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Hottest 100 is a cultural institution and Triple J is right to safeguard its integrity

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For music makers and music lovers alike, the end of January can often be an exciting time of the year. "The world's largest musical democracy," the Triple J Hottest 100 is one of the few events that manages to captivate young Australians across the country. With more than two million votes submitted for the 2015 countdown on Australia Day last year, it truly is a cultural event that stops the nation.

Over the past two years we've seen controversy sweep the Hottest 100 as Beliebers and Swifties attempted a coup through social media campaigns (#Bieber4Hottest100 and #Tay4Hottest100 respectively) aimed at getting Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift on to the countdown. Both of these instances were slapped down by Triple J, with the station even introducing what one may loosely describe as anti-Bieber voting guidelines this year ("don't troll the poll").

At first glance, it appears as though Triple J is appealing to an old idiom within independent and alternate music circles: simply put, they're refusing to sell out. It seems as though the station is making a statement about the moral integrity of the countdown and how major, commercial artists do not have a place within it. And what bolsters this argument is the fact that Triple J has always preferred to be known for championing emerging "Unearthed" musicians instead of commercial content.

But Triple J's playlists – and even past Hottest 100s – have had a huge amount of heavily commercial music. Looking at past countdowns, we've had bands such as Foo Fighters, OutKast, Kings of Leon – musicians who play to sell out stadiums, have major backing from monolithic labels and are mainstays on commercial radio. And for this year's countdown, Major Lazer – a stadium friendly EDM act, who share a label with Lady Gaga and U2, and whose members have collaborated with Bieber – is a favourite to take out the number one position.

Considering the station's position on Bieber and Swift, this can all be a little bit confusing: how can Triple J eject certain artists due to their commercial background yet seemingly turn a blind eye to others? While this looks contradictory – dare I say it, selling out – what's often overlooked here is the fact that Triple J is a key product of youth-based cultural policy.  

Following the Dix Inquiry in the 1980s that looked at the purpose and relevancy of public broadcasting in Australia, Triple J restructured and, in many ways, matured. Morphing from 2JJ to 2JJJ and finally to Triple J, the station was no longer a laissez-faire plaything for tastemakers and comedians. Instead it was tasked with the challenge of serving all young Australians between the ages of 18-24 through interesting and diverse youth-based cultural content. Nowadays, unlike community run stations known for their new music priorities like Melbourne's 3RRR or Sydney's FBi, or stations with a clear popular music mandate like Nova, Triple J has the obligation of representing the various tastes of young Australia.


But, what does all of this actually mean for Justin Bieber? It actually has little to do with how Bieber sounds or whether he's representative of mainstream values. Bieber has been played multiple times on the station through the collaboration Jack Ü, which shows this isn't the case.

Rather, the key issue we need to look at here is representation. The decision to exclude Bieber and Swift stems from the fact that these social media campaigns erode the integrity of the voter. Triple J has never been one to shy away from freedom of expression – after all, this is the station that once played NWA's Express Yourself for 24 hours straight to make a statement on censorship after the group's track F--- Tha Police was banned from the playlist. From inner city hubs, to the outer reaches of the suburbs, to regional and rural areas, Triple J has the difficult task of trying to curate content relevant to an exceptionally diverse audience. And within this, the Hottest 100 acts as a cultural unifier. It's a rare point where many young Australians – from Maralinga to Belmore, from Northcote to Fremantle – have the opportunity to come together and express their cultural opinion.

In the greater scheme of things, perhaps excluding Bieber isn't quite as rousing as what the station's done in the past. But by putting forward an uncompromising stance, Triple J showcases a desire to reflect and protect the underlying sentiments of its listeners. Sure, it's not perfect, and there's no doubting that Triple J holds a tenuous and arduous position within the contemporary media landscape. If anything, what the Hottest 100 and surrounding controversies reflect are the perfectly imperfect process that is "the world's largest musical democracy" and the instilled passion of listeners who consider this a cultural institution.

Tom Hayes is a qualitative researcher. He has studied the influence of Triple J on emerging, independent musicians.