Final (I promise) thoughts on the Triple J Hottest 100

Having read lots of the debate online and the listened to the comments on Hack on Monday, I thought I might go back to a couple of original thoughts.

I don’t think that the result (ie only 2 female vocal tracks and only 9 tracks by black artists) makes Triple J or its listeners sexist, misogynist or racist. nor are those who didn’t include a woman in their own Top 10 misogynist – hey, I, all without realising, am guilty of that charge. What I think the result actually reveals is systemic sexism – within the music industry itself and more broadly within society. As noted by blogger Orlando:

Whenever words like “greatest”, “most important”, “best”, “most influential” and so on, are used in any context we are taught to think of men (I think this is exactly what happened when JJJ put their history pages together). We just aren’t given models in our formative years of women having places beside men in “history”, just occasionally in that disreputable annex “women in history” or “women in rock”.

It is easy to throw around terms like “misogynist” without undertaking much analysis. It is much harder to tackle this notion of systemic discrimination. The Hottest 100 did what all democratic processes do (and thus reveals the limits of democracy) – it reproduced the prevailing ideas/ideology of those who participated in the voting. Democracy is not progressive as a system; it requires progressive activism to prompt change and usually follows social movements rather than leads them (the Green movement and Green political party is a case in point).

The other interesting little side-alley that this debate has gone down appeared in The Punch yesterday when Chris deal brought a whole new dimension to the debate by introducing class. He argued:

Triple J have confirmed the rumour that the only thing that stands between them and mainstream rock stations like Triple M is the absence of an ad break. Their previous tenants have moved out, and the lease has been signed by the nouveau-bogan elite. They’re got a bit of coin. They’ve discovered ecstasy. They’ve infiltrated the Big Day Out. They adorn their torsos with Australian flags and sing along to the Kings Of Leon like their founding bogan fathers did with Cold Chisel. And Triple J is now the shining star in the night sky with which these un-wise men follow towards their Rock Jesus.

Now this is quite interesting. The article appears to imply a link between misogyny and class – well, class in the sense of bogans. Now I understand that bogan is not necessarily a class based term in the strictly Marxist sense of the word, but it does tend to generally apply to the lesser educated, more traditional working (or non-working) classes. And I do recognise that there has been an infiltration of the alternative music scene and particularly the festivals by those who Sartre-debating types would turn their noses at. And yes, traditionally working class culture is less progressive in respect to its position on women. But, and this is a big but, I think it is a major cop out to try and imply that sexism and misogyny are the province of bogans alone. It is present across all class spectrums as is obvious in any cultural analysis. So we need to be careful about reducing the debate to simple stereotyping.

Also, I must admit that there is some beautiful irony in the idea that Triple J’s progressiveness is being brought down by bogans whose culture was so ruthlessly appropriated by the university elites of the early nineties as grunge took to the stripped back guitar based tradition which had been oft the province of the bogan during the synthesised 1980s, and students everywhere emulated their Westie fellows in flannies, tattered jeans and battered boots. Ah, how the circle turns.

Female voices and the Hottest 100

Well, it is good to see the issue of female representation in the Hottest 100 now being picked up all over the place. Hoyden About Town presents a wrap up of the blogs on the subject and I notice the subject has been picked up by News Ltd in the form of this article on The Punch. And as I write this the issue is being vigorously debated all over the place on Twitter (albeit with the limitations that Twitter imposes on debate).

Triple J’s Hack picked up the story tonight and led off with expert commentary (ho ho) from yours truly. Most disappointing was how defensive Zan Rowe was – it is not the fault of Triple J, it is the fault of the dominant paradigms of society. Triple J does quite a good job of promoting female artists and other divergent voices. However, it alone cannot change the way we think about the world. And slightly disturbing that in the second 100, there were only 6 female artists!

What was edited from my commentary was the fact that what I think this represents is the massively culturally constructed nature of “taste”. We didn’t choose songs for our Top Tens just because of their innate quality, we chose them, at least in part, because of the cultural, social and, even personal, meaning that attaches to them. One of the callers on Hack showed insight when she noted that amongst her friends people voted for the songs they thought would be in the Top 100, rather than necessarily their favourite. At the beginning of the week I asked on Twitter whether it was cooler to have all your songs in the Hottest 100, or to have them miss out because you are sooo cutting edge. Clearly for this set of people, inclusion was compelling. This of course means that what we have is a reproduction of social norms, of what people think that should like – and this construction is not always conscious.

So, the meaning that attaches to songs sung by women is obviously different to the meaning which attaches to those sung by men. This is hardly surprising in a society where the social meaning attached to anything about women is vastly different, and, unfortunately, unusually still inferior to that attached to men. So how do we change this: well, not easily, but at least the fact that this is a debate being had – and being picked up in the increasingly mainstream media, has got to be a good step forward.

I could say something really negative about ideology and the obscuring reality here, but I’ll try and end on a positive note.

Hottest White, Male and possibly middle aged, 100

So, to conclude from the addition of the final 20:

No black artists. No female vocalists. Only one woman performer in any of the bands (Meg in The White Stripes). Only one song from the last five years, only three since 2000 and none of those in the top 10.  In fact the most recent song in the Top 10 since was Everlong by the Foo Fighters, from 1997!

Has the demographic of Triple J changed so dramatically? Is it failing to meet the youth market and being listened to only by middle aged escapees from the grunge revolution like myself? Frighteningly, two of the songs in the Top 20 are ones my mother loves – Imagine and Bohemian Rhapsody. I think Robbie Buck made a very astute observation in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald when he said:

I think there’s probably quite a few songs here which have made it into magazine lists of the best 50 or hundred blah blah blah of all time and I wonder whether people put it down on their list because they are supposed to be in lists like this and it becomes self-perpetuating.

