With the critical and commercial consensus around Beyoncé’s Lemonade now more or less settled, how the album remakes the landscape remains to be seen. Here in Oz a couple of weeks back, the spotlight was on triple j, who found themselves forced to defend playlisting the record from a minority of critical fans who suggested that there wasn’t a place for Beyoncé on the station they knew. With some key nerves in the state of its widely derided (but iconic and powerful) playlisting having been exposed in recent years, the station’s programming remains under the microscope.
After its release, the discussions around Lemonade were immense and multidimensional, and Beyoncé’s profile, talent and scope as an agent, symbol and producer of shifts in discourse means they’re going to keep going for some time. As a record that’s both a deeply personal and explicitly political exploration of what it is to be a Black woman in America, it acts as a site for opening up faultlines of racism, sexism, power, slavery and control – and it kicks like hell.
Long story very short, the objections over her airplay on triple j arise from the notion that her integrity comes not in the form that some triple j listeners recognise as valid for the station’s gambit, and their own standards; different justifications can be made, but any reasoning to object lies somewhere within a pop/commercialism/wealth-race-gender axis, and in more or less ugly permutations therein. As such, the question has to be asked: who is triple j for, and what does that exclude?
Writing in Meanjin late last decade, Ben Eltham characterised triple j as a ‘crucial source of cultural capital’ for youth, particularly those who were outside urban centres, rendering the station a powerful place to imagine and access other worlds and places, as well as locate themselves within a sociocultural milieu. To identify with or as triple j is to identify with an imagined young, alternative Australia, one that is rebellious, casual, patriotic, a little cynical of fakeries and commercialism, and of course, loves music.
It’s in programming decisions like Beyoncé, or nixing the Taylor Swift Hottest 100 protest, that the nature of the cultural capital produced by the station is officially up for contest: who and what is the ‘alternative’ Australia? Does it lock out the explicitly commercial? Is it progressive about representation? Is it just for a good time? Is it conservative about what soundtracks that good time? Is it engaged? Is it going to fight for its right to party, or party for its right to fight?
As such, the gap that opens up between the ethos (guiding principles) and telos (ultimate aims) of institutions like triple j in real time is crucial. Like, does the station respond to or embody discourses of progressivism within the playlist? Or are they guided by principles that demonstrate progressivism (like the journalism in Hack), while the music programming fills other, less complex aims (like satisfying calls for more Australian tunes, and to knock it off with all the Kings of Leon already)?
After all, expectations of progressive and equal opportunity policy demand far beyond lip service, and nor are they merely asking for it. Representation is predicated on the idea that representation – especially of the lives, experiences and stories of historically marginalised groups – is a key strategy to both recognise existing and address future inequalities. Not only that, but the presence of different representations is productive of discussions and discourse that can transform perceptions, actions, and the public sphere as a whole.
triple j’s truly distinctive burden is that the Hottest 100 and, by extension, the entirety of their playlist decision-making, is tied heavily to the ‘nation’ in ways no other station has to shoulder. The Hottest 100 is a strange beast – a drifting, self-renewing, ostensibly democratic canon – but like all things democratic, it speaks to all but not for all. In not hesitating to put Lemonade on full rotation, triple j took a markedly different tack to how the campaign to see Taylor Swift top the Hottest 100 was derailed in 2015, where the station flatly demurred to include votes for her music, because the station had never played her. Since Lemonade has been played, it has a free run, something which the station seems very chuffed about.
The underlying question under #swiftgate was that if the countdown is at once proprietary to a taxpayer-funded station, but also the democratic decision of supposedly the entire nation, can there be really room for any music to be excluded on their playlist, if the Hottest 100’s results purport to speak for all of us? Ensconced comfortably as a traditional cultural practice that’s tied exceedingly to access, quantitative notions of the ‘best’ and defining the ‘state of the nation’ year to year, the countdown, and any gatekeeping surrounding it, is necessarily (even if inadvertently) a strategy to defining the nation’s self-image – especially the common image – of the imagined triple j community.
Since access to the playlist is political, and the playlist functions like a public sphere, one would say that explicitly political music belongs there. triple j have played Rage Against the Machine, riot grrrl from Sleater Kinney to Kathleen Hanna, the bong friendly greenisms of the likes of John Butler, and have become increasingly comfortable with non-white, non-Australian rap music while strongly supporting Indigenous hip hop and opening the tent to mainstream American rap.
The issue here is that Taylor Swift and Beyoncé are inherently political in their actions, songs and subjectivity to their listeners, and when a gate swings shut for them on something like the Hottest 100, that consumption (as a political act) is excluded from recognition as such. And if those acts aren’t recognised by triple j, this crucial foment is locked out of the national identity debate that rolls around with each Hottest 100.
The Logies, replete with Waleed Aly’s gong and Noni Hazlehurst’s impassioned call-to-arms, suggested that Australian cultural institutions, the ones that man the gates and hand out the laurels, might be judiciously following the progressive path of making issues visible, and applauding those who lead debates and contribute new voices. What’s more is that with the Logies, it’s the public who make their decisions. With triple j’s construction of the ‘alternative nation’ as it was in the 1990s now fairly past tense – punk broke a quarter of a century ago – it now has to be maintained by those who identify with it as a progressive, evolving institution, lest it be defended as it is by those who’d like to think it’s already evolved.
Zan Rowe made an impassioned response to criticism of the programming, saying, ‘If you haven’t seen or heard Lemonade in full and are slamming it, then nope. That’s just ignorant … for the record, a heap of people who have (and aren’t [normally] Bey fans), think it’s remarkable too.’ For the record, that’s ignorant, aren’t normally Bey fans: so the idea is that by listening to Lemonade, one can be transformed, taken down the road. To where? Not sure. Somewhere better, is the idea. As Douglas Adams noted, ‘Capital letters were always the best way of dealing with things you didn’t have a good answer to.’ By eschewing caps, triple j have always suggested the way was, if not forward, but further along.
When Elvis died, the curmudgeonly Lester Bangs told his readers that ‘I don’t say goodbye to him. I say goodbye to you.’ Imagining ourselves – that is, the we, the us in the world that collectively listens to and experiences a record like Lemonade – through how we relate to Beyoncé and how she sees the world makes Lemonade the kind of moment where we all have a chance to do the opposite, to start the conversation, to face one another, even if it is an argument. The processes of progressive and inclusive politics are pretty much dictated by conditions; new practices evolve. By beating hewing and hawing over it, and adding Lemonade to high rotation from the hop, triple j have shown they’re across how to respond to a moment which could have found them caught well short. But if there’s another Swift album between now and January, we’ll have a lot more to chew on.