What about meme?

Victoria Zerbst interviewed Shannon Noll. Mary Ward did everything she could to get a byline on this piece.

Shannon Noll at OWeek - © The University of Sydney/ Victoria Baldwin © The University of Sydney/ Victoria Baldwin
© The University of Sydney/Victoria Baldwin

Midday at the main stage. A mosh forms full of student wearing bucket hats and coconut smelling sunscreen. Summer inflatables ride over waves of hands holding up iPhones. Everyone is filming, and cheering, and singing along. Shannon Noll has his arm outstretched to the audience and I am screaming the lyrics to Drive straight towards the blue sky.

Between songs a heckle reaches Noll about coming second. “I always come second,” he replies. “Just ask me missus.” Then THE pop rock anthem begins. Some students describe the experience as a “lucid wet dream” and a “sweaty euphoric mess”.

If you had told me in 2012 that Shannon Noll would be performing to cheering and frenetic fans in front of the Sydney University quad, I would have thought you were cooked. But it is 2k16 and Nollsie’s surprise OWeek gig changed lives. It was definitely one for the Snapchat story.

Ten minutes before his performance, I got to meet him.

***

Shannon Noll rose to fame as the sheep shearer from Condobolin on the inaugural season of Australian Idol in 2003. He placed second, behind Guy Sebastian.

Between 2004 and 2006, Noll released two platinum albums and six top ten singles. His cover of Moving Pictures’ What About Me was the highest selling single of 2004 (take that, Sebastian).

By 2008, Noll had completely disappeared from the Australian cultural consciousness. In 2012, he appeared on Dancing with the Stars, but was forced to retire one month into the competition after injuring himself while practicing a lift.

However, in mid-2014 Noll’s career began to enjoy an unexpected resurgence. Spurred on by his popularity as an Internet meme, Noll found a new fanbase amongst millennials. An online petition was created to have him play at Groovin’ in the Moo.

Over the summer, Complex, Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post all published thinkpieces about how the second-most popular reality television contestant of 2003 became 2016’s Internet craze.

Aboard the bandwagon, USU President Alisha Aitken-Radburn contacted Noll to see if he would play at the USU’s OWeek.

***

Within 30 seconds of securing my interview, I was being whisked through the Quadrangle towards the room where I usually have my philosophy tutes.

Instead of finding stale academics and conversations about morally edifying art, I came face to face with an incredibly built and well-sunned Idol (too soon?).

How did this even happen? A bodyguard, Shannon Noll and me in a philosophy tutorial room.  It turns out social media played a huge part in his guest appearance.

Victoria Zerbst having a casual chat with Nollsie.
Victoria Zerbst having a casual chat with Nollsie.

“I saw some stuff on Twitter actually… people saying come along,” Noll said. “And then someone got in touch with my booking agent.”

In January, a Twitter campaign started to bring Nollsie to OWeek. I remembered Shannon Noll liking my tweet when the campaign first emerged and thanked the twitter gods for making my fangirl experience so vertically integrated.

His story made me remember why shows like Australian Idol were such a game changer. “I was gonna be a farmer all throughout school so I never really applied myself a great deal,” he told me. “Things can change so easily. We lost dad and lost the farm. If it wasn’t for singing I’d probably be working in the mines.”

His biggest word of advice for students is to have fun at university, without letting their studies suffer. “You never know what could happen at the blink of an eye. Keep your eye on the prize.”

***

The origins of memes are often hard to trace, because, while some are based on current affairs or an unfortunate Imgur upload, many simply don’t have a logical starting point.

In late 2014, various Australian-based Facebook pages, notably Shit Memes, started to feature Noll in their content. From there, Noll memes spread slowly, then rapidly, until it was quite impossible for most people under the age of 25 to open their Facebook feed without seeing Shannon Noll’s face.

One of the earlier proponents of second-wave Noll was Junkee assistant editor, Alex McKinnon. (Although, he strongly denies being even moderately as influential as the Facebook meme culture.)

McKinnon tells Honi he started inserting Shannon Noll references into his writing two years ago, after watching Noll at the 2013 STONE music festival, playing the 4pm slot for a stadium of over-50s who were holding out for Billy Joel.

“It should’ve been the saddest thing in the world, but he comes in like Freddie Mercury. He’s wearing this sleeveless vest with a huge yin yang symbol on the back. He lunged around the stage, punched the air, did all his hits in 20 minutes. And then he gets to the end of his final song and he sings ‘What about me?’ And then he points at the audience and sings, ‘What about you?’ In this incredible, dramatic, showman moment to all of these people who couldn’t care less.”

He came to use a Shannon Noll as shorthand for “respect for some unlikely thing”, in reference to his “Little Engine That Could” persona. But, by late 2015, Noll’s popularity surged, and he became a story in his own right: just this week a petition to have Noll represent Australia at the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest was created. Guy Sebastian was sent to compete last year.

***

I had to ask about the memes. I asked hesitantly, sighing with relief as soon as Nollsie laughed his warm, husky laugh.

“Some of the [memes] are very very clever,” he said. “I was sorta saying before I should get them on my marketing team.”

This was humble man. The salt of the earth. He didn’t seem to take himself too seriously and even enjoyed the online attention from his younger fans. “You have to be able to laugh at yourself,” he continued. “Some of the memes are very very funny so i get a bit of a chuckle out of them.”

He also seemed quite incredulous to the sheer randomness of internet celebrity. “It’s pretty crazy. It’s just come out of nowhere too.”

I felt like I was in a trance the whole time. I was on autopilot. I was starstruck. I told him I was a huge fan and asked the bodyguard to take our picture.

“Without fans you don’t have a career,” he told me.

***

McKinnon doesn’t think Noll’s new fame comes from pure nostalgia (“so many of the people who engage in this sort of stuff are too young to remember Australian Idol”), nor does he think millennials’ newfound appreciation for Nollsie is ironic (“if people were doing it to take the piss out of him, then that wouldn’t translate into people actually rocking up to see a Shannon Noll show”).

He has a point. Your average first-year university student was five years old when the first season of Australian Idol aired. Most undergrads would have been in bed when the show’s finale broke television ratings records. Yet those Honi spoke to after watching Noll perform live were behaving like they had seen The Beatles in 1963.

Second-year student and die hard Nollsie fan Hugo Venville told Honi, “Seeing Nollsie at uni was what can only be described as a moon pie moment, the kind of event that makes you think ‘what a time to be alive’. I still can’t believe today really happened. We have finally reached peak meme.”

OWeek main stage host Jacinta Gregory described being able to interact with Noll as “the best experience of [her] comedian life”.

“I have never felt so close to a celebrity,” she said.

For McKinnon, the Shannon Noll fandom comes from the same place as young Australians’ affection for The Castle or Muriel’s Wedding. “It’s not high art and it’s so daggy, but they love it, they identify with it and they have a genuine affection for it.”

***

Nollsie told me he has 40 show dates coming up starting over the weekend. He plans to have a new album out early in the second half of next year and will announce another proper Australian Tour after that.

“It’s about sharing these days. That’s why I am so excited about all these young people getting around me a little bit.”

Shannon Noll is a true aussie hero. His surprise gig blended the internet with the real world and created the most dreamlike and dank experience imaginable.

Fifth year student Alexander Richmond summed up the day: “It’s always a joy to watch as a predominantly ironic experience gets stripped away in the moment and everyone, including the performer, is just able to have a good time.”