Sing to me, suburbia of my childhood! Sing to me of Lorraine at Copperart and Yvonne at Chandlers! Sing to me of Barry at security and Garry at parking. Sing to me of pregnant-looking men eating chips bathed in gravy, and of actually-pregnant mothers checking dockets (to be safe) and shop-a-dockets (for two magical nights in Mooloolaba). Sing to me of Merril Bainbridge cassingles and of PAs that play Tina Arena’s Sorrento Moon on repeat. Sing to me of Muffin Break and Mathers, of Lowes and Bi-Lo. Sing to me, oh acne-ravaged Asian teenager working at Big W named Benjamin Law, even though you’re going through puberty and really shouldn’t sing at all. Sing it sweet, and sing it loud!
The song goes like this. My parents might have been migrants, but because they were non-religious, our promised land was suburbia; our place of worship was the shopping centre. For me, that shopping centre was a sprawling single-level complex across the road called Kawana Shoppingworld, popular with the elderly for its lack of escalators, and the obese for its wide aisles. Once, Kamahl came and signed books in the food court. In the school holidays there were child modeling pageants and teen newsreader competitions hosted by Family Feud’s Rob Brough. Needless to say, I was devoted to the place.
My first two loves were the newsagency and bookshop: the smell of freshly printed TV Weeks and newly unpacked R.L Stine books intoxicated me. But when I hit my teens, my attention turned to the record store. Carousel was run by two British women who’d migrated from Camden, back when it was still possible to manage a record store in Australia without the daily threat of bankruptcy. Carol and Jenny doted on me, this spotty, stringbean Asian guy who’d come in after his shifts at Big W, asking them to order in obscure Canadian records he’d read about in Spin or Q. These magazines were flown in from overseas, making the stories inside always two months out of date, but it didn’t matter to me.
After homework, I’d reward myself by unwrapping my newly bought album slowly, then hitting play before poring over the liner notes, memorising the lyrics with an intensity I’ve never had with music since. To drown out the noise of my family arguing, I’d plug my headphones into our 8GB Hewlett Packard desktop, play the CD through WinAmp and listen to PJ Harvey sing about working for the man, Björk throwing cutlery off the edge of mountains and Radiohead’s desire to be fitter, happier and more productive. (I’ll admit it: there was also a lot of Alanis Morissette and Tori Amos too.) I’d play the albums on repeat while our dial-up modem connected, then flicked between maintaining my Geocities website and chatting to strangers on ICQ who, in retrospect, were probably paedophiles. (But hey: they were paedophiles with exceptional music taste.)
In the months leading up to our high school graduation, my friends and I would make weekend train journeys to the city to buy clothes and imported albums, or rare Japanese versions of our favourite records for the B-sides. “Fuck the Sunshine Coast,” we’d all say on the way there. By then, the suburbs were something to sneer at, and ‘suburbia’ had become shorthand for everything we hated about our lives: the brutal slog of Year 12, our parents’ various divorces and our family’s artless brick houses. Once we moved out, we didn’t look back.
For years, I’d thought the suburbs were out of my system. That was until a few months ago, when my friends posted me a link to an interactive video for ‘We Used to Wait’, a song by the Canadian band Arcade Fire. Like everyone else, I dutifully punched in the location details of my childhood home, and the video showed a figure running through the streets of my old suburb. That was all it took. The same streets I used to find embarrassingly ordinary were now suddenly poignant. I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic. To my surprise, it turns out the suburban songbook aged pretty well. Come and sing it with me.