In a couple weeks, Queensland heads to the polls to elect their State Government for the next few years. In the interests of preserving my mental health, I’ve avoided following the campaign too carefully. But as far as I can ascertain, it boils down to a choice between two decidedly unpalatable potential premiers: Campbell Newman, who splits the difference between bond villainy and vaudeville, and Annastacia Palaszczuk, the Steven Bradbury of the Labor party who appears to have been directed by her advisors to assume an aura of “primary schooler delivering their first public speech while drenched in flop sweat” while chatting to the media.
Like most Aussie elections, the majority of the populace is far more excited by the prospect of dumping Newman (who used his considerable majority to hack away at public service jobs and sell off assets) than electing charisma-vacuum Palaszczuk. Not to worry, there are minor parties, right? (Though no Upper House – let’s not get into that. Mental health, again.) Both Newman and Palaszczuk have been adamant they won’t make deals to form a minority government, though, and who can blame them? The minor parties are run by, variously, an unapologetically homophobic cowboy, an unapologetically racist felon and an unapologetically weird mining mogul. (There are the Greens, too, but they’re about as likely to win a seat in Queensland as Campbell Newman is to attend a bikie charity ride.)
This is the way democracy tends to work pretty much everywhere, naturally. We sift through the garbage that’s floating atop the stagnant pool of politics and gingerly dig out the least-bad option. Outside of some greasy-haired “anarchists,” we know this, we accept this. We’ve grown up with this. Why, then, do we find the deceptive democracy of pop-culture polls like Triple J’s Hottest 100 or the Academy Awards so hard to stomach?
Triple J proudly trumpets the Hottest 100 as “the world’s biggest musical democracy” and they’ve got the numbers to back it up, with well over a million voters contributing to the annual Australia Day countdown. Much like the Queensland State election, though, it’s transparently not a “true” democracy. The Hottest 100 exists somewhere on the continuum between Top 40 lists collated by sales data and self-curated “best songs of the year,” because it’s – theoretically at least – limited to songs played on Triple J throughout the previous year. Given the J’s independent/Aussie slant, that tends to eschew the majority of mainstream pop artists.
As you’re probably aware, that paradigm has been well and truly under assault this year by Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”. BuzzFeed put together a comprehensive argument (okay, it was a bunch of GIFs) for the song’s inclusion in the poll, together with the hashtag #Tay4Hottest100. The campaign’s gone gangbusters, inspiring both a thousand thinkpieces (including this one!) and bookmakers to adjust the song’s odds accordingly. There’s still the open question of whether or not the J’s will allow the song to make the cut even if it attracts sufficient votes – they’re leery of commercial voting campaigns, but who knows if BuzzFeed’s push classifies as such – but whether or not “Shake It Off” makes the cut (my prediction: it doesn’t), it’s opened up some interesting conversations around this so-called democracy.
Specifically: sexism. Female artists have a notoriously tough time when it comes to Triple J and Hottest 100s. Less than ten percent of the songs in the “Hottest 100 of the Last 20 Years” had female contributors, and while Lorde came close last year, a solo female artist has never won the Hottest 100 (the closest we’ve got is the Cranberries’ “Zombie” in ’94 and Janet’s lead vocals in Spiderbait’s “Buy Me a Pony” two years later. You can kinda count guest vocalist Kimbra on “Somebody That I Used to Know” or [Angus and] Julia Stone in 2010). This doesn’t necessarily mean Triple J is sexist, though, right? Surely it’s the music industry and the punters and and and?
Yeah, sorta. There’s a degree of cart-before-the-horse going on blaming an Aussie radio station for the problems of the wider record industry. But the songs that win Hottest 100s tend to have some crossover appeal between the traditional Triple J listening demographic – skinny-jean-wearing-hipsters like myself, Aussie-hip-hop-bogans, “trendy” teenagers and thirty-somethings still pretending to be trendy – and mainstream pop audiences. The recent past reveals a host of top 40 powerhouses crowding the Hottest 100 top-spot, including Gotye and Kimbra’s aforementioned mega-hit, Mumford and Sons’ “Little Lion Man”, Kings of Leon’s “Sex on Fire” and, perhaps most egregiously, Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” back in 2012 (I actually really liked “Thrift Shop”, but it’s pure pop).
