From the Killers to Kiss: grand final entertainment will forever be hit and miss

As it turns out, Ben Henry got it bang on. A couple of years back the comedian posted a skit on TikTok: a phone call between the AFL boss, Gillon McLachlan, and Mark Seymour of Hunters and Collectors. The subject? Grand final entertainment.

“Gill McLachlan? You son of a bitch, I told you not to call here any more.”

“I know what I said, Mark! I know what I said. But the game needs you.”

The intensity escalates, dramatic music playing as they talk through emotional haunting and the sub-par bookings of recent seasons.

“Ah, Jesus, no. Gill! Gill, I haven’t got it any more, mate. I’m rusty. I haven’t gigged in years.”

“Dammit Mark, you’ve done it a million times before. Just do Throw Your Arms Around Me, into Do You See What I See, and then into Holy Grail. You’ll save football! Are you going to save us, Mark?”

In 2023, the answer is yes. There’s a sigh of relief that accompanies writing that sentence. Mark Seymour, a safe pair of Aus-rock hands to competently handle the weird music-football combination that only occurs on the game’s sacred day, and so rarely fits it well. This will be AFL decider number five for Mark. In 2013 the gig was potent enough to reunite Hunters and Collectors. This time it will be with his other band The Undertow and some help from Kate Miller-Heidke. Whatever. He knows the ropes, nothing can go wrong. Then you realise that he’s only booked for half-time. The pre-match is being done by Kiss.

Of course the next thing you think of is Meat Loaf, that shuttle explosion of a show, one of the few things about 2013 that still feels recent. It hurt, in a way. Whether AFL or NRL, you do know at heart that your game is only followed by half the states in a mid-size and not very important country. You know it’s not the Super Bowl. But it’s still chastening to feel that the best we can get of global stardom is the most washed-up, the least imaginative choices, the acts picked by leaving someone’s dad alone for half an hour with a karaoke menu.

At which point, let’s also concede that it is an impossible job. It’s the miller and the donkey – you can never please everybody. Someone’s fun is someone’s cringe, someone’s authenticity is someone’s pretension. The usual upshot, though, is settling in the very middle of the middle of the road, white lines into oblivion, like all the bands that you’re not allowed to book.

An Australian code could always feature Australians, instead of digging down the back of America’s couch

Grand final acts have a few genres. Gold tier, where popularity endures and critical approval follows suit, all bound together in threads of nostalgia. Mark Seymour the market leader, Jimmy Barnes, John Farnham, Paul Kelly, Christine Anu. The two leagues have swapped most of them back and forth for years. Icehouse got monopolised by cricket, presumably because Great Southern Land sound very much like they’re singing “James Sutherland”.

Silver tier has the occasional act with current claims to being A-listers: the Killers, Ed Sheeran, Robbie Williams, though again cricket got most of the value from Robbie by auctioning his pink suit for Jane McGrath Day. Or you get your Eskimo Joe, Grinspoon, Killing Heidi – the occasional Triple J band that confuses the live audience after unexpectedly cracking tradie radio. Triple M still rocks football.

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Then the rest. Your anodyne pop options with right-time prominence: Australian Idol alumni, Human Nature, Vanessa Amorosi, Delta Goodrem. Your attempts at what sporting execs think is current rock cool: Jet, Wolfmother. Your faded glory: hello Meat Loaf, hello Kiss, or a post-Hutchence INXS, Lionel Richie, Tom Jones. (Angry Anderson’s Batmobile performance was, of course, is in a class of its own.)

Maybe it doesn’t matter who: there’s a cultural cringe that says anyone willing to take the gig must be suspect. But if elder rock royalty is the aim, it feels like the leagues lack either the pull or the confidence to go for the top: at the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Springsteen sort of level.

In the end, the choices make little difference, because the show almost never truly works in the way music should. Tina Turner pulled it off in 1993 for the NRL, a combination of personal magnetism and seasons of being the voice of the sport. But while a full stadium is a great sell, it means the audience is distant. Afternoon daylight lacks the concentration of stage lights. Taylor Swift will spend millions on tech to make the MCG personal, but it’s different when you’re just a band on a stage, tiny in the middle, where the sound sucks, and you get three songs with no chance to make a connection with people who mostly just want you to piss off for the football anyway.

In which case, the AFL might as well use the spot to make a statement. For one thing, an Australian code could make it a matter of course to feature Australians, instead of digging down the back of America’s couch. For another, the code that likes to call itself Australia’s Indigenous game could see that idea through. Thirty years ago, before Michael Long blazed his way to the Norm Smith medal, the grand final band was Yothu Yindi, famous for the song Treaty. This year, two weeks before the voice referendum, would have been the time to ask them back. If they couldn’t make it, there are plenty of Indigenous artists and their colleagues from other backgrounds who could have joined the lineage. Mark Seymour is always welcome.

Instead, two current Yothu Yindi musicians have another booking. Next-generation relatives of original Yothu Yindi members, Yirrnga Yunupiŋu and Roy Kellaway, will play the NRL grand final in their Yolŋu-language band King Stingray, one of the most exciting new sounds in Australia. After Turner’s recent death, the NRL will also mark 30 years since her tour de force with the cast of the Tina Turner Musical in tribute. This year, it’s safe to say they’ve nailed their choices better than the AFL.