It’s my last day of work experience at DOLLY magazine. I’m in the editor’s room when the editor gives me and another work experience student the cover reveal for the issue-in-progress. The cover girl for the April 2012 issue is—drum roll—Taylor Swift. ‘INSIDE MY WORLD,’ the magazine teases.
Up in the top right corner: ‘We’ve found the trend that EVERY body can rock! See p.22.’ Below is a pic of Liam Hemsworth as Gale and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, and a promise of ‘THE HUNGER GAMES POSTERS *swoon*.’ Further down: ‘25 ways toAMAZING HAIR *OH SO PRETTY DOS *STYLING TRICKS *GET LONG HAIR & more!’ On the bottom right corner, positioned in a slant, ‘NEW BAND SPECIAL: READY TO START CRUSHING?’ And over on the left side, just below the ‘INSIDE MY WORLD’ cover line, ‘HOW TO FEEL CONFIDENT IN ANY SITCH.’
The one that catches my eye, though, is right at the bottom. ‘Your top20 DREAM JOBS: HERE’S HOW TO GET ’EM.’ I flick to page 88 and, while reading the four-page spread, I see journalist coming in at number four. Representing the journalists is DOLLY editor Tiffany Dunk. Exactly how did she get her dream job? Her first job, she says, was at CLEO: ‘I put my hand up for every task and since then have taken on lots of different kinds of writing—from in-depth features to celeb gossip, fashion and more.’
While all the women interviewed for this feature were asked what high school subjects theirreaders—pre-teen and teenage girls—should pursue, nothing about post-school options gets mentioned. It’s only when the DOLLY editor shares her career story with me in person that I learn she studied communications and journalism at UNSW.
In that moment I, too, decide to study at UNSW.
Fast forward to Term 1, 2013, when it dawned on me that I needed an ATAR of 84.00 to secure my entry to the journalism degree at UNSW. That number felt out of reach for someone at Evans High in Blacktown, a public high school known as ‘The Prison’, thanks to the barbed wire fence that used to surround the school.
To get into HSC mode, I would commute from school to Blacktown Westpoint on the 724 bus. I would take the escalators up three floors and turn left for the exit sandwiched between Australia Post and the Reject Shop. On my right, Max Webber Library. I’d head upstairs to the study area. To silence the constant chatter of my quote-unquote competition, I would put on my earphones and tap the image of a musical note on my iPod Touch. Scrolling down, I’d select Tame Impala’s second album Lonerism (2012). I would jot down my study notes as Lonerism opened with Kevin Parker, a white man from Perth who records as Tame Impala, whispering to himself over an escalating drum beat.
Gotta be above it
Gotta be above it
Gotta be above it
—‘Be Above It’, Tame Impala
Early in 2014 I enter my first journalism tutorial at UNSW. I slink into the swivel chair by the door. The lecturer begins the tute with an icebreaker.
‘Great,’ I mutter under my breath.
Armed with a video camera, he tells us to say three things: our name, what we hope to do after uni, and what suburb we’re from. The third question gives me the shits. The lecturer-tutor goes to the nearest table and presses record. My left leg starts shaking under the desk. I’m from Bondi… I’m from Bronte… I’m from Randwick… On to the next table he goes. I try to calm my nerves. I’m from the Northern Beaches… I’m from the North Shore… I’m from God’s country The Shire… As he moves to a desk I share with two other students I have a feeling that, despite the racial makeup of that tute being half white, half people of colour, I was probably the sole Westie in the room. I’m from Ashfield… Eventually the camera’s on me. Hi, I’m Ryan. I’m from—gulps—Blacktown.
I revisit Lonerism after class. The album art includes a fence that separates the photographer—Kevin Parker, according to the liner notes—and the swarm of bodies relaxing at the park. I imagine every journalism student in that room at the park, and instead of Parker, I’m the one who’s fenced off.
But I don’t really care about them anyway
I wouldn’t listen to a word any of them say
They just talk about themselves all day
One day I’ll be a star, they’ll be sorry
—‘Why Won’t They Talk to Me?’, Tame Impala
‘You have to read this, Ryan,’ says B. We’re at the uni library, hardly studying. She passes me her MacBook so I can read a listicle published by a website known for its lists and quizzes. Scrolling BuzzFeed’s list/quiz format for the first time, particularly the snappy copy that accompanies each reaction GIF, gives me literal heart-eyed emojis. In that moment I move away from my vision of writing for teen mags to writing for viral media. To actualise my shifting vision, I start the new year—2015—submitting lists and quizzes to the Community section, a vertical for unpaid contributors.
