Pauline Pantsdown on making a comeback and the value of political satire

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Simon Hunt is a lecturer at UNSW’s Art and Design school as well as a political satirist. Hunt found success and notoriety in the 1990s as Pauline Pantsdown, releasing song “I’m A Backdoor Man” (1997) and “I Don’t Like It” (1998), which parodied far right politician Pauline Hanson. In 2004, Hunt released “I’m Sorry”, a parody of then-prime minister John Howard that was released as “Little Johnny”.

With the return of Hanson to the Sentate, Hunt is bringing Pauline Pantsdown back. Pauline Pantsdown will be the headline act at Sydney’s Green Left Weekly fundraising comedy night "Please Explain" on October 8 at the Leichhardt Town Hall. You can book for it here.

Hunt spoke with GLW’s Rachel Evans about the come back and the value of political satire.

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You became famous for the song “I'm a Back Door Man” in 1997, which satirised Pauline Hanson’s homophobia and racism. Can you give us a feel for how you became inspired to do this song and tell us about the court case that knocked it out of the radio waves?

Although I’d made some films and done some performance before, my work in the ’90s was mainly as a sound artist and composer. I was using early digital samplers and became interested in cutting up sound for pieces about queer politics.

I was involved in doing a lot of sound work for Wicked Women, which was initially a lesbian S&M magazine, but then transformed into a series of performance nights and competitions. I’d make cut-up pieces for the women I was living with, and they’d win the competitions!

So my work came from an underground lesbian scene rather than a gay drag scene. I guess the precursor to Pauline Pantsdown was an edit I made of homophobic politician Fred Nile in 1988. When Pauline Hanson appeared, her voice was so idiosyncratic and her politics so revolting that I knew I had to make a track with recordings of her.

I planned to perform it as a once-off at a queer party, so we gave 2JJJ a tape to promote the party. It went crazy on air, and was the number 1 request for five days. Then Hanson went to the Supreme Court to get an injunction to take it off air.

The case went on for years and years, and still isn’t actually resolved. Her lawyers said that people would think the song was her speaking, i.e. that she was a potato and a gay man — pretty crazy stuff.

As a gay man you were inspired by ACT UP activism, can you give us a feel for the ’90s and AIDS/LGBTIQ activism then? Did Mardi Gras challenge Hanson and Howard?

The ’90s in Sydney was a dark time, with lots of friends dying and threats to our communities. In retrospect, it was also a powerful time for passionate art and protest with groups like ACT UP (which inspired me greatly) and a time of great community building.

There was a reason for Mardi Gras then. It was a meeting and learning place for a really wide variety of communities under threat. The partying and celebration within the communities was all the more intense and beautiful in those circumstances.

While it was also a time of growth and some commercialisation for Mardi Gras, the politics was strong and pointed. In 1997, a giant Pauline Hanson puppet was made for the parade, chasing people of colour down the street, all of whom had fish and chips or lemon slice headdresses.

In 1998, the giant puppet was given a makeover with a new cheongsam, and chased me down the parade waving a summons at me, while I performed the banned “Back Door Man” over and over.

“I Don't Like It” was your second hit. Can you explain the work behind it and the strategy you employed to stop Hanson squashing it?

I spent about 500 hours editing the song from syllables, so I could get her to say anything that I wanted her to. It was aimed at both kids and adults — singalongs for the kids, politics for the adults.

I released it on a small independent label on a Friday evening. It was trucked around the country to get all the radio stations to start playing it at once. The strategy was that Hanson couldn’t get a court hearing over the weekend, and by Monday there would be too many people to sue for playing it.

Also, she’d been able to stop the previous song because it had called her gay. “I Don’t Like It” had more direct allusions to her racism, and lawyers had advised me that she would be unlikely to try and argue against that in a courtroom.

You decided to run as Pauline Pantsdown in the 1998 elections. How did it go?

I ran as a NSW Senate candidate in the NSW elections, with the campaign beginning a week after the release of “I Don’t Like It”. I was trying to emulate the cross between pop culture icon and political figure that she and her minders had mastered.

I had no chance of being elected, as I was a “below-the-line” candidate and people needed to number about 120 squares to vote for me, but winning wasn’t the aim. I wanted a public media platform to criticise her racist policies, and it worked.

In that mostly pre-internet time, I ended up being seen on the same mainstream media as her. On the night of the federal election, I performed at the annual Mardi Gras Sleaze Ball, and by then “I Don’t Like It” was a top 10 hit.

At the end of song, we exploded the puppet’s head and I announced to a screaming crowd that Pauline Hanson had lost her seat in the election. It was the closing 10am show but I think it brought everyone’s drugs back on.

The candidate who beat Hanson in her local seat said: “We just concentrated on the local people, while Hanson just seemed to be battling Pauline Pantsdown and running a three-ring circus with the media”. So I was satisfied that I’d played some part in her defeat.

What is the role of art, satire and comedy in making change? What is your advice to young artists, comedians and activists campaigning against racism and art school closures and commodification of the arts?

All of those things can take many roles in making change. Satire can actually make particular points clearer by the use of metaphor and focusing on small details, getting you to look at issues from different angles.

Political art can get you to understand and think about politics in a different way. In a diverse media world with so many competing outlets and voices, you need to attract people’s attention before they will listen to what you have to say.

You have not performed on stage much since the late 1990s. What made you decide to return?

I’ve actually done a few! In 2002, I performed at a benefit for refugees at NSW Parliament House, and nearly had a run-in with Hanson’s swengali/lover David Oldfield, who was then a member of state parliament.

In 2013, I was asked to perform live on a segment of Channel 7’s The Morning Show. At the end of the song, I ripped off my blouse to expose a T-shirt that said “Abbott is Inside Me”, a comment on the LNP’s complete takeover of Hanson’s policies. I don’t think I’ll be invited back to breakfast TV again.

In 2013, I resurrected the character on Facebook in order to engage in activism around a wide range of LGBTI, feminist and race issues, primarily using graphics, humour and reader participation in a range of actions, some of which have been extremely successful.

We shut down the extremist Christian World Congress of Families conference in 2014. We had a homophobic singer removed from the Australian Opera (she’d advocated violence against LGBTI people) and in conjunction with other groups have taken part in actions against a series of misogynist, predatory “Pick Up Artists” in Australia.

What do you think of Pauline Hanson’s comeback and the rise of explicitly far-right homophobic and racist politicians?

I’m actually less concerned about Hanson than I am about the racist, homophobic bigots in the government itself. She’s tamer than people like Cory Bernardi and George Christensen, and it’s a marker of how bad things have become that she hardly stands out anymore.

It remains to be seen if her new power block will have any effect, or even if it will last, given that the people she’s dragged with her to Canberra are such a bunch of ridiculous McDonald’s TV commercial villains. So I’m not rushing to take her on yet, I want to sit back and watch her strategically.

A lot of people want me to re-run 1998 — Hanson’s back, Pokemon’s back, so we need Pauline Pantsdown. But at the moment I’m concentrating on the proposed plebiscite, and the Australian Christian Lobby’s outrageous attacks on transgender people and LGBTI children. There is still plenty of time for Hanson later.

Pauline Pantsdown is performing at the Green Left Weekly “Please Explain” comedy night in Sydney on October 8, 6:30pm at the Leichhardt town all. The show also features Corey White, Kirsty Mac, Suren Jaymanne, Carlo Sands, Peter Green and MC’d by Helchild. Book here.

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