In July, singer-songwriter Jack River (Holly Rankin) shared her disappointment in the lack of homegrown music played during Australia’s TV coverage of the Olympics. Her social media post galvanised support from across the industry, and the call-to-arms became the campaign Our Soundtrack, Our Stories – a joint initiative with Aria to ask Aussie radio, TV and businesses to play (and pay) Australian or homegrown artists where they can.
Speaking to Broadsheet from her home in Mollymook, on the NSW South Coast, Rankin says her original idea seemed “really simple and obvious”. Since then, rapid changes have been announced by Channel 7, which increased the Australian music played during its Olympics coverage. Channel Nine and Channel Ten also made adjustments to their morning show playlists. 7-Eleven, Bank Australia, Woolworths and Coles all followed suit, making commitments to play more Australian artists more often. Now, Rankin says, a team is working behind the scenes to realise the campaign’s long-term goals.
“It’s a really important short- and long-term conversation that needs to be had, and an action piece for commercial Australia,” she says. “I really hope they see the incredible talent we have here and that they choose to freely include more of it in the opportunities they have.”
Today, the 29-year-old artist is taking another stand – this time for the billions of young people driving urgent political and social change – with her new single We Are the Youth. It’s a rallying cry for a generation that feels let down (and, frankly, exhausted) by a lack of accountability from those who hold power in Australia.
Lyrics like “I’m tired, I’m tired of silence / I’m sick, I’m sick of violence” speak of the injustices felt by young people about the lack of climate action by the federal government.
The video features footage of climate activists marching at the School Strike 4 Climate, filmed in Sydney’s Domain in late 2019, as well as School Strike 4 Climate leader Jean Hinchliffe, Australian of the Year Grace Tame and former Liberal staffer and activist Brittany Higgins, plus other young people fighting for change.
Rankin was inspired to write the song after performing at the Sydney rally, saying she wanted a song that spoke to the urgency of the climate crisis. Later it evolved to include more social and political issues Australia is facing.
“I had the concept for a really long time, over six or seven years, but being at that march made me realise I didn’t have the song to give to these students and to my generation about how I’m feeling and how they’re feeling,” she says.
“I began writing this song about climate action, but I realised over the course of writing it, and over the course of a lot of personal learning, that it needed to be about everything that everyone is feeling, which is, I think, a really persistent frustration with our leader and global leaders on climate action, on First Nations’ rights and respects, on women’s rights and respects. It feels like we’re at a cultural turning point. A lot of us feel like it can be tipped, but we’re exhausted and the change needs to be urgent – especially with impending climate doom.”
The video was directed by Indigenous Australian filmmaker Marlikka Perdrisat, a Nyikina Warrwa and Wangkumara Barkindji woman. It opens and closes with a series of written statements, one of which says, “The actions of this generation will define the destiny of humanity and the planet for the rest of time.”
There are clips of raging bushfires, of news footage about Prime Minister Scott Morrison holidaying in Hawaii during that crisis, and of various other young people fighting for their future – such as American poet and activist Amanda Gorman, Chadian environmental activist Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, and 16-year-old Autumn Peltier, an Anishinaabe clean-water advocate from Canada.
“I’ve been as vocal as I can be for a small artist in Australia, but I hadn’t put my beliefs and perspectives and my passion into a song like this before,” says Rankin. “It was a big decision – but I feel like there’s this communal rage that we’re all feeling, and if I didn’t release this kind of song next I wouldn’t know what on earth I was doing in my music career. I just feel really urgent about all of these injustices we’re facing.”
Rankin says she’s had “two years off the tools” as Jack River, unable to play live music during Australia’s lockdowns. “Covid’s given me a lot of time to think about exactly what I want to do with my small platform, my voice and my songs, and I want to do everything I can to contribute to these movements.”
With no gigs or tours, Rankin chose to start a law degree. She’s now in her second year. “It’s something I always wanted to do but never thought I’d have the time to do it, so I’m really grateful for this weird break. I’m interested in politics and bridging the gap between how young people feel … and really important matters like climate change and the government.
“I feel like there’s a big disconnect between the people that make our decisions and the people that vote – and I guess as a songwriter I’m interested in trying to understand both sides and help that problem in the middle … Law gets to the heart of how decisions are made, how laws are made, and I’d love to understand it so I can help that problem in the long term.”
We Are the Youth can be described as “political pop”. It’s a shimmering mix of warped guitars and stomping drums. Matt Corby and Peking Duk’s Adam Hyde collaborated on its production, and it was mixed by Spike Stent, who’s worked with Lorde, Madonna, Beyoncé and Björk.
Songs throughout history have given lyrics to a generation fighting big issues. Rankin names Foster the People’s Pumped Up Kicks as a recent example of a subtle protest song. She chose to make her song speak more directly.
“I think Paul Kelly’s From Little Things Big Things Grow is the greatest Australian song that I can think of that chose to comment really directly on the history playing out in front of him. I made the decision to comment directly because I think young people are feeling pretty urgent right now.
“It’s life and death for our generation.”