Guess what: our choices and taste in music are socially constructed. So I guess that explains the absence of woman and black artists.

To recap:

2 women vocalists out of 100 songs.

9 black performers out of 100 songs.

That’s a pretty shameful indication of our tendency to the white male. No black rap, no female grunge, no female solo artists. Are they all so insignificant?

And really, is  Muse and Knights of Cydonia really the best song the last five years have to offer? Is there nothing worthy of a Top Ten place produced since 1997?

I can’t complain that Killing in the Name of was number 2 and Smells Like Teen Spirit (the only song I voted for in the entire countdown) was number 1 – and I note that time has moved on in that there was almost no punk music. And I am sooooo happy that there was no Whitlams.

Interestingly, the last Hottest 100 of all time which was played in August 1998 had a similar lack of women and black performers – there were none in the Top 20. We go back to 1991 for a Hottest 100 of all time for a woman in the Top 20 – Kate Bush. Let’s hope that in ten years time those who are voting are a little more enlightened, and that maybe we have learnt that woman and non-white performers are equally capable of creating memorable, lasting, significant music. Or that the constraints of the music industry have changed to allow diversity a greater acceptance in music outside the mainstream.

Hottest (white male) 100

Listening to Massive Attack’s Teardrop today at Number 22 in Triple J’s Hottest 100 of All Time, it struck me that there was something very different about that song from the others I had been hearing. The difference, it had female vocals. Thinking back over the countdown so far, I noted that it was way back at Number 93 – Unfinished Sympathy, another Massive Attack track, that female lead vocals had last been heard during the countdown. In the first 80 songs of the countdown, there has been not one female soloist, not one female lead band. Even the photo on the Triple J website of Massive Attack for Unfinished Sympathy features two men, and the bio notes that they don’t have a “frontman”, that they are anonymous and “cipher-like.”

Some time ago, in a different place, I noted that the 100 Greatest Movie Characters of all time list was sadly lacking in both female and black representation. In that list there were only 12 women and 4 black characters. So I have had a closer look at the Triple J list (to date – the top 20 songs are not revealed until Sunday).

(a) as noted above, there have only been 2 songs so far which have featured female lead vocals. Only eight tracks feature any female performer, but those are divided between five bands: Massive Attack, The Smashing Pumpkins, New Order, Pulp and The Pixies. Only four songs give a woman a writing credit – the two Massive Attack tracks, Blue Monday by New Order and Common People by Pulp.

(b) there are only 9 songs which feature black performers – and two of these Michael Jackson songs. Smashing Pumpkins, in addition to a female band member, also feature an Asian band member – James Iha – but despite this diversity still tend to be identified with their lead singer (white, male) Billy Corgan.

The results so far leave some very obvious gaps. There have been no black rap/hip hop songs: although there has been Rage Against the Machine and the Beastie Boys who (to paraphrase Eminem) have used black music to get themselves wealth. Well, to be honest they have embraced an approach to music and made it their own, but the absence to date of any NWA or Public Enemy or their contemporaries does seem to be a significant gap. Similarly, while we have had Michael Jackson, surely the better black performer and writer of the period, Prince (or whatever we have to call him nowadays) has been completely overlooked. Blondie have been absent – though to be honest, the only punk era song to make it to date (disappointingly) has been London Calling. And Kim Deal’s vocals in  The Pixies have been ignored versus those of the blokes – and no look in for The Breeders either. And if The Beatles and The Beach Boys can be featured, why not the Dusty Springfields and the Aretha Franklins. Similarly, I am yet to be convinced that Goyte or The Killers are that far ahead of Lily Allen or Magic Dirt.

What it does reveal is the extent to which the alternative music industry is still dominated by white men. Looking at my own collection of CDs and my own nominations for the Hottest 100, I share the guilt (although NWA’s Express Yourself was one pick but my Pixies track was not a Kim vocal).   If you compare the break up of women and non-white performers in the current Australian Top 50, there is a marked increase in the number of both black and female performers as a proportion. However, it seems highly unlikely that Miley Cyrus or Nikki Webster or Katy Perry are ever going to produce songs which would make it  into a greatest song of all time list. Perhaps it is that women and blacks are pushed toward the commercially disposable and interchangeable, where image and marketing sell songs as much as their musical memorability does (in classic grumpy old Adorno interpretation) while white middle class boys can pursue the “truth” of their music. Or perhaps it is that we as consumers of culture are used to the idea of men in the role of the great singers and song writers, in the way that newsreaders were all once male to reassure their audience. As someone who spent many hours at concerts back in the day, the world of alternative music was always very boysy – I wasn’t the only woman at the shows, but I was usually outnumbered by my male friends.

Anyhow, whatever the reason, I hope to be somewhat corrected by the final 20. With any luck we will see at least one female performer, and a better representation of non-white singers and writers. In the meantime, what are your suggestions for entries in the Alternative Hottest 100 – No white, male vocalists allowed!

My early suggestions:

Heart of Glass – Blondie

Express Yourself and/or Fuck tha Police – NWA

Canonball – The Breeders

Pace It and/or Dirty Jeans – Magic Dirt

Smile – Lily Allen

Don’t Believe the Hype – Public Enemy

Cream – Prince

Kool Thing – Sonic Youth

The Message – Grandmaster Flash

Son of a Preacher Man – Dusty Springfield

Lovely Head – Goldfrapp