What does it mean to be a “good citizen”? The question was on the mind of queer Melbourne songwriter Cash Savage last year, as national debate over the marriage equality postal survey roiled around her. Until the survey, she says, she never felt any different from anyone else. Suddenly, in the words of her song Better Than That, every day brought another intrusion.
At the time, her partner was pregnant with the couple’s first child. “To be having a debate around whether or not queer people should get married and connecting that to whether or not they should raise children, at the same time as planning ahead and being excited about bringing a child into the world, [made] the cut a little deeper,” she says.
The experience fed into the writing of Savage’s fourth album, Good Citizens, with her band the Last Drinks, and when it came to making a video for the title track – written in about 10 minutes – Savage had an unusual idea. She wouldn’t appear in it, or even sing her own song. It would, instead, be sung live by a group of 18 men: the “Good Citizens Choir”.
The song’s lyrics are, at least in part, an oblique critique of the codes and rituals of Australian masculinity. “I get asked a lot of questions [about] how we make things better, and I don’t have any answers, but I do think there is a fair bit of responsibility on the oppressors to make the change, not the oppressed,” she says.
The result is funereal but also powerful. “Saturday night is gonna be a big night / And Monday morning is gonna be rough” is the key refrain, Savage says: “Whatever’s going on, we’ll all go out and get fucked up [on the weekend], and we’ll all come back to work on Monday and we’ll all tell our war stories.
“A really big thing about this song for me is how we all think that we are good citizens without having empathy or trying to relate to other people in society. We’re quite happy to prop up this Australian larrikin ideal, but is that even real? To have that message coming from men, I guess I hoped that that would actually drive home the words a bit more.”
The song was written very quickly, while Savage was trying to watch the footy. She is a keen Essendon supporter, and also a former coach of mixed-gender Australian rules team the Old Bar Unicorns. The Unicorns are part of the Renegade Pub Football League, with teams put together by various Melbourne music venues.
The Good Citizens clip features several members of Old Bar Unicorns, and Savage got two of them to sing the song’s defiant closing lyric – “Get fucked if you think I’m gonna be one of them!” – alone, before the choir responded in kind. “I think we all go along with that flow, and no one questions whether or not we have to do that.
“I got two very lovely men from the Old Bar Unicorns – I said I want a couple of guys to sing it first, before everybody echoes it, and I want them to be friends, because I want there to be camaraderie in what they were singing, and I think that’s important. If we all want to question what a good citizen is, we also have to say what’s not right.”
First published in The Guardian, 1 November 2018