Celebrating Sydney and The Arts with Anthemic Play It Safe

In October 2023, the iconic Sydney Opera House had a birthday festival to celebrate the 50 years since it opened its doors to the world.

The Sydney Opera House website, under “Our Story,” explains why this building should be a little more celebrated than most in their short three paragraph history, which is honestly one of the more accurate and succinct art building histories I have ever read.

The Sydney Opera House is the symbol of modern Australia. A World Heritage-listed masterpiece of “human creative genius,” it exists because a few brave people dared to think differently.

From conception to completion, the building tested the limits of engineering, construction and design. When the Opera House opened its doors in 1973, changing the image of Australia, a new era of cultural discovery and community engagement began.

Five decades later, we stand as an important community meeting place, the nation’s busiest performing arts centre and an integral part of Sydney through our contribution to culture, heritage, sustainability and tourism.

The moment I became aware of the celebration for this icon of world architecture, the more it became clear that I was witnessing something truly special.

That moment was during October when I discovered the 50th Anniversary Film “Play It Safe,” a video with music and lyrics by one of my favorite artists, Tim Minchin. The song itself has been playing in my head, not quite in a loop, but more often than most, since I first heard it in the anniversary video – a video which was only in my feed because of my affinity for Minchin.

Whether you enjoy “Play It Safe” as a video or simply as a song, you’re in for a treat and a truly unique and connected celebration of one of the world’s great opera houses. I was honestly surprised to learn that the Sydney Opera House is only 50 years old. Then again, being a decade younger than the Opera House itself, it stands to reason I would think that because it’s been there all my life.

But in the video, during an interlude of opera and didgeridoo being performed from high atop the building’s iconic sails, the video shows newspaper articles and some audio from the time of the “play it safe” naysayers:

“It does nothing for the average Australian”
“No one cares about the arts”
“No one cares about architecture”
“It is a waste of taxpayer dollars”
“It is a failure”

Aside from the word Australia, which can be changed to almost any country, this feels like a common argument against the arts. It’s a bland argument against arts spaces. For those who get it, this is far too short-sighted an argument.

For this particular case, every New Years’ Eve when the clock first strikes midnight in Australia, 15 hours before my own New Years’ Eve toast, I see the fireworks over the Sydney Opera House. During the 2000 Olympics, most of the television coverage framed the Opera House in the background, which was also true of the 2023 Women’s World Cup coverage.

This “failure” of arts and architecture, just a few decades after its construction if you use the 2000 Olympics as a reference point, was now synonymous with Australia, not just Sydney or even just opera. That’s when it was just 27! For a non-sports star human, being iconic at 27 is legendary; for a building, especially one on the other side of the planet for most, it’s incredible.

So why does any of this matter? Why is a kid who’s only been below the equator a handful of times, who has only crossed the Atlantic twice, and who has never been to this place even care about its celebrations and anniversaries that happened a few months ago?

First off, I love the concept that, while celebrating themselves, Sydney Opera House and its benefactors decided to celebrate The Arts. The song itself is not just a contemporary song, it’s a mix of Australian culture. The video, further, is not just Tim Minchin at a piano: it is a multifaceted exploration of how different art disciplines can intermingle, and the video is a work of art in itself.

Second, Tim Minchin is the reason that I’m even aware of this in the first place because of his involvement in it. I’m a fan of his because he is one of the inquisitive modern philosophers of his time. His art, his creations – whether words, lyrics, or music – are meant to provoke thought. His interviews are engaging in a way that’s more philosophical than promotional. I love that Tim Minchin wrote this song and I inherently understood what he was trying to say.

Then I jumped over to the Sydney Opera House YouTube channel for behind-the-scenes footage. There was Tim, proving my understanding of what he had created with the team, saying:

“…we wanted to say something about how this building is a monument to bravery, to artistic ambition, to pushing through the voices that said, ‘This is a folly or art doesn’t matter.’ And I thought about how we all have that conservative voice in our head that the building acts as a metaphor for what you can do within yourself if you just take a risk and stick your neck out. And so I thought, I’m going to write the conservative voice. I’m going to be the voice in your head that says you shouldn’t take risks and you shouldn’t be ambitious because failure is too risky and that you’ll get hurt, basically. So just play it safe.”

This is so much of why this song resonates as a celebration for The Arts as a whole, across the entire swath of the world. Those arguments in the song that I quoted earlier are universal arguments against the arts whenever public money is spent on them.

My go-to argument in favor of the arts had come from West Wing character Toby Ziegler from the episode “Gone Quiet”: “There is a connection between progress of a society and progress in the arts. The age of Pericles was also the age of Phidias. The age of Lorenzo de Medici was also the age of Leonardo Da Vinci. The age of Elizabeth was the age of Shakespeare.” Now, I’ve also got this song.

As a fan of irony, how could this not speak to my arts loving heart? Minchin, when asked why irony was his chosen voice, says, “By choosing to do an ironic song, it is definitely appealing, I think, to the good side of the Australian, you know, rebellious spirit.”

In my mind, creation within the arts – any medium, in any space, anywhere in the world – is an act of pure rebellion. In an age where most, to quote the song lyrics, “Find a doctrine, get it locked in, build a box and stay in it” artists are out there trying new things and testing new limits and new ideas.

In Play It Safe, Tim writes, “On the first day the Lord gave you television, On the next he delivered a couch, Tell me how do you explain all this content, If the universe wanted you out and about.” Those who don’t get the joke will agree with this tongue-in-cheek anti art slogan. Why bother creating anything when it’s so easy to sit back and just consume?

This is a landmark anthem for artists and creatives the world over, and that is why some guy with a blog who’s been humming this song for months is writing about a belated birthday celebration for an Opera House in a country he may never visit.

Because The Arts are important.