The Hottest 100 winner is often disappointing, but at least that disappointment comes wrapped in an layer of delicious democracy.
Because of democracy’s middle of the road tendencies, we get winners from vanilla ear worms like Alex Lloyd, the Whitlams, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Chet Faker, and Powderfinger. Twice.
Further, the top ten is the domain of high charting songs. 2013, for instance, saw Daft Punk's Get Lucky at #3, Lorde with Royals at #2, and Vance Joy's forgettable Riptide topping the list out. Royals and Get Lucky both topped the U.S. Billboard chart, while Riptide peaked at 6 on the ARIA charts before going on to win the Hottest 100.
Enter everyone's musical punching bag du jour; Taylor Swift. It's hard to overstate the popularity of her particular flavour of pop-country; the first artist to go platinum this year, profitable enough that she can drop out of Spotify and still earn disgustingly large amounts of money. She’s had two singles top the charts in 2014, and while I dislike her music, there's no doubt that someone out there seriously enjoys it.
That someone includes my wife, her sister, their friends, my brother, his girlfriend. All Hottest 100 voters and Triple J listeners, like many others. It should have been a foregone conclusion, even without the faux feminist social media campaign to get yet another win on the board for the chipper country singer. And that’s when Triple J stepped in and disqualified Swift’s songs, in particular Shake It Off.
Echoing Birdman’s Riggan Thompson, Triple J issued a statement which protests just a little too much.
According to the reasonable voices on the internet, they've managed to bog themselves in the delicious mud of hypocrisy and election rigging usually reserved for malevolent dictators. It's clear that The Hottest 100 has always been open to this kind of gaming, and that Triple J should have had a stronger curatorial hand in the list by limiting it to songs only played by the station. This would thoroughly underline that it’s Triple J’s Hottest 100.
But I think the Hottest 100 at its core has uncomfortable relationship with the culture of the station.
Triple J has been successful in presenting and influencing an alternative culture. It discovers and promotes new bands with a parochial passion usually reserved for football fans, pushing new genres, and allowing generations of listeners to discover and fall in love with new music. As a result it struggles against the encroachment of commercial music within its playlist.
This makes sense; popular songs get voted for. The more popular a song is, the more commercial success its likely to have.
But should Triple J, in presenting and now fighting a rearguard action to preserve an alternative culture, be running popularity contests at all? Due to the vagaries of taste, there’s no way by which they can reasonably disqualify a song simply because they don’t like it. The case study from this year is Sia’s Chandelier, which has ~230 million plays on Spotify at the time of writing. It seems like Sia Furler’s pedigree as struggling ex pat Australian artist allows her entry into the top ten to go unchallenged.
The song is poppy; it takes the same tropes and heavily produced stylings characterised by, for instance, Lady Gaga, and then straps them to Sia Furler’s gigantic vocals. As close a guaranteed success as you’ll see in music, and it was everywhere this year. Triple J are obviously fine with it, having played it a bunch this year. It came in 9th.
So; how much should curatorial concerns override democratic processes and concerns?
As noted, a solution to this pop encroachment would be to limit the eligible songs to those actually played on the station; this would enable the station to maintain aesthetic control over the music which is played, while also allowing the public to have their say. (There’s a reason the Hottest 100 inspires a more passionate response than Pitchfork’s Top 100 Songs list.)
Triple J need to make a call; control the vetting process for tracks in the long-list more closely, or allow interlopers to chart and accept that, yeah, everyone can vote for their favourite track that year.
Oh, and Taylor Swift? Apparently she would’ve finished 12th.