Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Hottest 100 and Being Thrifty

Did you ever get the feeling that some musical artists just aren't trying very hard? Or is it that, as listeners, we've stopped caring?

These are the issues I have been pondering in the wake of the Triple J Hottest 100 of 2012. There was a very well considered piece on the Anonymous Theatre 3000 blog on the issue of the song that came Number 1: a certain "Thrift Shop" by Mackelmore. SPIN Magazine makes a very pointed critique of the song too, (found here) and it got me thinking about this rather odd success story of a song, grotesque as it is.

Firstly, a little background. Triple J is a national alternative music radio station run by the Government/tax-payer funded ABC. Their music choices are chosen and play-listed and then played on high rotation and then, every January on Australia Day (Jan 26th) they count down the top 100.

It is regarded as the "biggest musical democracy in the world". They boast some 1.5 million votes (which is a dubious number, since each person voting has to submit ten song choices, so does that count as 10 votes for each person? Or is it 1.5 million unique entries of 10 songs each, which is 15 million, almost 1 for every person in Australia?) this year and it is becoming a truly global phenomenon, with people listening to the countdown on the Internet around the world these days (usually Aussie expatriates). Not to mention the thousands of registered "Hottest 100" parties around the country.

This year they opened the voting up to Social Media and some rather enterprising Queensland-based marketing whizz-kids analysed about 30,000 of the social media votes to come up with a list that they dubbed the "Warmest 100". It turns out that they correctly picked the top 10 songs, although songs 4-8 were in the wrong order, the top 3 were indeed correct.

The song they picked for #1 was disturbing: "Thrift Shop" by a Seattle-based rapper named Macklemore and a producer named Ryan Lewis. This song as inescapably bounced out of radios on commercial networks for months and its ubiquity is maddening. In the above SPIN article, it is savaged. What disturbs me is that a hell of a lot of people found the song appealing enough to vote it the most popular song of the year. But why? As a piece of music, it is shallow in its disparaging view of shopping at Thrift stores and patronises the clientele of those stores and their products. Macklemore buys stuff at these stores to go out in public and to parties and be a dickhead. There's nothing funny about that. The music is uninspired, repetitive and bland. There are but 3 sections of the song and they have all been independently assembled and then copied-and-pasted into an audio editor. This is Audio Basics 101 - grade school stuff. They could have done so much better.

Not surprisingly, the backlash from Triple J fans on Facebook and Twitter was almost universally negative in response to this song becoming #1. And yet, this crappy little home-made ditty is still the biggest selling record in the US and in Australia, and it's not even on a major label. It is independently produced, and it is intended to be a satire/comment on rampant consumerism and the prevailing fashion trend of buying ridiculously overpriced brand-name clothing. All of this makes it perfect fodder for Triple J, who pride themselves on promoting so-called "Independent Music".

Usually, with Triple J, they will start flogging a piece of music and then, when the commercial networks get hold of it, they flog it to death even more. In this sense, Triple J are mostly the tastemakers of the nation. Granted, not all their choices make it onto the commercials. Certainly, hearing Mumford and Sons played side by side next to Rhianna and Nicki Minaj on 2Day-FM makes a jarring genre clash, but that's what happened once "Little Lion Man" was voted #1 by Triple J listeners in 2010.

But in this case, it's not even music of any quality. It's throwaway stuff. It's a novelty record and it'll probably be forgotten in 12 months time, except that it won't be, as it will forever be brought back up in the history of the Hottest 100 and in best-sellers lists for years to come. From what I've read, Macklemore has done other songs much more deserving of attention. That maybe so, but it's discouraging to think that the public picked his worst effort, erroneously thinking it to the best.

These days, Triple J seem to be embarrassed by some of its previous #1s. In the 30th Anniversary podcasts from 2005, they were very dismissive of Dennis Leary's "Asshole" (#1 in 1993) and "Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)" by Offspring* (#1 in 1999). Will they be the same about this one in years to come?

As Triple J basically determine the playlist for the listeners, in turn the listeners respond as to what they like, and so it is with the Hottest 100. They pick the songs, we vote for what we (supposedly) like. That 6% of the nation picked this piece of crap as the Hottest song of 2012 is ridiculous. Triple J are not at fault - the voters in the countdown are. Have we (as a music-listening populace) become so lazy as to stop demanding that artists produce music of decent quality and we just consume the shit they throw at us? In years gone by I'm sure songs like this would have died a quiet slow death, starved of life-giving media attention purely on the basis that it just plain sucks.

Maybe the song's budget sound is designed to be that way as a musical compliment to the lyrics? Who knows? The fact is that a lot of people bought a lemon, and that was confirmed by their choice for the top spot on Triple J's Hottest 100.

* Someone on Facebook even claimed that Triple J were so embarrassed by "Pretty Fly..." that it failed to include it on the commemorative CD that year. I don't agree - some bands and labels don't licence their music for compilation CDs, which could explain its absence.

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