As a strategy for change, pop culture has time and again had profound impacts on various cultures and societies. Most notably through TV and films. But can an annual music poll exhibit the same kind of potential for change?
The answer for most young Australians is a resounding yes.
Since its inception in 1993, Triple J’s Hottest 100 annual music poll has grown to become a signifier for identity politics in Australia.
Triple J’s counter-cultural credentials were established in 1989 when it was the only radio station in the world playing NWA’s ‘F*** tha police’. After six months, the politicians noticed and the ABC banned the song. In protest, Triple J played NWA’s ‘Express Yourself’ for 24 hours straight (360 times in a row).
Continuing this tradition of sticking it to the powers-that-be, Triple J’s Hottest 100 is claimed to be the world’s largest music democracy with 2.75 million votes cast in 2019 and one of the most musically diverse polls available. For new, alternative and Australian artists, appearing in The Hottest 100 provides a bigger boost in sales than an official ARIA award.
While Australia imposes geographic, cultural, racial, and class divides on its citizens, everyone has an opinion on The Hottest 100 and the songs that are voted (or not voted) on to this list. With such nationally contested debates as Triple J’s decision to disqualify Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it off’ from the poll in 2015 with the introduction of the ‘Troll Clause’ and the inclusion of Guy Sebastian in 2016’s poll.
The Hottest 100 helps define Australian national identity in ways that engage a typically politically isolated group, young people. It is described as a cultural institution that requires protection, reflecting the significance of The Hottest 100 as the cohesive glue for successive generations of Australian youth.
Most recently, The Hottest 100 had another poll – whether to change the date of The Hottest 100, from its traditional airing on Australia Day, the 26 January. A listener survey conducted by the broadcaster found 60 per cent support for changing the date.
In moving the date of The Hottest 100, Triple J stepped into the fraught politics of race in Australia, specifically the meaning of the founding of the Australian nation. January 26 represents the 1788 landing of Captain Cook’s First Fleet in Sydney. However, for Indigenous Australians this date represents the day that their land was invaded and the start of their dispossession and oppression by white Australia. By voting to move The Hottest 100, the youth of Australia were adding their political voice to the marginalised Indigenous community’s call to 'Change the Date'. This concern is also reflected in the music of
The Hottest 100 with Indigenous artists A.B. Original with Dan Sultan scoring the 16th position in the 2017 poll with the song ‘January 26’ that called for a date that all Australians could celebrate.
The date change of The Hottest 100 to 27 January two years ago riled conservative elements in Australia as Triple J overstepping its mandate as a publicly funded institution by attempting to delegitimise the founding of Australia on its official day. The debate around Triple J’s role in representing the concerns of Australian youth culture and how far this should extend into the wider culture and politics of Australia is hotly contested, with some elements of the government continuously challenging the appropriateness of funding a radio station just for 18-25 year olds.
However, changing the day of The Hottest 100 represents practical intervention in Australian society. Triple J altered the established social patterns, beyond not being able to listen to The Hottest 100 at your Australia Day barbecue. By moving the date the radio channel entered the broader cultural discourse of what it means to be Australian.
Australia was founded, what white settlement represents and how cultural institutions and rituals like The Hottest 100 legitimise these narratives, Triple J has shone a spotlight on the rifts between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
Both the radio channel and the annual poll Hottest 100 give a legitimate, institutional voice to marginalised people and opinions, ultimately advocating for an Australia that celebrates not just inclusiveness but inclusively.