It was Australia Day on the 26th (a date that provokes and will continue to provoke necessary outrage as it commemorates the first landing of the British colonisers, leading many to label it Invasion Day and many more to call the date of the holiday to be changed). Apart from BBQs and beer, a major tradition for music lovers is the Triple J Hottest 100, an annual chart voted for by the general public. Like many cultural spaces, this one is dominated by white (straight, middle class, cis) male artists, as Erin Riley has recently pointed out on Twitter and discussed in this article. She notes:
“The Hottest 100 has been won by more men who went to the same private boy’s high school than it has been won by women. But don’t tell Twitter”
A common defence of the unrepresentative nature of the chart is that its the result of popular vote, so must just reflect what people like best. But, as Riley points out (and as was extensively discussed at the recent Women and the Canon conference), myriad factors – from exposure, marketing, structural and personal bias against gender or culture specific names – can and do mediate our taste and preference. On the most basic level, you can’t like something you’ve never heard and recognition is an important part of pleasure in pop as in many other fields (from eating olives to viewing art):
Taste doesn’t exist in a vacuum; taste-making radio stations like Triple J inform the way we understand and contextualise music. The boundaries of style and genre are arbitrary, meaning even the way a station arranges its playlist can inform our taste and our understanding of how those artists and those styles fit in. In the on-demand age, radio continues to be relevant because it provides social context for the music we listen to. It creates canon.
Riley links her discussion of taste to that of privilege, arguing that to understand the biases in ostensibly democratic/meritocratic systems, we have to examine and unpack the network of factors that create the space for a particular dominant voice, be it along gender, racial, sexual, or class lines.
In this sense Riley’s analysis leads us to read the pop chart as a microcosm of social manifestations of privilege and the broader sense of a cultural and social ‘canon’. The ‘popular vote’ defence falls flat when we recognise the mechanisms of popularity. The Triple J Hottest 100 reflects, if you’ll excuse a slightly grandiose extrapolation, certain structural flaws in democratic politics, which lead to the marked lack of women leaders, minority leaders, indigenous leaders in so many political systems, not to mention the general underrepresentation of any group which is not male and middle to upper class. Sales based pop charts perhaps represent something slightly different, but nonetheless reflect economic and market factors affecting our social and cultural landscape, as well as the mediating and influencing role of publicity, money spent of spreading a message, in those (as well as political) spaces.
Eliza Sarlos, whose article on the Hottest 100 is quoted and endorsed by Riley, draws the parallels between the chart and the Australian political sphere, noting the huge gender disparities in each. In response to the merit argument, too, she notes the structural inequalities that get in the way of anything truly meritocratic:
Music made by women is no better or worse — it’s just not as visible. When 95% of the musicians added to one of the most visible national music outlets are men, as they were in the last two weeks of programming, it’s no wonder we’ve grown up listening to and loving music made by men. And it’s no wonder that’s who we vote for when we’re given the chance to celebrate our favourites.
We can take this line across historical as well as contemporary cultural discussion – yes we have fewer surviving pieces of writing, music, visual art from the cultural past, but neither can we extrapolate a meritocracy from them, nor can we afford not to engage with them as part of our literary, musical, artistic, cultural history.