Five months into me writing for Community, BuzzFeed Australia announce they are looking for people to work in their Sydney office as part of their inaugural paid fellowship program. A description on their Jobs page says the three-month program would see fellows create content that potentially goes viral. I Google past editorial fellows who worked at their offices in Los Angeles, New York and London. I review each tab, and see that some of the fellows changed their job title to ‘junior staff writer’ in their bios. I send my application in an instant.
I approach their office on Bridge Street, thinking I’m definitely going to get it. I circle the floor, wondering if the interviewer will emerge out of BuzzFeed Australia HQ or the meeting room outside the office. I send her a text bubble, telling her I’m waiting outside. She emerges from the meeting room, invites me in.
The interviewer sits opposite me with a notebook and pen. She tells me she was glad I applied. I smile in response, no teeth. Then she asks me for my availability. Without thinking, I admit the days I’m at uni, assuming I could come to the office on my days off. That’s when she drops a plot twist: it’s a full-time gig. I tell her I could study part-time, maybe even defer, just so I could do the fellowship. She turns down both propositions. I sigh in defeat.
‘I can see myself working with you,’ she tells me. I hold onto those words.
I leave her in the meeting room and wait for an elevator to take me back down to Bridge Street. The down arrow lights up. The doors open, and a man in business attire, probably working for BuzzFeed Australia, steps out. We smile at each other, no teeth. The doors close and I treat my ears to the song ‘Eventually’, released ahead of Tame Impala’s third album, Currents (2015). ‘Eventually’, written from the perspective of Kevin Parker instigating a break-up, sound-tracked my amicable break-up with the publisher. I smile to myself for getting that close to actualising my vision as Parker repeats that both he and his ex-partner will find happiness in the distant future.
But I know that I’ll be happier
And I know you will too
Said I know that I’ll be happier
And I know you will too
—‘Eventually’, Tame Impala
It’s the first week of 2017. I’m on the train to Penrith to do a late night retail shift in Penrith Plaza. I idle with my Samsung Galaxy S4. I tap the image of an unsealed envelope, directing me to my inbox.
Entering the stream of messages is an email with ‘Offer of Employment’ as the subject line. ‘We think you will make a great addition to our team,’ it says. ‘Please review the details of this job offer on our careers site and let us know online if you will be accepting this offer.’ A hyperlink takes me to a webpage featuring ‘I accept’ and ‘I decline’ buttons. By tapping the ‘I accept’ button, I accept my promotion from Christmas casual to casual sales assistant.
I clock out of my closing shift with my thumbprint and, as everyone takes their bags out of their lockers, I hover, eyes fixated on my phone screen. Any missed emails? And there, sliding into the top of my inbox, is an email from the editor of a youth-centric website, a response to my application to freelance for them. She trials me on my second pitch, a list-style feature inspired by my study at uni while most of my faves have graduated. The crown jewel is that, for the first time, I’m getting paid. Forty buckaroos for 600 words.
I think about the cover art for Currents and how it mirrors my career trajectory. Lines remain straight until they bend around a sphere, a stand-in for both emails, rippling through the rest of the album cover.
This moment, I thought, screamed for a celebratory dance.
It’s getting closer
(I’m not ready)
Ooh it’s getting closer
(I need a little more time)
—‘The Moment’, Tame Impala
I’m scrolling Instagram. I see A standing on the podium of a circular sculpture, the uni library framed in the background, her cap still flying mid-air. Double-tap. D stands outside a plaque with the university’s crest, holding his testamur in his left hand and a graduation bear in his right. Double-tap. I could’ve been just like them if I committed to my journalism degree full-time for three years straight. But no! My relationship with my journalism degree petered out.
There was a disconnect between the unpaid work I enjoyed writing for BuzzFeed Community and the hard news reportage I didn’t enjoy writing as part of my degree. Unlike writing for viral media, my voice was not as strong when I wrote profiles and news reports for my degree. I realised that my program ultimately benefitted students who wanted to get into hard news journalism.
With one more year to go, I had moved away from being a full-time journalism student and turned into a full-time arts student, majoring in media. The main difference between a journalism degree and majoring in media for an arts degree was that I no longer did the practical subjects—and I struggled to adjust to a full-time semester of theory. Sometimes I rebuked myself for pushing back the graduation timeline a few semesters. I was in ‘I’m over it’ mode, swapping the 30-page weekly readings for accumulating a body of unpaid work to boost my employability chances.
