Leigh Sales, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Miss Blanks, Thelma Plum, Camp Cope. What do they all have in common? They’re all Australian women or non-binary persons, operating in some aspect of the media, that have faced excessive and unwarranted amounts of backlash from the Australian public. Australia has a huge issue when it comes to confident, strong women. Be it in a professional context or a personal one, our tall poppy syndrome is particularly tough towards women who do well in their field. The backlash faced by those who rightfully speak out on various matters is immense, and is often completely disproportionate to the treatment cis men receive in similar situations.
Currently, the Australian music industry is a prime example of this practice in motion. On one hand, we’ve got muso Thelma Plum, who spoke out against Dylan Frost of Sticky Fingers in 2016 after he allegedly abused her, and was showered with online hatred for months. At the time, Plum said on Facebook: “I knew I would cop a lot of flack, abuse and also a lot of defaming when I came out with my story – never did I think to this extent.” On the other hand, we’ve got Sticky Fingers, a band with some serious abuse allegations levelled against them, being celebrated for a triumphant return after just 18 months out of the spotlight. A recent interview on Triple J chalked the allegations up to “boys will be boys”, and the very next day they announced a new single and a world tour that began to sell out immediately. While Sticky Fingers and Frost have been accepted back with open arms by their fans, and much of the broader Australian music industry, Plum has been largely left out in the cold. Incredibly, this is just one of a myriad of instances in which women or non-binary persons who have spoken out in the industry have been abused and cut down for their efforts. There’s one band that always seems to cop it more than others, though – Melbourne trio Camp Cope.
Camp Cope came onto the scene in 2015. Consisting of three women (Georgia McDonald, Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich and Sarah Thompson), they made an impact with their incredibly honest, DIY-tinged rock songs. With tracks like “Lost (Season One)” and “Jet Fuel Can’t Melt Steel Beams”, their debut album encapsulated their lives as 20-something-year-old women. Lyrics about being catcalled and carrying keys between your knuckles, unfortunately, hit close to home for a lot of young women, and from this Camp Cope found a passionate fan base. Their honesty and advocacy wasn’t limited to their music – they were one of the faces of a 2016 campaign against physical and sexual assault at gigs, and have been calling out various inequities in the industry since their very first shows. As Hellmrich told the Guardian in March 2018: “We were brave, strong women before we were a band. When we combined forces, we became fearless.”
It wasn’t until their call-out of Falls Festival 2017/18 that the Australian public took notice of them. Having sold out the Sydney Opera House months prior, the band had been relegated to early-arvo set filler duties on the festival tour. McDonald took matters into her own hands by changing the lyrics to ‘The Opener’, a song already electrically-charged with lyrics about gender inequality in the music industry. To a completely packed tent, she sang “It’s another man telling us we can’t fill up a tent/It’s another fucking festival booking only nine women.” Fans loved it, and the organisers of Falls ended up issuing a statement with regards to the lack of non-male acts on the bill that very much missed the mark. The band told the Guardian how they were “astonished at how closely Falls’ statement resembles the lyrics to ‘The Opener’”, an ironic twist that made the statement that much more tone deaf.
Camp Cope’s actions were met with immense backlash online. The Triple J Facebook comments were awash with those who asserted that gender shouldn’t play into festival bookings at all, and others lamenting the band’s existence as “whiny feminists”. The trio’s mentions on Twitter were awash with nasty putdowns, often which had very little to do with what had actually occurred. Much of the Australian public took it as an opportunity to attack the band for their beliefs, which quickly devolved into the witch hunt that plagues women who speak out against gender inequality and related issues. Even music news sites saw it as an opportunity to increase their reach, and jumped on the bandwagon by taking the band’s tweets out of context after they asked media to stop approaching them for comment.
Despite this, Camp Cope triumphantly released their sophomore album ‘How to Socialise & Make Friends’ in February, which so far has been highly regarded, particularly by overseas publications such as Pitchfork (who gave the album a 7.8/10) and NPR (who gave it a world premiere before its release). It’s an album full of songs that somehow hit even harder than those of their debut. ‘The Face of God’ deals with McDonald’s sexual assault by another musician, while ‘I’ve Got You’ talks about her father’s death. The whole album swings between these incredibly sad and almost hopeless tracks that unfortunately resonate with a large group of the non-cis-male population, and songs like ‘The Opener’ that have the ability to empower a whole generation of young musicians. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. This album, and Camp Cope overall, is for those who don’t see themselves represented in the music they listen to, and the bands they see on the stage. At their gig at The Metro Theatre in March, the room was filled with hundreds of people (overwhelmingly female) who knew every single word and were clearly ecstatic at seeing people like them up on stage. As McDonald put it bluntly on Twitter: “can cis white men stop reviewing our album. it’s not for you.”
Camp Cope recently had their U.S. visas approved, and from all accounts appear to be making a pretty permanent move to the States. This move is pretty understandable, given the support they’ve had from international media outlets and the backlash they’ve had from the Australian public. It’s certainly not the first time our tall poppy syndrome has forced someone out – Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Courtney Barnett are just two names that come to mind as women who have moved away and have done quite well for themselves. It’s a shame to see Camp Cope go, though, and it raises important questions: when will the Australian music industry, and Australia as a whole, take responsibility for their treatment of women who speak out? When will powerful women in the media industry finally be celebrated for their work, rather than being constantly harassed and cut down? Camp Cope have begun the change – it’s up to the rest of us to continue it.
This article first appeared in Tharunka UNSW's print edition. The full article can be found here.