I DON’T KNOW HIM: THE GHOST AT THE ARIAS TABLE


(Genesis Owusu - winner of album of the year, best independent and best hip hop release.)


IT WAS THE ARIAs THAT DARE not speak his name.


He wasn’t the star of the night – that, thankfully, was a slew of Black artists led by the brilliant, red-bedecked whirlwind of wit, directness, darkness and joy that is album of the year winner Genesis Owusu, and including Tkay Maidza, Budjerah, The Kid Laroi and Troy Cassar-Daley.


(A Ghanaian-Australian, a Zimbabwean-Australian and three Indigenous artists, and let’s not forget oud-master, Egyptian-Australian, Joseph Tawadros’ fifth ARIA, and second win in a row for best world music release. In a country where a prime minister and a senior minister/PM-aspirant, not to mention several major media companies and at least one fringe party, built their brand on demonising people of colour, this should be marked, celebrated and maybe even rubbed into the faces of these ignorant racists.)


He wasn’t there. He wasn’t mentioned or thanked – but more about that soon. And if the severely compromised-by-inaction CEO had her way, minor league irritants like me would not be referring to him at all.


It’s all about the future you see. The past? It doesn’t even go here.


(Tkay Maidza - winner of best soul/R&B release)


But talking about the ARIA Awards of 2021 without mentioning Denis Handlin is like talking about the captaincy of the Australian men’s cricket team without mentioning – and here is a Sony irony – dicks, pics or otherwise.


The former head of Sony, the former long-standing chairman of the ARIA board, the man who until June this year ruled over a company whose culture has been (credibly) accused of systemic personal, sexual and racial abuse, loomed over this year’s awards like the toxic stink wafting in from a sewage plant up-wind.


The stink remains because Australian music still hasn’t dealt with him, his legacy and the broader culture he represented across the industry as ARIA – its major label-dominated board, its two cowed female leaders, its implicated CEOs/presidents – has preferred using its “indoor voice”, asking us to trust things will be better, rather than showing up, speaking out and driving change.


Funnily enough, appropriately enough, the most telling impact of Handlin’s departure was in things that didn’t happen.


(Troy Cassar-Daley, winner of best country album.)


On one of the quieter nights Sony have had in the 30-odd years of the ARIAs, the once dominant label picked up one award for Bundjalung/Guymbaynggirr/Maltese veteran, Troy Cassar-Daley’s career-high The World Today (the best country album, a prize which was considered not telegenic enough to figure in the low energy, low impact awards broadcast), and two for Kamilaroi man, The Kid Laroi: best pop release, for his international number one hit with Justin Bieber, Stay; and artist of the year.


(The Kid Laroi - winner of artist of the year and best pop release.)


That second one incidentally, is ARIA’s almost laughably tokenistic attempt at repositioning itself as an inclusive, respectful awards some distance from the sexist industry it represents, the all-genders-accepted category replacing the best female and best male prizes.


Unfortunately, this change happened in a year when the awards were so dominated by male artists that Maidza’s win for best soul/R&B release was the only one of the three ARIAs won by women that wasn’t shared with male band members or collaborator.


Which brings us neatly to another absence.


(Amy Shark.)


Now no one can say what may or may not have driven voters, for no doubt they are honourable folk, but it is certainly provocative that Amy Shark, a Handlin pet-project, multiple awards winner at every ceremony since she debuted, and along with Owusu the most nominated artist on this night with six chances to win, didn’t claim a single prize in the first ARIAs without the influence – and it was never a small influence – of Handlin.


So we never did find out whether Shark, famously hauled over the coals by Handlin a few years back for forgetting to thank him on accepting an ARIA, would mention him this year.


Or whether she might have said, borrowing from Mariah Carey (another Sony artist backed by a morally questionable boss) and channelling the ARIA board generally, “I don’t know him”.