With a few weeks left before my second semester as an arts student wrapped up, I deferred—I didn’t have the marks to scrape a pass, and I didn’t want to cause damage to my overall grade. To reflect on my flop year, I looked to—and I write this with the utmost respect—a video titled ‘KYLIE UP CLOSE: My 2016 Resolutions.’ Posted on YouTube at the beginning of the year, the thirty-second clip opens with Kylie Jenner on her armchair, cocooned in knitwear, the fireplace already lit. ‘Hey guys,’ she greets her subscribers. ‘I just wanted to answer a few questions for you guys about 2016.’ She continues: ‘I feel like every year has a new energy, and I feel like this year is really about’—she looks down for a hot sec and up again—‘the year of just realising stuff. And everyone around me, we’re all just like’—gesticulates her hands—‘realising things.’ She signs off with, ‘2016: looking good.’ The video transitions to a call-to-action: ‘UNLOCK MY WORLD—get the Kylie app.’
Watching the video at the pointy end of 2016, however, gave me a ‘realising things’ moment of my own: that I needed to stop pursuing unpaid opportunities and study arts part-time.
I made it through the next semester unscathed—this time doing just a part-time load of theory—but seeing my Bachelor of Media friends graduate made me long to be in their position, fast. I devised a plan to finish my arts degree by the end of 2018 so I could avoid the transition from semesters to trimesters. To achieve my ideal timeline, I would have to go back to studying full-time.
This was at odds with an article I had written on studying at my own pace, stating, ‘If taking your time is what you need to do to get through your degree, then that’s what you should do. After all, graduating in your own time is good time.’
Unsure of what to do, I look to the opening track of Currents, ‘Let it Happen’. Kevin Parker tries to rise above the noise by swapping the ‘be above it’ mantra from Lonerism in favour of ‘let it happen’. I repeat the mantra to myself, and do I find my answer? I find it in the article’s concluding sentence: ‘I’ll raise my non-graduation cap to that.’
It’s always around me, all this noise
But not nearly as loud as the voice saying
‘Let it happen, let it happen’
(It’s gonna feel so good)
‘Just let it happen, let it happen’
—‘Let it Happen’, Tame Impala
I’m a few weeks into Semester 2, 2018, reading the first chapter of Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included (2012). I’m up to page 39 and I highlight the following passage:
The measure of fitting in is indicated by the expression ‘the kind of person you could take down to the pub.’ Wanting to work with those who can inhabit a shared social space might seem like a rather ordinary aspiration. But the very desire for a shared social space can be a desire that restricts to whom an institutional space is open by imaging a social space that is not open to everyone.
As a queer Filipino male from 2148, this resonates with me. Reading that passage took me back to my first year at uni, when the lecturer told five hundred students, all studying PR and advertising, screen and sound, and communications and journalism, that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Networking makes me ick due to its transactional nature. When I scanned the lecture theatre, trying to identify the journalism students in the theatre, I didn’t see them as potential LinkedIn connections, I saw them as my competition. After all, there was a disconnect between the number of journalism students enrolled across universities and the number of jobs available.
But I would also add that my vision was so specific that it didn’t translate into reality due to the radically changing nature of the industry. I was still holding out hope that I’d work at BuzzFeed Australia. The first-year journalism student in me grieved when most of BuzzFeed’s Australian staff announced on Twitter that they had been made redundant as part of the company’s global layoffs. One insight into the layoffs came from the former director of quizzes, Matthew Perpetua. In a blog post, he wrote ‘that a LOT of the site’s overall traffic comes from quizzes and a VERY large portion of that traffic comes from a constant flow of amateur quizzes made by community users’. He continued:
In the recent past, the second highest traffic driver worldwide has been a community user in Michigan who is a teenager in college who, for some reason, makes dozens of quizzes every week. It’s kinda amazing how much revenue-generating traffic the site gets from unpaid community volunteers. So, in a ruthless capitalist way, it makes sense for the company to pivot to having community users create almost all of the quizzes going forward.
The teenager Perpetua refers to is Rachel McMahon, who re-shared a tweet featuring a screenshot of that paragraph, adding: ‘Okay… so I kinda feel horrible. If my hobby is partial cause for these lay-offs, especially with those in the “quiz section”, I never intended to do so. I make the quizzes for fun, I didn’t know it would turn bad.’ Former staff, including Perpetua, were quick to reassure her that it wasn’t her fault. While McMahon swiftly decided to stop writing for free, I turned to the album art for Currents B-Sides & Remixes (2017) which, for the most part, remains the same as Currents. Only this time do I see the cover another way. The sphere splits the album art into two—like my break-up with the vision I have held onto since my early uni years.
