I doubt that Garry Frost and Frances Swan intended to create the absolute anthem of the Howard years when they set out to write “What About Me?” but they succeeded admirably. For song inspired originally by empathy for “a little boy waiting at the counter of the corner shop”, it became the absolute opposite: to most people listening to the song, it invokes little more than their own sense of self pity.
Anyone actually listening to the last verse would have taken away a different message – “I guess I’m lucky, I smile a lot…” as the song itself says – but few people seem to have looked much past the chorus. The boy in the first verse, the girl in the second, each of them is looking for little more than some basic human dignity, an acknowledgement that they are a person. Little enough to ask, and indeed, in the Eighties, when the original version was first released and the clip frequently seen on television, it did seem that at least some people had gotten the message. (My rose-tinted view is less so than it seems – the song was the national number one selling song for six weeks in 1982, and it seems unlikely that so many buyers were so lacking in self-pity even then.)
In 2004, Shannon Noll released a cover of the song which sold over 280,000 copies and also reached number one on the charts. This version of the song – by a winner of Australian Idol, no less – seemed to sum up exactly why John Howard was Prime Minister. By 2004, he had persuaded a large portion of the nation that they were “battlers” – people who honestly believed they were doing it tough. After all, they could barely able to afford the mortgages on their investment properties and the private school fees for the kids. By that time, “What About Me” was more reminiscent of the words put in Howard’s mouth by Casey Benetto: “What’s your country done for you?” than of the original call for good manners as social justice that Moving Pictures intended.
These two tendencies of “need a hand, mate?” and “I’m alright, Jack” are polar opposites, yet both very much a part of the Australian psyche. They are the two sides of most of our political debates, albeit rarely expressed so baldly, as to do so would be neither relaxing nor comfortable.
In suggesting this song as our national anthem, I find myself very much hoping we do not prove deserving of it as one…