UPDATE: There has been a suggestion from readers that my description of the songwriting of Swift’s music is inaccurate and, specifically, unfair to Swift. The liner notes for 1989 list Out Of The Woods as written by Taylor Swift and Jack Antanoff; and Blank Space and Shake It Off by Swift, Max Martin and Shellback.
Out of the Woods is an upbeat piece of alternate pop that tells the story of a failed relationship in three narrative vignettes. It was co-written by Jack Antanoff from fun. and is apparently about One Direction’s Harry Styles. It was my #7 song of 2014.
Blank Space is a classical piece of bubblegum pop in the verse/bridge/chorus tradition. Penned with some alacrity by hit machine Max Martin, it has an insatiable hook and some wonderfully self-aware lyrics referencing the many, many past paramours. Its video is first class and was my #33 song of 2014.
Shake It Off is a very simple composition, again penned by Martin, but this time you get the feeling he cracked it out in 15 minutes while waiting for a bus, with not a huge amount going for it save that line about how people say she’s got nothing in her brain. The music video has some nice allusions to pop culture moments from the past 30 years but it is no instant classic, despite currently being the subject of a BuzzFeed campaign to have the song feature in Triple J’s Hottest 100 of 2014.
The idea behind the campaign is that Triple J has not included Taylor Swift on its long list of around 2,000 songs for people to vote for. Ever since Triple J began providing such a list – ostensibly described as all songs played at least once during the calendar year – the station has also provided an option for electors to write in a ‘non Triple J’ song, as I have done several times in the past, including twice for Swift’s songwriter’s band (We Are Young and Some Nights by fun.). Although it is self-evidently difficult for a song not on the list to make the countdown, it has happened: Passenger by Powderfinger hit #100 for 1999 and, for the Hottest 100 of 1995, in the pre-list days, Alanis Morissette charted thrice – at #39, #85 and #90 – despite not being played on Triple J. Songs can make the Hottest 100 despite not being on a longlist or being played on Triple J. There is no conspiracy.
Since the voting opened in mid-December, it is unknown how many people have chosen to write in Taylor Swift (or Ed Sheeran, One Direction, P!nk, or any other pure pop artist) because of a sincere affection for her music. There definitely would have been some, though I suspect nowhere near enough to make even the Top 200 (which, incidentally, Triple J now publishes in full). I want to make it clear that I have no objection to liking Taylor Swift or voting for Taylor Swift. I like her music as well – actually, not ironically – and even though she had my #7 song of the year, I chose to only vote on-list this year.
Where I am in staunch opposition to BuzzFeed’s campaign, and those that support it, is in the campaign aspect. If Taylor Swift fans all independently voted Shake It Off into the countdown I would be surprised, but not upset or angry. Now, however, I am quite angry about what has happened. Clearly this campaign has tapped into the weird ironic love that hipsters have for Taylor Swift’s unique brand of highly descriptive musicianship. Most tend to overlook or are ignorant to how manufactured she is, working with the same geniuses who write for Katy Perry, Backstreet Boys, P!nk and Britney Spears.
BuzzFeed ‘journalist’ Mark Di Stefano, in an impressively spartan piece containing only 129 words, traduces Triple J as “music snobs” in need of a lesson; posing the question:
Triple J regularly likes to tout the Hottest 100 as the “world’s biggest music poll”. Well, how does it explain the glaring absence of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” from this year’s shortlist??!!
The Triple J Hottest 100 being the world’s biggest music poll is irrelevant to whether or not Swift is included on the longlist. The hint is in the name – Triple J Hottest 100 – it’s a countdown of Triple J music for people who like Triple J. Historically, the station has been quite welcoming of once-a-year listeners: voting is super easy with low barriers to entry and the countdown itself has a friendly, jovial tone and, up until the Top 10 at least, moves quite quickly through the day. So, to answer Mark’s head-scratcher, Triple J can explain the absense by saying that Shake It Off is not a Triple J song.
What is a Triple J song? Well, that’s a harder question to answer. I’ve heard it explained before as a song not created for the sole purpose of commercial achievement. Triple J tends to focus on music that aspires to some kind of artistic merit, however difficult that is to measure. Certainly some songs and bands sound like they should be on Triple J when they are not (Hozier, Bleachers, AWOLNATION) while others are on Triple J but perhaps shouldn’t be (Haim, Mark Ronson, Calvin Harris); then there are the artists that used to be on Triple J but have fallen out of favour (Coldplay, U2, Offspring); and the ones that are only selectively on Triple J (like how you can vote for three Pharrell Williams songs but not the one that spent 12 weeks at #1). As Pharrell himself might say, there are blurred lines in what constitutes a Triple J song but where no doubt exists is in the universal knowledge that Taylor Swfit is not Triple J music. Her absence from the list is not “glaring”, not for anyone except the author of that post, and had she been on the list, she would have been conspicuous by her presence.
