egg. ‘Shave’ opens up the limits of what we might take pleasure from and exposes a multiplicity of desire directed at rupturing “reality”. That the PM ends up with ‘egg on his face’ in amongst the scenes of multi-coloured surrealism, suggests that a different political future might be possible – things might be otherwise if we raise our voices up and shout Hey!

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Fun Machine: a veritable glitter-fest

Other songs on their album are also strange and wonderful. ‘In the Jungle’ has helpful tips for what you might want to have handy in the Jungle: You need a hat cos it is sunny/And penicillin never goes wrong, just don’t forget your games console…But I like to play my way/Play Nintendo in the Jungle. With a melody that reminds me of a late 80s sitcom blended with nostalgic videogame tones, this song may seem frivolous on the surface. But I can’t help but think that one message in this is that in order to survive we need more than just the practicalities of life, we need to play. In other tracks we hear about zombie girlfriends (‘Set You on Fire’), how we change each other in relationships (‘Alchemists’) and the possibilities for change (‘Ready for the Fight’). I couldn’t quite understand all of their songs- I think ‘Souvenir Teaspoon’ might be about taking drugs with your grandma, but I’m not sure. The album drifts from gruff deep voices to the softest lilting melodies – this is a musical landscape of difference and transformation.

As a final point, we might note that amongst “80s german minimalist techno” and “pop” they also classify their musical genre as “gay punk” and “genres are weird”. To me, this sums it up: Fun Machine are queer as f*** because you can’t put them in any one box. I encourage you to listen to their new album or go see them if you can: you’ll probably end up dancing around naked and covered in glitter. And as we all know, you can NEVER have too much glitter.

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Some Thoughts on Art or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Skywhale

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Though many Canberrans hate the art scheme, magpies on the other hand are huge fans

In Canberra we have a penchant for statues. There’s publicly-commissioned bronze on every street corner, from sheep showing you their bits to creepy parcels: if there’s a patch of spare land we’re not developing, you’ll bet we’ll be putting art on it. But some residents aren’t fans of local government spending on this kind of thing. If art is often a case of “you love it or you hate it”, it seems Canberrans more often fall on the “hate” side of the coin. I myself distinctly remember a time when I used to complain about our use of public art funding. I supported it ideologically, but used to worry that we were paying overseas artists whom our Chief Minister(s) admired, while Canberran artists missed out. I would moan about the fact that the Belconnen owl seriously looks like a penis. When art + Canberra came up in conversation I’d roll my eyes at the thought of another statue. That time was last week. So what changed?

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Such a cutie!

Well, we got a freaking Skywhale.

Commissioned as part of Canberra’s Centenary celebrations this year, The Skywhale is a many-mammaried chimerical hot air balloon, designed by controversial and world-renowned ex-Canberra artist Patricia Piccinini. Let’s let that sink in for a sec. OUR TOWN MADE A MAGICAL BREASTED SKY CREATURE POSSIBLE. IN BALLOON FORM. When my friends and I went to see her launch at the NGA, I felt like an exuberant child. I was literally skipping.

Ok, so I personally dig the majesty and awe of Skywhale. It comes from a combo of being a previous fan of Piccinini’s work, which always challenges ordinary conceptions of humanity and life, and the fact that I get really excited about hot air balloons (it’s a Canberra thing). But a lot of others have been outraged, and apparently it’s now being referred to as “Hindenboob”. People have been complaining that the artwork is too obscure / ugly / irrelevant / expensive / big / arty / offensive… every ire-filled rejection you can imagine.

Though a lot of the unfolding debate has been pretty amusing, it’s hard not to get down when a lot of people seem to draw the conclusion that art is a waste of money and time, or is just a big joke. I decided to ignore this depressing aspect of the discussion, and instead revel in the delight I found in Skywhale.

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Like the real Skywhale, the cake was both temporary and delicious

I was so enthused I made a cake version of her, with delicious boob-cupcakes on the side. I thought, well, the haters might be able to express disdain, but they probably won’t bother to get inventive with their complaining. They’re not exactly going to bother baking something with anti-Skywhale sentiments if they don’t dig creativity. And we all know cake speaks louder than words.

But while I am obviously a massive Skywhale fangirl, I think my personal preferences are fairly irrelevant to the general debate. While I may never be able to convince those who think public money shouldn’t be spent on art (though there are good arguments to be made in response), I can say something to those who say we don’t need art that’s too “weird” or seemingly superfluous to your average resident.

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Eating the Skywhale treats

The thing is, spectacular art is often whack. If it wasn’t, it might not get us feeling, thinking, or talking. If it was just another stone in the pavement, we’d walk right over it. Had Skywhale been a big ordinary-looking whale balloon, would the despair over her cost have been so great? Would we feel at ease if there were only a singular transparent layer of meaning; comforted knowing that we wouldn’t have to deal with feelings of horror, fantasy, lust, confusion, distaste or joy sparked by encountering something strange and difficult to comprehend? Art can change us, our minds, moods, perspectives on the world – if we’re open to it.

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Image source: P.S. Cottier

When I first heard about Skywhale I couldn’t believe my eyes. Had our little town truly gotten behind such a peculiar and wondrous artwork that would now be part of the contemporary art cannon?! I started looking around me at all the public art I’d previously complained about. I noticed that actually, there is a lot of work by local Canberra artists. There’s also a huge range of installations, sometimes in the strangest places, so that everyone – not just public servants or inner-city dwellers – can enjoy it. But you might say, these works are there 365 days a year, Skywhale is just fleeting hot air right…?

While Skywhale is relatively ephemeral, she’ll float through the imagination of this place for time to come. It’s just how we choose to respond to this artful memory that matters.