Photography: Jordan Munns

I HAVE NEVER ATTENDED a Hillsong Church event, but I have seen footage. I have friends that grew up seized by the mania of Sunday services, and they have described the out-of-body experience of being under the spell of evangelism. It is to see the light. It is to experience the rapture. It is to give of your body and soul, to relinquish your earthly possessions to be closer to the man on the podium. To lose your mind and be enveloped in the sound and spectacle of a higher being. It is, I imagine, something like being in Row M of the Sydney Opera House at a Fred Again concert.  

Much like Taylor Swift, who for the past fortnight and as recently as this Monday has commanded literal legions of adherents, pooling their bodies and wages and passion to swell her blanketing power, the man born Frederick John Philip Gibson is an undisputed people’s champion. Fans devote themselves to his teachings like few else on this planet; to wit, over 100,000 people tried to buy tickets to tonight’s 2700 capacity show only 12 months after he was last here. 

Gibson is at unparalleled levels of fame in this country. Inexplicable, Pink levels. Outside of his home city, the next three biggest regions of listeners for his brand of emotional dance music are all on Australia’s East Coast—Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane are his second, third and fourth largest audiences respectively. He has a combined 1.2 million of us here, playing his introspective bangers every month. He is his own megachurch, and tonight, we are all in it, listening to the gospel of voice notes and iPhone clips driven by subsonic bass, writhing in ecstasy. 

This should not be happening in 2024. The pundits keep telling us that we live in the age of splintered, fractional trends, not monocultures. That tentpole films and superstars and everyone watching Friends at the same time is dead. Gibson is perhaps the last person you’d expect to subvert this idea; a niche within a niche that found a loneliness protein to attach itself to during the pandemic that has now subsumed its host. He is inexplicably omniscient. He makes us sing along to spliced audio and looping, stuttering synths like we are speaking in tongues.     

Fred Again Sydney Opera house
Photography: Jordan Munns
Photography: Jonathan Seidler

Gibson is one of the few working Grammy winning writers (outside of Billie Eilish) who makes music to move you in a crowd but that works equally, if not better, alone in headphones. It is far from an easy trick to master, this universal closeness. Some 15 years ago, Fred’s sonic predecessors The xx (and by extension, Jamie xx) kickstarted that journey, bringing songs from their bedrooms to outdoor arenas. But even at their height, they never inspired this sort of mania. Screaming where singing would suffice. Exhilarated, frenzied dancing. Souls momentarily departing bodies. 

Any preacher will tell you that the key to success is repetition. It should not be blasphemous to admit that at his core, Gibson has perfected precisely two types of songs. Tonight we hear them both in excess, we let them obliterate us and test the sonic capabilities of a hall meant for violins, oboes and timpani. The Old Testament comprises Gibson’s lockdown suites; heart-pulling, uplifting-yet-wistful cuts with borrowed vocals (Kyle, Julia, Angie, Marea) and sudden explosions of groove. In the New Testament we see Fred’s path in and out of darkness, lost in the fields of drum n’ bass (Rumble), glitchy house and grime (Jungle) that led him to Skrillex and Four Tet, to Madison Square Garden and now, home to us. 

Duality is useful as a spiritual tool. Light and shade. Heaven and hell. Gibson, a producer and a performer, is the master of holding both in his hands at once. He writes anthems hiding under songs. His tracks tend to only have two lines of lyrics, many of which are bitcrushed and spliced into submission. There is a clutch of songs that are simply choruses followed by drops. The BPM remains relatively consistent for two hours. It is easy to see how we’ve become such acolytes of Gibson; the bar to entry is low and the rewards high. You can arrive not knowing the scripture and leave a prophet. 

His marketing, too, is godlike. This show exists for the devoted, but mostly it has been hastily assembled with the sole intention of being filmed by us, to stoke the embers and amplify the buying power of his wider flock for further, larger events in the following weeks. There will be nothing like it, of this you can be sure. You will lay your donation in the tithing bowl of Ticketek.  

The Fred Again experience has always involved screens. He is the beating heart of the vertical video generation, a born-again songwriter for hire who tonight illuminates the world through a central screen that looks like an iPhone, as captured by thousands of other iPhones. Faces and voices fill this giant device. It is performative Facetime, a simulation of closeness on top of the sweaty proximity of the room and the aching of the melody. It begs you to doubt its authenticity, as almost everything about Gibson does. But you cannot. You do not want to leave the Church.

And then we have Fred, hunched over in his plain black T-shirt, relentlessly pounding a drum machine or a piano or a sample pad and sweating, eyes rolling like he’s extricating an evil spirit. Watching him play all the sounds inside his fortress of gear one wonders if instead he is sucking in our souls, rinsing them of impurities, sending them back to us like rich text messages fired off to collaborators like The Blessed Madonna or 070 Shake. Or if this is all a giant simulation, and there is another Fred, somewhere in another hemisphere, playing videos of this room to another group of worshippers.   

He smiles like he has no idea what he is doing. Forgive me father, he seems to say to a giant Baby Keem filling the screen. I know not what I do. 

But we cannot believe that for a second. We cannot believe that this pandemonium arrived by chance. It was predestined, much like this show, arriving and disappearing on the same day, miraculously, without anybody leaking it to the press. 

You may not have attended this sermon, but you will see the footage. 

You’d best believe that.

Jonathan Seidler is an Australian writer, father and nu-metal apologist. He is the author of a memoir called It’s A Shame About Ray and a novel titled All the Beautiful Things You Love, to be published in April 2024. Jonno has some interesting things to say about music, fatherhood, Aussie culture, mental health, problematic faves and the social gymnastics of group chats. He also writes a regular column for Esquire.


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