Review: Jello Biafra, Forum Theatre, Melbourne
Venue: Forum Theatre, Melbourne
Saturday 22 October
Jello Biafra came to prominence as the sardonic frontman of ’80s punk band the Dead Kennedys, who were not afraid to tackle complex political issues such as police brutality, middle-class complacency, and being too drunk to fuck.
Beyond the Kennedys and his other music-related activities, Biafra has carved himself a niche as a spoken word performer, and it was in this capacity that he brought the curtain down on the 2010 Melbourne Festival tonight.
Anticipation was high as Jello appeared onstage, garish shirt tucked into plain black trousers, hefting a wad of bulldog-clipped A4 sheets. It’s not every day you get to see a bona fide punk legend, and the Occupy Melbourne protests – and the ensuing “police riot”, to use Jello’s phrase – of the preceding week gave the atmosphere an added charge.
How dispiriting, then, that Jello chose to open with a witless ten-minute screed about social media, delivering boiler-plate canards about short attention spans and people tweeting about what they had for breakfast with all the shouting-at-the-TV vigour of a tabloid opinion columnist.
It was especially disappointing given the role social media has played in activist causes around the world, from the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement. Jello’s loud shirt suddenly made a lot of sense: the guy is less a firebrand than he is the Bill Cosby of punk.
Jello was on more solid ground talking about US politics, in particular the failures of the Obama administration and the rise of the Tea Party. He was at his most cogent when discussing the Occupy movement, the practicalities of protest, and the value of bringing a sense of fun and theatre into the political realm.
Sadly, the only “fun” on offer tonight was Jello’s compulsive pun-making (“United Snakes” being his best, or least worst, effort), and his various wacky acronyms. (Or, if I may be permitted a Jello moment, “wackronyms”.) He is especially fond of denouncing what he calls UPRA, the “United Puppets of Rich Assholes”. And lo, capitalism was brought trembling to its knees through the power of low-wattage wordplay.
Jello seemed most inept when trying to relate to the local crowd. There are plenty of criticisms to be made of the Gillard government, but suggesting Gillard herself looks like a lizard is offensive and tiresome given the media’s obsession with the PM’s appearance and demeanour. (The lizard thing also veers dangerously close to David Icke territory. I realise Jello was making a “joke” – but then, that’s what people said about Icke.)
Sensing the US-centrism of his talk, Jello made several cack-handed attempts to transpose US politics onto the Australian scene. It was a kind of Babel Fish approach to relevance, with predictably scattershot results. For instance, comparing the US Democratic Party with the Australian Labor Party may be a useful shorthand, but the analogy only holds at the most superficial level, rendering the point meaningless.
Still, many in the audience were pleased to cheer Jello’s charmless platitudes and toothless digs at easy targets. If that’s what gets your belly-fire burning, so be it, but I found it deflating.
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