The Hottest 100, Triple J’s annual Australia Day countdown of the most popular songs from the previous year, has passed once more. And, once again, it has provoked heated discussion on the relevance and ‘mainstream-ness’ of Triple J. This year’s countdown has arguably been more controversial than usual, due to the ‘grassroots’ campaign to push Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ to number one (sorry, Buzzfeed, that’s not how grassroots activism works). It’s a difficult scenario: on the one-hand, if Triple J were to remove TayTay from contention, there would be cries of cultural elitism and ‘government censorship’; on the other-hand, if Triple J were to include ‘Shake It Off’, there would be tears from Triple J fanboys who still think Triple J is alternative.
Which is why I begrudgingly supported the campaign for ‘Shake It Off’ to make it into the Hottest 100. Not because I’m a Buzzfeed drone, nor because it’s a decent song deserving of a spot in anyone’s list of the ten best songs of the year (it’s not even the best song on 1989). But because it may lead to an exodus of listeners to either commercial stations that don’t maintain a pretension of being an alternative radio station, or to community radio stations that now fill the niche that Triple J should and previously did. And, let’s be honest, the reactions of Triple J diehards to #Tay4Hottest100 have been hilarious.
Speaking to Fairfax, Izzi Manfredi of The Preatures stated Triple J ought to play “… underground, or left-of-centre artists…” It’s a bit ridiculous to suggest that one of the most popular radio stations in Australia, one of few with national reach, is at all underground.
If you think ‘Shake It Off’ is good, it’s time to stop reading. You must be pretty dense to rate so highly a song with lyrics like “haters gonna hate”, “breakers gonna break” and “bakers gonna bake” in your top ten and I fear I’d have to dumb this diatribe down too much. The campaign targeted those who read Buzzfeed so it should come as no surprise that fans of the song aren’t intellectual juggernauts (nor should it come as no surprise that Buzzfeed is championing a song which regurgitates a five-year-old meme).
Much like Rupert Murdoch, it is an inconvenient truth that Triple J continues to grow in popularity despite an ageing population; in some cities Triple J is the most popular station. This raises the question of how this happened, considering it’s supposedly a youth, alternative, or ‘underground’ broadcaster. As listeners have very little influence on the music played on Triple J outside of its requests show and the Hottest 100, it’s incorrect to assume that audiences have changed Triple J. It then follows that Triple J has, instead, positioned itself to gain a wider, by-definition ‘mainstream,’ audience. This explains the host of articles that were published in mid-2014 suggesting Australian bands would tailor their music towards a homogeneous ‘Triple J sound’.
Triple J no longer operates as a truly ‘alternative’ broadcaster. It merely benefits from the association, playing instead whatever songs are just alternative enough to remain untouched by their commercial rivals. Long gone are the days that Triple J would play NWA’s ‘Express Yourself’ on repeat for 24 hours in defiance of censorship. It was inevitable that an ageing station, with ageing personnel, would become out-of-touch, tame, and desperate to remain relevant with ‘the youth’.
Maybe I, like those who were concerned Taylor would ‘ruin’ the Hottest 100, am taking this all too seriously. It wouldn’t be the first time this has happened. However, as a public broadcaster, Triple J should never chase mass audiences; it should be focussed on the quality of its programming and should cater to genres and communities that would be failed by the commercial sector. Indeed Triple J appears to have acknowledged its decline in quality (or, at least, it acknowledges that it has moved away from its mission statement) in relaunching digg radio as Double J last year. Meanwhile, the only thing preventing a viable ‘alternative’ commercial broadcaster is Triple J.
Perhaps then, we should call a duck for what it is. This may be the only time I advocate privatisation, but Triple J has been behaving similarly to any commercial radio station, so why not free it of its government shackles and let it compete fairly with its rivals? In place of the funding Triple J receives, community radio stations could receive hugely needed funds and Unearthed could be relaunched as a national asset for such stations. This sell-off would resolve some of the issues surrounding recent cuts to the ABC, provide an end to the think-pieces by middle-aged men on the ‘coolness’ of Triple J, and we could finally all stop pretending that Triple J is good.