Triple J is 100 per cent right to not play Taylor Swift. Australia has many, many radio stations and music TV networks that happily play her music, and these stations are all welcome to conduct a poll that includes her and excludes, say, Bring Me The Horizon or Angus & Julia Stone. But, and I’m ever so slowly getting to my point here, if they did one of these polls, no-one would care. The Triple J Hottest 100 is the only music poll/countdown in Australia, perhaps the world, with credibility. It has the trust of its listeners. I am in absolutely no doubt that the songs counted down each Australia Day are representative of the votes cast. It is my sincere belief that this trust in the countdown is shared by the vast majority of other listeners. This credibility is built up slowly but can disappear quickly. Triple J must always be vigilant to protect it, or else its flagship annual event will become as meaningless as the countdowns on music TV stations, which are nothing more than regular playlists with assigned numbers in decreasing order.
Heretofore, the mainstream media has had an admirable history of respecting this credibility. When it was accidentally leaked that Little Lion Man had topped the chart, news websites ran ‘Spoiler Alerts’ with their coverage, and made reasonable attempts to insure that people had to give knowing consent to have the countdown (potentially) ruined. The same goes for the Warmest 100, the mock list prepared from social media postings, which always segments the reveal so you can stop looking halfway through. On 27 January, newspapers will write stories covering the countdown, often raising valid talking points about the number of female vocalists, the proliferation of Australian artists and how electronic music is becoming more and more mainstream. All this feeds in to the excitement, enjoyment and purity of the countdown: it enriches it and imbues it with even more credibility.
BuzzFeed and those supporting the campaign are attempting to destroy this credibility. Not content to simply write in Shake It Off and let it fall to its natural position, it has become a social media phenomenon, with follow-up stories in the mainstream press, all encouraging people to vote for this song in order to prove…what? That Triple J should be more like commercial radio? That every single song released during the year should be on the countdown? That the creation of music for artistic endeavour must be destroyed? The truly moronic nature of this campaign is that there is no point, save ruining it for those for whom it is supremely important.
Now, I can imagine Di Stefano and his acolytes saying that I am taking this far too seriously and – for someone who professes to be the opposite of humourless – I am ignoring that is all just a little bit of fun, ‘it’s kooky and lighthearted’, I can hear them say in my mind’s ear. And, yes, I’m sure there is no spite or malice behind it but, regardless, this campaign threatens to ruin it for everyone.
If Taylor Swift comes in anywhere in the countdown because of this campaign (and, again, there is no way it would have charted sans BuzzFeed’s cheerleading), then the countdown is corrupted. If it were to come in at a prominent position, for example, Top 20, then the whole countdown is bung. If it were to come #1 the lost credibility of the Hottest 100 would be irretrievable. No longer an important cultural touchpoint and genuine career achievement, the Hottest 100 would be the latest plaything of the comfortably disengaged hipster, along with drop-crotch trousers, unicycles and activated almonds. Who knows what it would be next year: the Play School Theme? The score from the next Star Wars film? One Direction must be due for reclassification from ‘uncool’ to ‘so uncool they are now cool’.
I have been listening to the Hottest 100 since the first annual countdown, when Asshole by Denis Leary beat out absolute classics by Radiohead, Cranberries and Blind Melon. The only two I have missed were 2008 (Sex on Fire by Kings of Leon), when I was overseas on holidays, and 2013 (Riptide by Vance Joy), when I was at Big Day Out. It is such a delight to listen to, whether alone at home, with a particularly enthusiastic friend, or at a party. I would contend that a lot of people promoting this Taylor Swift campaign are not as engaged in the countdown. They know it exists and they may tune in and out during the day, if they are not doing something else, but they are not completely plugged in to it. When I review the votes of friends who are engaged with the countdown, and many of them are fans of Swift, there is no Shake It Off. Those voting for Shake It Off aren’t as passionate. They are casual fans. They either don’t realise the passions that the Hottest 100 stirs or they don’t care. They probably think us losers for being their opposite. Well, everyone is passionate about something: imagine if the internet got together to ruin that passion?
You’re a big cricket fan? What if the internet managed to vote in a new rule that says one over of each innings must be bowled by a fan in the crowd? It’s only one over out of maybe 150; how influential could it be? It’s just a bit of fun!
Formula 1? One lap of each season must be driven in reverse. That’s one single lap out of 20 races this year – no biggy (and imagine the carnage!) – how would that ruin the experience for fans? It’s just a bit of fun!
You’re an art fan? Passionate about the Archibald? This year, all paintings must be portraits of Taylor Swift. Come on! It’s just a bit of fun!
Passionate about great journalism? Let’s start a campaign to give the Gold Walkley to BuzzFeed! It’s just a bit of fun!
It’s one thing for the dispassionate to ignore, avoid or mock the Hottest 100 – please feel free to laugh at my passion – but when you actually seek to alter its reality, you destroy its credibility.
You ruin it for everybody.