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Charting the Controversy: Exploring the Hottest 100 Most Divisive Debates

By Lauren Meaney, Josephine Egan, Olivia Klostermann, Isabelle Barnden, and Niamh Kelleher

Triple J’s famed hottest 100 has captured the hearts of millions of Aussies over its 34-year-old tradition. Despite this, growing tensions, questions, queries and critiques have sparked interest - and controversy - into the renowned record's relevance, legitimacy and purpose.

High Rankings of International Artists and the influence of Tik Tok songs 

One highly contentious issue surrounding the 2023 Hottest 100 was around the winner, Doja Cat, as well as many other highly ranked entries, being from the United States, with a lack of Australian artists ranking highly. This may stem from the nature of Triple J, the radio station that runs the annual competition, playing predominantly “electronic dance music, alternative rock, heavy metal, rap, Indie” music, with a strong focus on Australian-based artists, particularly in their popular ‘Triple J Unearthed’ program.

However, when the competition was set up in 1988, most of the songs that entered the pool were from overseas artists, particularly from the USA.

Data from the Triple J archive shows the trend of Australian music being entered into the competition to have risen slowly over two decades. In fact, the first Australian act to reach number one was in 1996, with Spiderbait’s ‘Buy Me A Pony’, 8 years after the inaugural competition, showing that from the beginning, the Hottest 100 was never intended to be a purely Australian music competition. One must also remember that the want by the public to have more Australian songs cannot be solved directly by the organisers from Triple J, due to the nature of the competition being a democratic vote of the people, besides them placing bans on certain songs or genres, which has never been done before.

Part of the reason Doja Cat’s Paint the Town Red became so popular was its resonance with short-form social media content. Studies show that 67% of TikTok users are more likely to seek out songs on music-streaming services after hearing them on the app. This means that the songs becoming popular are songs with catchy lyrics or beats. They don't have to be lyrically cohesive or intelligent necessarily; the audio clip must mainly serve the purpose of sounding good to users. These changes mean artists are now full-time content creators as well as musicians because TikTok is becoming an essential part of advertisement. American singer-songwriter Halsey said, “My record company is saying that I can’t release [my music] unless they can fake a viral moment on Tiktok”. The effect of this is that songs such as Paint the Town Red receive lots of fame, regardless of musical aptitude, causing controversy in its placement as number 1.

The significance of Doja Cat’s win 

Doja Cat’s 2023 song “Paint the Town Red'' made history by winning last year’s Australian Hottest 100. Not only was Doja Cat the first winning female rapper, but she was also the first woman of colour to have a solo win, proving a large achievement for Australia as a whole. Although, unfortunately for fans of The Hottest 100, “Doja Cat didn’t engage at all with Triple J to celebrate such a prestigious award”, most likely because of the insignificance this win holds in proportion to her global popularity. This is especially seen through her 2022 Grammy, winning in the category “Best Pop Duo/Group Performance” with her song “Kiss Me More”, featuring SZA. Therefore, once again, the question is raised as to whether already famous and global artists should be given the opportunity to win a largely Australian-based award. Is there a limit to how much a person can appreciate smaller gestures of appreciation when those that are larger are being pumped in left, right and centre? To be completely honest, I think there is. Whilst it would idealistically be nice to express gratitude for any win, with The Hottest 100’s declining momentum, it just might not have been, very unfortunately, of any interest. 

It can also be noted that there has been much global controversy surrounding the actual song itself. The largest point of contention is surrounding her overtly demonic images and lyrics throughout the song, depicting demons, the grim reaper, devil horns, dripping blood and images that some argue symbolise abortion. Whilst this may not seem important to many, in the modern world, all countries are characterised by largely dichotomous beliefs, ranging from completely atheist, to, most generally, Christian, making unfavourable responses to her songs understandable. 

 Is the tradition declining?

The discussion surrounding the enduring appeal of the Hottest 100 has become increasingly contentious, with opinions divided on whether it retains its status as a vibrant tradition or if it's undergoing a decline. Hosted by Triple J, a station that initially prided itself on its alternative stance against mainstream pop music, the Hottest 100 now finds itself with a lineup increasingly filled with trendy tracks, including appearances by artists like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. This shift has left some longtime fans feeling a sense of betrayal, as it seems to stray from its roots as a platform for showcasing new Australian music.

Mr. Farshay, once a devoted Triple J listener, articulates this sentiment, lamenting that the station has "lost its position as a source for new Australian music." His perspective echoes the feelings of many who have watched the evolution of the Hottest 100.

Since its peak in 2019, when the Hottest 100 received a record-breaking 3.2 million votes, there has been a noticeable drop of nearly 800,000 participants. While this decline could be attributed to various factors, including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, some argue that it reflects a broader shift in listenership and engagement with the tradition. The question arises: Is the decrease in participation solely a consequence of external factors like the pandemic, or does it signal a deeper disengagement from the Hottest 100 among its audience?

Image sourced from ‘The Burne’

Whether the Hottest 100 can reclaim its position as a revered institution for championing Australian music or if it will continue to face criticism for its perceived departure from its roots remains to be seen.

Taylor Swift - should the star be banned?

Taylor Swift. Hottest 100 music. The two concepts are seen as synonymous in the thousands of minds of Swifties across the globe. Yet growing controversy on the topic has led to a rift between the fans of the 34-year-old Triple J tradition. Should she be included?

Critics (or are they simply anti-Swifties?) believe in a multitude of reasons as to why the famous pop star should be banned from Triple J’s Hottest 100 list. Some believe that an already famous star's momentum - which has been going since her 2006 hit ‘Tim McGraw’ with Big Machine Records made it to the top 40 - detracts and limits local, Australian artists from making it big. In an industry with the attitude of ‘be noticed or be gone’, the Hottest 100 is a one-way ticket to the top or at least to the eyes and ears of a nation, which subsequently is the same thing. Is the force of a horde of Swifties in the election promoting inequality between up-and-comers who perhaps do not have sold-out stadiums just quite yet?

Another criticism that raises questions about the legitimacy of Swift’s inclusion in the Hottest 100 is her genre of music itself. Triple J takes a claim to its “not pop music” standpoint, whereby indie and alt-rock take the lead, thus perpetuating new artists' music. Whilst yes, frequent fluctuations between country, pop, a slight dip into pop rock, indie and pop again may render many people to support Swift’s inclusion in the famed list, primarily her music is deemed pop. What’s more so, is that given Swift is already played on mainstream stations, should the youth-run, national radio station give light onto the “music made in bedrooms and garages by musicians we have never heard of” (Triple J, ABC, 2017)?

The question is finally raised; Should the Hottest 100 be about up-and-comers or purely a democratic vote?

Images sourced by ‘New York Times’

Contrastingly, you would find thousands of people across the nation who disagree with the very thought of Swift being banned from the Hottest 100. And rightly so.

Why should a star’s fame for their music disadvantage their continued popularity? Is there an expiry limit for a hard-working musician's chance to engage listeners with their music? Evidently, Swift remains one of the top stars in the world, having fans - and well-deserved ones at that - featured worldwide. In the argument for equality within the Hottest 100, one must ask themselves if prejudice is clouding their thoughts. After all, no amount of fame, wealth, exposure or contract deals should inhibit the core belief as to why each of these musicians continues to make their music; to spread their art for the enjoyment of all, and to flourish in their creativity. If this is not the fundamental criteria for Triple J’s list, then what is? 



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