It could’ve been magic
Nearly had ya
Can you imagine?
Nearly had ya
—‘List of People (To Try and Forget About)’, Tame Impala
I pictured myself, all robed and capped up. I would walk onstage to receive my testamur and shake hands with the Vice-Chancellor. I would proceed to the outside wall of the auditorium that includes the ‘Graduation 2020’ plaque and ask the person closest to me to take my picture. I would share this moment with my mum next to me, clutching onto my testamur with both hands, flashing my 100-watt smile, all teeth.
Instead, I am on the train to Blacktown, having just finished my shift, when I receive an email from the university. ‘In response to government advice regarding social distancing measures and restrictions on holding large scale indoor events due to COVID-19, UNSW has made the decision to not hold the graduation ceremonies planned for August 2020,’ it says. ‘We will continue to closely monitor and comply with the latest Federal and State regulations and health advice, and we will advise you as soon as we can regarding graduation ceremonies in December.’
I look up from my screen, unsurprised.
Instead of approaching the stage I approach Australia Post on Blacktown’s Main Street, and instead of thanking the Vice-Chancellor I thank the woman at the counter as she hands me an envelope with the certificate inside. I head out the door as the first in my family to graduate, and the first to graduate during a pandemic. I stop outside Australia Post so I can listen on my iPhone to the song ‘Patience’, originally meant to appear on The Slow Rush (2020). Parker begins by asking, ‘Has it really been that long?’ Fitting, because I never thought it would take me six years to get to the finish line. With no job lined up, I ask myself, ‘Now what?’
They would ask me all the time
Showing up through ages
‘So what you doin’ with your life?’
Called it giving up
—‘Patience’, Tame Impala
I see myself in Freya Howarth’s Overland essay titled ‘Retail Therapist’. A bookseller wanting to work in publishing, she writes, ‘I often feel a burning desire for “real life” to begin, but lately have questioned whether this eagerness to move on is my own, or just internalised social and cultural pressures.’
My four-year anniversary with the retail company fell in November. For the past four years I have seen my work friends either schlep up the career ladder within the company or pivot from casual retail job to a nine-to-five job relating to their degree. Then there’s me, still on the shop floor, working on my cultural capital.
This pivot to ‘real life’ is on hold, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Job opportunities have dried up, budgets for freelancers are slashed and, though I’ve witnessed the demise of the industry during the course of my degree, the closure of lifestyle magazines and news organisations became rampant at the onset of the pandemic.
In response to this, I confide in N and our mutual friend, T. My phone screen divides in two. There’s N’s living room, the telly still on in the background, her phone resting on the coffee table. Our first catch-up in two years—and our first virtual hang ever—we discuss what’s been happening since we last made contact.
N pressed pause on her uni degree to rediscover why she came into journalism and, during her sabbatical, got married, became a mother, and wound up working full-time in the sales department of a media conglomerate. Her son, who I virtually meet for the first time, bobs in and out of the frame, smiling.
T moved out and into a house she shares with her guy friends. When she’s not working on set as a camera assistant, sometimes the director of photography, T works at her day job.
Meanwhile I reveal that when I tick the box next to ‘Advertising, Arts & Media’ on a careers website and review each slim picking, I feel ill-equipped to apply. ‘OH MY GOD RYAN, JUST APPLY,’ N yells at her phone screen.
I could, I tell her, but the nine-to-five desk life doesn’t interest me—and yet I envied my friends with desk jobs. T banishes the post-graduation panic and says, ‘I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be working in retail.’
Howarth again: ‘Will I really be happier, more fulfilled, more stimulated, if I trade the shop counter for an office desk, casual pay for a salary, emotional labour for screen time? Will I truly be living up to my imagined potential? What will I gain and lose in the exchange?’
While I reconciled my relationship with my day job, the Black Lives Matter movement saw an anti-racist reckoning unfold in the Australian media, entertainment and arts industries. Though conversations surrounding diversity aren’t new, both First Nations and culturally and linguistically diverse writers have shared their experiences working in media institutions—even in institutions that claim to champion diverse voices.
To that I would add, the potential exchange between the shop counter and a nine-to-five desk job goes beyond overt racism and into writing time. To migrate from retail to journalism would mean to leave one KPI-driven job for another KPI-driven job. Despite our over-the-counter conversations receiving the meme treatment, us retail assistants are responsible for meeting daily and weekly sales targets via direct marketing, while also keeping our emotion management in check.
