Updated: Dec 1, 2021
Dame Lynda and Dame Julie (Jools) Topp, AKA the Topp Twins, have had incredibly varied and successful careers spanning four decades. Performing as an award-winning country music and comedy duo, they initially cut their teeth as buskers and performers under the alias ‘Homemade Jam’ in the late 1970s. Lynda and Jools found their niche performing subversive comedy and politically themed songs throughout the 1980s, a time in which their roles as national treasures were cemented. They’ve travelled the world to perform clever impersonations of classic “died in the wool” New Zealand archetypes, from Raylene and Brenda, the ‘Westies’, to Ken and Ken, the farmer and townie best friends. They had their own award-winning TV series (Do Not Adjust Your Twinset, 1996-2000), have released countless albums and audiobooks, and were even inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame. The Topp Twins are deeply embedded in New Zealand’s culture, and listening to them invokes a sense of national pride. It is a little surprising then, considering the history of mainstream political and social conservatism throughout the last forty years, that their success and adoration from every corner of New Zealand runs so deeply despite their public existence in the ‘fringes’ of society.
Both Lynda and Jools have been open about their sexuality since the 1970s. They are proud lesbians and have celebrated lesbian herstory and love in their songs and performances throughout their careers. Their activist roots can be traced back to this decade also, when they met and connected with a group of radical lesbian feminists for the first time, leading to their involvement with the women’s liberation movement. However, the twins felt disappointed in the liberation’s lack of lesbian representation, spurring their activism into an intersectional advancement of anti-racism, indigenous inclusion, and homosexual law reform movements. They express themselves through their music, having sung at protest marches for Māori land rights, public rallies supporting Nuclear Free New Zealand, and more recently, touring to raise funds for the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation (Jools was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 and subsequently underwent successful treatment). It is without question that the Topp Twins have increased visibility for important social causes, particularly LGBTQ+ rights in New Zealand. For Lynda and Jools, lesbianism is intrinsic to their music regardless of their audience. In an interview for a 1980 volume of Broadsheet Magazine, Lynda stated: “Music is the channel which we convey our lesbianism…We can’t differentiate between being musicians and being lesbians, Jools and I. Because, if we sing, we’re still lesbians, and we’re still musicians. We’re musical lesbians.”
As discussed in a previous installment of my blog series on lesbian music in Aotearoa, It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I Want To, lesbian musicians throughout the mid-late 20th century were often forced to hide themselves to achieve mainstream success. This makes the rise of the Topp Twins even more unique, in that, for the most part, the New Zealand public accepted and loved them for who they were and what they stood for. Their adaptation of the country music genre, historically male-dominated and sexist in its themes, adds a further layer of feminist rebellion to their legacy.
In their Broadsheet Magazine interview, Lynda and Jools discussed a sense of freedom in turning the country genre on its head. They stated: “Quite a lot of the country songs we used to do had lines in them that we didn’t like as lesbians, they were a put-down of women or had men as heroes, so we actually changed the lines…Although not all the songs we sing have a distinctively feminist message, we never sing about a man. It’s about a woman or a thing.” By transforming previously sexist and chauvinist lyrics into songs of female empowerment, Lynda and Jools were actively dismantling the patriarchal power structures of mainstream entertainment.
Their activist songs further evolved with time as they began to write their own. The first was the feminist anthem ‘Freedom’, written to perform at International Women’s Day in 1978. They describe it as a song for radical feminists, a revolutionary song to sing and fight to. Other songs featuring strong social themes such as ‘Paradise’, ‘Sisterhood’, and ‘Untouchable Girls’ transcend generations and political leanings, being sung and clapped along to on prime-time television by men and women alike.
We live in a world that doesn't care too much You've got to stand up, you've got to have guts Yeah, we are untouchable, but we touch We're untouchable, untouchable girls!
In explaining their wide reach across New Zealand, Lynda and Jools have said winning over people’s hearts comes down to the movements they’ve been fighting for. In relating to a vast number of stories and struggles, the twins have brought people together from all backgrounds of our society to feel empowered, fight, and, more importantly, laugh in the face of adversity. Their honesty and hilarity go hand in hand, and we look forward to seeing where their activism takes them next.
The Charlotte Museum Trust holds several of the Topp Twins posters and vinyl within an extensive collection of lesbian music, available to view in person.
A (near) complete collection of Broadsheet magazine can be accessed at the Charlotte Museum, and digital copies can be found here on the University of Auckland's website. Sandra Coney’s interview with Lynda and Jools is in volume 76, January/February 1980, pages 24-25.
To stream the Topp Twins on Spotify, click here.
Starr Ratapu is a student at the University of Auckland and is currently working at the Charlotte Museum as part of our internship programme through the Museum and Cultural Heritage course.