09 August 2006

Iconic landmark? I'm not having a bar of it!

It was fun being asked by The Age (put on the spot) to comment about what makes an "iconic Melbourne landmark". No, Showgirls Bar 20 isn't on my list. (By the way, the link is for those unaware of Bar 20 and in no way an endorsement, and yes, I had to go looking for it!)

In this case, "iconic Melbourne landmark" is, of course, just another expression from the real estate agents' lexicon (from the people who brought you "renovator's delight" and, in Sydney, "Harbour glimpses"). But it does prompt the interesting question of what makes for an icon, especially from a branding perspective.

"Icon" is generally used as a cultural term: to be regarded as an icon, a brand really needs to be linked to, and to symbolise, something that's culturally important. (For more on this, see the book How Brands Become Icons by Douglas B. Holt.)

But important to which culture? Our "national" culture? I don't believe we have a single national culture, so I'm generally very suspicious when anyone claims something like "mateship" as an inherently Australian cultural value (see Don Watson's excellent critique of the politicisation of mateship - he asks whether it isn't in fact gender-biased and xenophobic, and why John Howard seems so keen on promoting it).

I would, however, agree that the MCG is an iconic Melbourne landmark. It's very widely recognised and has enormous cultural relevance and resonance for a very broad cross-section of Australians. It calls to mind significant sporting and cultural events - not only the 1956 Olympics, 2006 Commonwealth Games, VFL/AFL football, Test cricket, soccer, rugby, etc., and great sporting achievements, many of which are themselves symbolic of cultural values. But there are all the other events and uses, too: military (First World War conscription rallies, a base for RAAF personnel and US Marines in the Second World War), spiritual (from evangelist Billy Graham to Pope John Paul II), artistic (concerts by David Bowie, David Cassidy, Madonna, U2, Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones), and Royal... along with thousands of other schoolkids, I saw the Queen from the "hallowed turf" of the MCG on her 1970 Royal Tour. We were arranged into large herds, and Her Majesty was driven around us in a kind of Queen-mobile. Apparently, this was deemed culturally and educationally important enough at the time to take us out of school for the day, but it seems pretty bizarre 35 years on!

Likewise, Flinders Street Station is an iconic landmark. It has great symbolic value to the many generations of Melbournians, from all kinds of cultural backgrounds, who've arranged to meet "under the clocks" and is well and truly linked to notions of what it means to live here for most Melburnians.

So I'm not being a prude or a wowser (a tremendously useful and culturally-laden word that seems to have faded from use lately) when rejecting Bar 20 for icon-ification. It's not that a venue for adult entertainment and "showgirls" can't be an icon - I would certainly support icon status for the Folies Bergère or the Moulin Rouge in Paris. And I'm certainly prepared to acknowledge that many Melburnians have probably had a good time at Showgirls Bar 20, recognise it and perhaps even think fondly of it. But I'm afraid I just don't think it can really lay claim to symbolising any cultural truths about life in Melbourne for significant groups of our citizens.

Of course, I'd love to hear from anyone who thinks I'm not paying Bar 20 its due cultural respects - comments always welcome.

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