Journalism turns into ‘churnalism’, a term popularised by former British investigative journalist Nick Davies. For Flat Earth News (2008), Davies wrote that journalists ‘are reduced instead to passive processors of whatever material comes their way, churning out stories, whether real event or PR artifice, important or trivial, true or false.’ He continued: ‘the possibility of filing their stories immediately has become an imperative to spend even less time on their work, even less time checking.’
I don’t possess the speed to keep up with the demands of full-time online publishing. I do, however, have KPIs of my own. At the beginning of each year I pledge to write more. More bylines means more money which means more cultural capital. Thing is, when I kickstarted my freelancing career, coincidentally timed with my promotion to casual retail assistant, I would write one, maybe two, 600-word list-style features a month, hoping no one—no one!—would forget my name. When I grew out of list-style features, I had published three essays in my first year as an essayist, thinking that I would need to best that record every year.
Despite working on this in my second year, I find comfort in a tweet posted by music critic, producer and author Jessica Hopper. ‘Love and solidarity to folks without a single byline from 2020 to brag up, folks who had to put their writing or art to the side this year, folks who had to put careers/dreams/everything on hold in order to take care of someone, and are grieving deeply,’ reads the tweet. ‘Yr not alone.’
That comfort is extended towards—and I write this knowing there have been gaps between his previous records—Kevin Parker’s struggle during the process of making most recent album, his first in five years. A profile on Parker published in Billboard reveals he meant to drop The Slow Rush before headlining Coachella in April 2019. Parker, however, changed his mind. ‘I [had] told myself that all I wanted to do was put out an album, and I didn’t care if it wasn’t as good,’ he tells Billboard. ‘I was happy to sacrifice quality for timing. [But] I just knew in my heart that it wasn’t ready.’
I revisit ‘Patience’, where Kevin Parker follows up by asking, ‘Did we just go ’round and ’round? / All the way to step one,’ alluding to the album-tour cycle. What both our audiences see is the end result. What they don’t see, however, is the creative labour. Like Parker, I have also, on some occasions, sacrificed quality for timing so I could have bragging rights. To focus on being published, I realise, ignores that writing is a process, an insanely slow one. I remind myself, like I reminded N, who dreamt of finishing uni, that it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.
I’m just growing up in stages
Living life in phases
Another season changes
—‘Patience’, Tame Impala
While writing this essay, I revisit an article I read on Rookie—‘Protecting Your Vision’—during my transition period between Evans High graduate and first-year journalism student. In line with January 2014’s theme, Vision, illustrator Hattie Stewart writes:
Maintaining your vision isn’t always easy. Especially in the early part of your artistic development, people will come at you from all sides to tell you that you aren’t good enough, or that you aren’t doing it right, or that what you’re doing is too weird or different or foreign to be valuable. You need a lot of strength to stick to your convictions. You will have to fight for them and never give up even though it seems everything is running against you. You will have to crawl through mud to swim in clear water.
Though Stewart was writing about the way her artmaking practice was at odds with her teachers, about her refusal to compromise her vision to satisfy them, I went into this essay thinking time wasn’t on my side, that I would be washed up. I turn to a YouTube video posted on 25 November 2020. For the 2020 Aria Awards, Kevin Parker and his friends, who also became his touring bandmates, perform track seven of The Slow Rush, ‘On Track’, to an audience of no one. I watch this from the desk in my teenage bedroom. At the same time I visualise myself at the front of stage, gazing lovingly at him, as though Parker is singing this song to me and me only. He reassures me that, even though I’ve moved away from the capitalist idea of success, I’m still on track.
I pass the message on to my 2012 self, who’s striding along Park Street, towards ACP Magazines HQ. On his first day of work experience at DOLLY, the online editor liked his get-up and asked him if he could write a post for their website. ‘Can we collaborate?’ he asked her, to the delight of the editorial team. His first unpaid byline—ever!—came in the form of, ‘Work experience blog: what to wear in the office’, a dot-point list of fashion tips, featuring a pic of him giving two thumbs up. Now I am back in my teenage bedroom and, as the band’s performance comes to a close, I too like to think I’m swimming in clear water.
This essay will appear in a forthcoming anthology called The Wayward Sky (2021), published by The Writing Zone and featuring all twelve writers from the 2020 program.
Sara Ahmed, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012).
Nick Davies, Flat Earth News (2008).
Tame Impala. Lonerism. 2012.
Tame Impala. Currents. 2015.
Tame Impala. Currents (B-Sides & Remixes). 2017.
Tame Impala. The Slow Rush. 2020.