What’s tricky here – and what the faultlines opened by #Tay4Hottest100 are revealing – is what is and isn’t “Triple J Music.” The station tends to support independent (or, more honestly, “indie”) and Australian artists; the idea is that the artists getting a lot of attention on commercial radio are avoided in favour of more “obscure” performers. Much like the State election, it’s a restricted democracy – yes, you can write in to vote for whatever song you like, but only “Triple J” songs make the longlist and the shortlist (anomalies like U2’s “Beautiful Day” are invariably explained by some JJJ intern leaving them on the longlist; up til now, write-ins never make the cut).
But there’s no hard-and-fast delineation between “Triple J Music” and “Not Triple J Music” – it’s pretty much based on whatever Richard Kingsmill (or whoever’s in charge nowadays) likes. And when it comes to borderline pop music, Triple J tend to side with male artists over female ones more often than not. The idea of Iggy Azalea or Taylor Swift getting regular Triple J rotation seems patently ridiculous to any regular listener; why, then, does Mark Ronson and Bruno fuckin’ Mars make the cut? “Uptown Funk” is undeniably going to do well in the Hottest 100, since it’s everywhere, and it’s hard to make a coherent argument for their track being okay while “Shake It Off” is unacceptable.
The best attempt at an argument would be something like – Triple J’s been playing Ronson for ages! Okay, sure, but Triple J tends to recognise when an artist has shifted to the mainstream and omit them from the playlist accordingly; Macklemore gets fewer spins nowadays than he did a couple years ago (and does anyone remember Bomfunk MCs being all over Triple J before relocating to commercial radio? No? Fair enough). The bar to cross for male pop artists to get played on Triple J is a lot lower than the female equivalent. Lorde was a serious contender last year, but she was shepherded through as a New Zealand teenager; I suspect she’d never have got a look-in if the same songs had come from a twenty-something American.
This all stems from societal baggage, where female singers tend to get grouped into “girly pop” while male crooners like one-time Australian Idol contestant Matt Corby gets shuffled over to the other side of the Venn diagram. And at least #Tay4Hottest100 is emptying out that baggage all over the floor; we might learn something as we stuff everything back into the status quo. Specifically, I think there’s a lot of value to be gained by challenging the arguably sexist assumptions behind Triple J decision-making.
Here’s the counter-argument though: people have terrible fucking taste. Just take a gander at the People’s Choice Awards. Favourite band? Maroon 5. Best movie? Maleficent. Best comedic movie actor? Adam. Sand. Ler. People suck. So, by extension, democracy sucks. Popular and great rarely intersect, which is why having a gatekeeper of taste isn’t altogether terrible.
After all, the above conversation around the definition of “Triple J Music” could just as easily be translated to the definition of an “Oscar movie.” There’re abundant differences – the determining factors for an Oscar contender are a messy mix of popular conceptions of “prestige” (biopics, suffering, etc), the millions of dollars put into marketing campaigns (much like the United States government, the Oscars are closer to an oligarchy than a democracy) and of course, the voters themselves, a collection of old white dudes who, unsurprisingly, tend to vote for white-dude-movies.
It’s worth getting upset about how these cultural gatekeepers operate. It’s worth challenging the inherent racist and sexist assumptions that underlie these decisions. But, personally, I see a lot of value in the existence of these gatekeepers. BuzzFeed’s original attempt to pull a Swiftie on the Hottest 100 wasn’t motivated by a feminist critique of Triple J, after all, but a populist push that caught the attention of Taylor’s legion of fans. I don’t want a world where Adam Sandler wins Oscars and Iggy Azalea dominates the Hottest 100; I wouldn’t mind a world where David Oyelowo (cruelly snubbed!) wins Oscars and FKA Twigs dominates the Hottest 100, however.
Besides, the existence of these “rules” that determine what is and isn’t eligible is what makes pseudo-democracy an exciting spectator sport. I was elated when the sublime Foals track “Spanish Sahara” snuck into the 2010 Hottest 100 (at number 98!), because it wasn’t the kind of track that (a) gets much Triple J play or (b) tends to do well in the poll. I’m excited about Marion Cotillard’s surprise Oscar nomination for Two Days, One Night because her performance was amazing, yes, but also because subtle work in foreign language films tends to be ignored. And I’ll be over the moon if the Greens somehow manage to snatch a seat at the upcoming Queensland state election. The existence of these arbitrary barriers makes it all the more thrilling when they’re breached – and the prospect of Swift infiltrating the Hottest 100 will certainly add a buzz to January 26th this year.