Speaker by Various Artists

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Rocking in the Public Good: Hager and Shihad

by Jackson James Wood

Seldom has New Zealand seen such super-harmonies in the traditionally separate spheres of music  and investigative journalism. The release of New Zealand prog-rocker Nicky Hager’s latest album Dirty Politics coincided with the well known citizen journalist group Shihad’s book FVEY, a polemical exposition of the surveillance state Aotearoa has become.

The two works paint a picture of a changing New Zealand. The once pristine 100% pure image has been displaced and these implications of scum and villainy mean a great deal of cognitive dissonance for the small state in the South Pacific that has traditionally topped international lists of transparency and rocked out to the likes of Tim and Neil Finn and, of late, the dulcet tones of Lorde.

The first chapter of FVEY, ‘Think You’re So Free’, gets straight to the point exposing how New Zealand has changed. The direct challenge in the chapter title is reinforced by its message where the authors have searched for courage, proof, and for a leader who’ll speak the truth, but come up lacking. Themes of the right to privacy, the need for steady economic conditions, and a clean environment are channeled through a lens where the author assumes citizens are sleeping, and asks “When do you think we’ll wake up?”

Following on themes from their first album, Secret Power, Shihad take up the idea this sleep walking has allowed our Government to engage in spying on a massive scale. The author reveals that through the ECHELON base at Waihopai the Five Eyes Network (from where the book gets its name) can hear everything you say, that privacy is dead and ends on the revelation that by engaging in this behaviour the government has sold our freedom.

In ‘The Great Divide’ Shihad explain why they wrote FVEY, dedicating it to the weak, those who are hungry and need compassion and protection. An exposition of New Zealand’s growing inequality gap is entered into which flows into the next chapter, ‘Model Citizen’ which outlines a government plan to mass medicate the country. 

FVEY investigates themes of privacy and  the grey areas where democracy has fallen down. A nod to a Huxley-inspired, soma-wrapped future where nothing you do is safe from prying eyes (of which there are five) is given. It makes some heavy allegations to back this up.

  • at one point a lion was let out of its cage and that it was the Prime Minister who did it (chapter 4)
  • The government employs executioners (chapter 3)
  • There was a zombie outbreak that was covered up (chapter 5)
  • The government has been engaging in alchemy and successfully turned lead into gold (chapter 6)
  • The government’s procurement strategy has been “cheap as fuck” in order to cut costs. (chapter 11)

While the referencing is sparse, the Government has been utterly silent on the allegations made in FVEY and seem to be playing a game of ‘ignore-it-and-it-will-go-away’.

The segue into Dirty Politics is clear: among the murky allegations of our devolution into a surveillance state, Shihad say there are a group of blood thirsty élites who are “borderline psychopaths who’ll do it for the thrill”. Dirty Politics clearly picks up on this theme, being a concept album based on the Hager’s impression of the well known right-wing attack blogger Cameron Slater, who could bee seen as that aforementioned thrill-seeker (Simon Lusk’s Plan, track 5).

The first track on the album ‘The Rise of the Bloggers’ starts softly, with tones of Hager’s previous album The Hollow Men, (another experimental album whose music was completely composed of brash melodies and leaky whistle overtones). It slowly builds and crescendos with attacking riffs which paint a picture of an apocalyptic future where bloggers have replaced the media.

‘The PM’s Black Ops Man’, shifts down a gear with  Metallica-like power chords which jar the listener awake with the haunting chorus hook line of “death by a 1000 leaks / it will shut down their donors / shut down their IT systems / they are going to die hard this week”.

Track 4, ‘The Crusher and the Attack Dog’ is a duet with acclaimed New Zealand singer, Hayley Westenra who sings from the perspective of the eternally tortured Justice Minister Judith Collins. This rock-rap track is derivative of the Dr Dre Eminem collaboration Forgot About Dre. Hager and Westenra trade insults in the bombastic fashion of their subjects.

Collins: you know the rule. always reward with Double

Slater: I learned the rule from you! Double it is.

At track nine, Hager trades in his bass-heavy guitar-laden modus for novelty accordion and polka tones. It’s a fast paced number which traces the trials and tribulations of the protagonist, David Farrar, a blogger come pollster come hat-wearer who has to juggle his blogging, polling, and millinery fascinations. It’s a novelty track, not quite as well practised as the other songs on the album, but bears a chilling element of contrast from the rest of the album.

The final track, ’The Smiling Assassin’ takes aim right at the Prime Minister. With themes of trust, transparency, and tricks Hager ties up the album with a lyrical masterpiece perfectly pitched to its proletarian prog rock tones. The track itself has a whimsical military feel to it, reminiscent of FVEY’s final chapter and ends with the haunting lines:

“The remarks exposed both Key and Slater

The friendly and unfriendly faces of National

Who secretly collaborated

throughout a period of dirty politics”

Many music critics have written off Dirty Politics as left-wing smear, and in an extraordinary turn of events the Prime Minister reviewed the album, despite claiming to have never read it. 

With both FVEY and Dirty Politics, you need to listen/read the whole album/book to pick up the nuance of this watershed moment of New Zealand’s musical/political history. Each track/chapter is full of references to pop culture and current events which which point toward a darkening of the long white cloud. 

Dirty Politics: how attack politics is poisoning New Zealand’s Political Environment

by Nicky Hager

Craig Potton Publishing

★★★★☆

FVEY

by Shihad

Roadrunner

★★★★☆

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