As the air starts escaping from the Morrison government’s zeppelin of public good will, my mind keeps turning to a fresh take on the career of the quintessential piano man, Billy Joel.
In a terrific podcast, Slate’s Chris Molanphy posits why Joel, with the possible exception of Stevie Wonder, has the largest gap between his best and worst work. To Molanphy, it all comes down to a simple truth: the Piano Man was the master of pastiche.
Joel wrote a mean melody but could only ever attach it to an existing musical trend. From Rat Pack to Motown, from Queen to REM, from a Vienna waltz to an Irish shanty; if you liked the genre, then Billy Joel would scratch your itch. But Joel never created anything that could move music forward; rather than an enduring legacy, the Piano Man is left to serve up his disjointed canon as the regular crowd shuffles in.
Stay with me and think about pastiche, the craft of reproducing another’s art, as we take stock of this week’s Guardian Essential Report findings.
First, the journey of the pandemic and where the federal government is currently tracking shows a sharp drop-off in public satisfaction in the wake of the New South Wales Covid outbreak, down 23 points since the start of the year.
What’s curious here is that unlike the last Melbourne lockdown, where the public said “a pox on both your houses”, this time support for the state governments on lockdowns have remained largely stable, with the exception of NSW which is down to a still-solid 57%.
This suggests two things: first, the NSW premier has a lot more capital in the bank than her federal counterpart, and second, the federal opposition’s line of attack that the government only has two jobs – rolling out vaccinations and setting up a safe quarantine session – is starting to bite.
This is reinforced by big drops in public confidence in the federal government’s management of the vaccine rollout. While the public maintains confidence in the effectiveness and, notably, safety of the rollout, confidence in the efficiency of the program is in freefall.
While the PM’s personal approval remains net positive, this is also in decline from a high of 66% a year ago to just 51% now, with disapproval now to 40% for the first time since the 2019/2020 bushfire.
This is hardly surprising in the context of the lockdown, but it seems to me that Scott Morrison is particularly vulnerable because so much of his political identity seems a veneer.
All politicians are part-pastiche, inevitably influenced by the call and response of the fans. But the standout leaders are more than that; Whitlam was symphonic, Hawke-Keating transformative, Howard pushed all sorts of boundaries.
Since then, there has been no truly original sound in our politics. Rudd had the sugar hit of a boy band, Gillard was surprisingly discordant, Abbott was a one-hit wonder, while Turnbull could never keep in time with his band.
Morrison doesn’t even pretend to try to build his own coherent body of work. It’s not that he can’t come up with a tune. Far from it, there is a ditty for every occasion. It’s just that it’s not leading us anywhere.
I don’t intend this analysis as a character hit. I like Billy Joel. We can respect someone’s command of a good melody and hum along when they get it right, but when they are a politician, we need to understand why that’s not enough.
As a Bronte-bred, GPS educated, rugger-bugger, Morrison leverages his position as director of the NSW Liberal party to shaft the local member and takes the safe southern seat of Cook. Realising he is now representing the Shire, he switches allegiances to the mighty Sharkies in the NRL.
As an attack dog in the Rudd-Gillard years, the Piano Man catastrophises government debt, refusing to concede that a black swan global event justified any change in fiscal policy. He is reported to spitball covering John Howard’s classic borders hit, sampling the old themes with some fresh Islamic intensity.
As a senior government minister, he jumps on the denial wave, fondling coal in public and undermining his prime minister’s attempts to build a sensible climate consensus. Standing one out, one back when his boss is cancelled from the label, he picks up the lead guitar and starts playing loud like The Donald.
He gives himself a new stage name and baseball cap. He Acca Daccas the books to go back in black, before releasing his big election hit: I Hate Tax’n’Spend. Giving away freebies to the crowd, grandstands and car parks, he races up the charts while the critics aren’t looking. But over the summer of 2019-20, he puts out a stinker with his execrable remake of We Didn’t Start the Fire – I Didn’t Hold the Hose, Mate.
Then the pandemic hits and the Piano Man has to come up with something original. He realises early his instincts aren’t great, but he allows himself to be nudged by his producers to lock down hard, protecting the fans and forming a supergroup to disperse the pressure. It works a treat, a sound for the times informed by evidence and totally at odds with his earlier work.
Now in 2021, it’s clear we needed something else again to meet changing trends. As global audiences shift to vaccinations, the Piano’s Man output has been sluggish, figuring there is no rush to change up his successful set list. In recent months though we have watched him scrambling with a hint of desperation to give the public what they want – hermit kingdoms and open borders, cash boosts, reluctant crumbs on gender and climate – rather than getting on with the hard work of thinking through the future.
The chickens are coming home to roost now: an inadequate rollout of vaccines atrociously communicated while the obvious flaws in hotel quarantine have not been addressed and a new virulent strain of coronavirus percolates through the inevitable winter sweet spot.
Morrison has succeeded in riding the charts to the highest office in the land and maintaining popular acclaim from an audience who was looking for hero. But there appears a brittleness to his support, due to his often contradictory guises and surface-level engagement.
With many of us locked down in our homes over the coming weeks (or months?), these bum notes will continue to resonate while the Piano Man desperately tries to find a new wave to lock in behind and we all wonder: “Man, what are you doing here?”