What might seem like the cultural non-event of the year to foreign readers has this past week in Australia exercised the minds of academics, comedians, music writers, pundits and bookmakers alike: Will American pop star Taylor Swift win “alternative radio station” Triple J’s annual Hottest 100?
Who cares? Many.
Triple J is an Australia-wide “youth” radio station run by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and established 40 years ago by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. (Many of the eulogies on his passing late last year were particularly fulsome on the station.) Mostly music, with some good current affairs such as its afternoon Hack program, it aims to promote Australian bands and plays largely “alternative” music, though everyone’s definition of that seems to differ.
Each year listeners choose the hottest 100 songs of the year from a list of some 2000 and the countdown culminates with its number one being played on Australia Day, a public holiday notionally given over to barbecues and beer.
Taylor Swift is a mid-20s American pop star primarily known for her ex-boyfriends, being thin and singing catchy, sugary pop songs. Her music has never been played on Triple J, though it makes regular quarter-hourly appearances on many commercial networks. She has many fans.
Earlier this year, a BuzzFeed writer Mark DeStefano started a slightly tongue-in-cheek campaign to launch Swift’s song, Shake it Off, into the Hottest 100. After all, if she’d been in the charts in Australia for so long then why was she not allowed into the Hottest 100?
As the station had never played her music it seemed the campaign was doomed, but a technicality, explained in the link, forced it through. #tayforhottest100 inevitably went viral at the speed of Hollywood blockbuster Hanta and betting sites were quickly offering good odds.
They were not the only ones paying attention. Somehow the summer lethargy at the ending of Australia’s holiday season meant this also caught the imagination of some serious newspapers, such as The Guardian, whose piece is mostly notable for writer Elle Hunt calling the song “neo-soul” with a straight face. Suddenly everyone was offering an opinion or explaining what this quasi-cultural phenomenon might mean to readers. Were pop fans “hacking,” “swarming,” or “disrupting” the alternative station’s ethos, or was it an example of some sort of democracy in action? BuzzFeed staff pointed out that other, possibly even stupider songs have won in the past.
As seen from the Offspring’s win for its unlistenable Pretty Fly for a White Guy (pop-punk and fake German shouted off-key by a molecular biology graduate in his 40s), not every winner is a struggling Aussie band who needs the recognition. It should be noted that the Aussie favorites to win, Peking Duk (yes, that is the correct spelling) are played and enjoyed on the same commercial stations that Swift’s music overwhelms. And whilst the intellectual anti-intellectual camp might laugh at the “hipsters” getting a comeuppance, most of Australia’s more serious hipster music snobs have for years dismissed Triple J as too bland and commercial. Despite this, the engineered storm in a beer schooner has raged on. As one writer for the academia-journalism crossover site The Conversation noted, “Media op-eds about #tay4hottest100 have collectively provided enough focus points for an entire ‘Intro to Cultural Studies’ subject.”
Possibly the only takeaway is that Triple J has kept silent on the entire process, even on whether or not the song has been disqualified, and as a result has been attacked and compared to the Islamic State (albeit on Twitter). This silence has, in all seriousness, evoked a Freedom of Information request from The Guardian. Silly Season? That barely covers it.
Helen Clark was based in Hanoi for six years as a reporter and magazine editor. She has written for two dozen publications including The Diplomat (as Bridget O’Flaherty), Time, The Economist, the Asia Times Online and the Australian Associated Press.