Triple J’s annual Hottest 100 prides itself as the world’s largest music democracy, attracting more than a million votes with each passing year. It’s a tradition where music nerds dish it out over what’s the more superior song and for Australians to play in the background of their Australia Day long weekend barbecues and parties. The Hottest 100 is the kind of event that’s not only appropriate to play in the background of the party; it’s the point of the party. As each entry of the countdown descends, you’ll be surprised by how more pay close attention to what voters choose to hear.
The Hottest 100 is also larger than Australia Day, the date that it used to be hosted. I remember in high school when I used to listen to a lot of alternative music. As someone who had little liking for public holidays, I associated Australia Day with the Hottest 100 more than any other way you can celebrate it. That sense of patriotism it accompanied with that date is more justified when Australian acts dominate the poll every year and still do to this day. Most of them are emerging acts that Triple J promotes; some have already been established stars.
This year marked the second that the poll wasn’t held on Australia Day and instead on the far more dubious date Holocaust Remembrance Day. That move will certainly not change, as the political optics received immense praise from young listeners who, let’s be honest, weren’t going to vote for the Coalition anyway, or listen to other stations whose imitations of the Hottest 100 showed AC/DC, Midnight Oil and Cold Chisel accompanying the top 10. And with music listening being more accessible to everyone, thanks to the advent of streaming, the countdown won’t expect a downturn in voting, anytime soon.
What does it say about the listeners who vote for this poll? According to Triple J, the average voter is usually between 21-30. Eighty per cent are under 30, while half are exactly 21 years of age. While more women voted than men (51:49), there’s not a stark difference on what songs they’ve voted, rather than who prefers which. For example, while both sexes chose Kendrick Lamar’s Humble as their first preference, women prefer Angus & Julia Stone’s wistful and gentler Chateau far more than men. How much of it is proportionate to the overall number of listeners Triple J attracts, we don’t know.
Given that I’m in Triple J’s target demographic, I haven’t voted for the poll in years and have become ever more detached. I was planning to vote for this year, but it was difficult for me to vote up to ten great songs when I haven’t listened to a lot of what Triple J was playing in the past year. I’ll usually return to see the results of the countdown just to see what songs passed by that initially didn’t grab my attention. Normally, it would usually have five or six gems there, yet most of the entries are less inspiring. Try to imagine The Reubens’ drab and monotonous Hoops, which topped the poll in 2016, being sung along in a party. Or this year’s winner Ocean Alley’s Confidence. You just can’t.
Australian acts consistently dominate the poll, yet each entry keeps getting homogenous as ever, making certain genres like electronic and rock less distinguishable. From 2014 to last year, an Australian act had topped the poll for five straight years, but if there’s any indication yet none of them have captured the broader public imagination. Had Gang of Youths topped the poll last year with their song “Let Me Down Easy”, rather than Humble, it would ensure the streak had kept going. But its complex lyrics would make it a more interesting winner, in contrast to Chet Faker’s dreary “Talk is Cheap” or Flume’s unlistenable “Never Be Like You”.
There was a challenge to break the musical monotony in 2015 when a social media campaign led by a journalist from Buzzfeed Australia, pushed to include Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” into the poll. The motivations are broad, but to put it mildly, it was a middle finger to the established tastemakers at Triple J. It was a feminist statement, as the Hottest 100 never had a female act topping the poll.
Lorde almost won in 2014 with her breakout hit “Royals” but lost to Vance Joy’s “Riptide”. It wants the poll to be more inclusive to pop music, to which the station and its listeners have a disdain for because it will steal attention from other small acts who deserve it more.
Swift has never been played in the station, even before or after the campaign, but some songs have successfully entered into the poll without getting any airplay. After all, Alanis Morrissette had tracks placed in 1996, U2’s “Vertigo” managed to get in, without a hitch during 2005. But the push for “Shake It Off” was thwarted, when it breached Triple J’s code of conduct that disqualifies to enter the poll via campaigns, showing that it can’t be transfixed by a small public contingent to push a desirable narrative.
Democracy doesn’t always work, but when you compare it with other systems, it remains the most sensible. Had the countdown became an aristocracy rather than a democracy, the entries would have been curated by the station’s presenters and staff, making it less big than it is right now. That wouldn’t be a good consensus that represents the listening taste of their listeners.
Of course, if I had the Hottest 100 my way, I would ensure that the poll would accommodate the likes of Father John Misty, Kirin J Callanan, U.S. Girls, Earl Sweatshirt, Ski Mask The Slump God and Gucci Mane, just to name a few. But then again, I don’t expect the system to keep me comfortable.
Illustration: Sony Music Australia/Oceans Alley.
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