Oasis topped the countdown with their 1995 hit Wonderwall. Photo: Supplied
Over the weekend, Triple J broadcast its "Hottest 100 of the past 20 years" list. With just under a million votes collected, the list was yet another attempt to catalogue "alternative" music into a "best of" – presumably so the ABC can put together a CD and make some money. I'm not complaining. Come September 15, our national broadcaster will need all the money it can get if it wants to save itself from being privatised and turned into yet another mouthpiece for the Coalition.
The Hottest 100 countdowns have always been mired in controversy, if by controversy you mean very loud, very angry reactions over what has been both included and excluded. (I'm old enough to remember the train wreck list of 1998 – I doubt if even the people who voted for it could quite believe how The Offspring's cringeworthy Pretty Fly (For A White Guy) managed to sleaze its way into the number one spot.)
But one complaint in particular is common to almost every incarnation of the Hottest 100, and this particular outing fared no differently. As track after track ticked down to number one, a familiar buzz began to build once more.
Where, in this sprawling sausage festival, were all the women?
In this most recent celebratory list of the 100 best songs of the past 20 years, only eight of them were performed by solo female artists or bands fronted by women. That's less than 10 per cent, which is perhaps better put into context when you realise it means more than 90 per cent of the music considered to be the best of the past 20 years has been written and performed by men.
The numbers are in keeping with the tradition of Hottest 100 voters completely ignoring the contributions made by women to music – in the aforementioned 1998 list, I counted only nine entries fronted by a woman, while the Hottest 100 of All Time voted that same year included a measly three.
These are 20 years in which women such as Bjork, Tori Amos, Kathleen Hanna, Salt-n-Pepa, Ani DiFranco, Shirley Manson, Fiona Apple, Beth Gibbons, Sia Furler, M.I.A, Beth Orton, Lissie, Robyn, Aimee Mann, Martha Wainwright, Beth Ditto and so many, many more have moved us, rocked us and floored us with lyrical prose and instrumental genius. (For a more thorough list, check out this blog post from Karen Pickering.
If I were to believe what is reinforced to me every year via these "best of" compilations, I'd have to accept that my relationship with music has been irrelevant or misguided – that the songs and sorrows of women are good enough to be tangentially entertaining, but not rendered with enough skill or talent to interest your average discerning critic.
But when I saw Martha Wainwright for the first time performing Factory at The Gov in Adelaide, I was transfixed. In a rhinestone studded denim skirt and cowboy boots, her whisky-soaked vocals washed over the crowd like the ocean on a day where the weather's threatening to turn. Her capacity for lyrical prose is captured in the title of her sophomore album, I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too, while her third album is sung entirely in French.
Ani DiFranco founded her own record label (Righteous Babe Records) and ferried a generation of young women through their youth with songs like Gratitude and Untouchable Face (which made it into 1998's Hottest 100 Of All Time).
Salt-n-Pepa's anthem None Of Your Business defiantly declared:
"If I wanna take a guy home with me tonight
It's none of your business
And she wanna be a freak and sell it on the weekend
It's none of your business
Now you shouldn't even get into who I'm givin' skins to
It's none of your business
So don't try to change my mind, I'll tell you one more time
It's none of your business"
Meanwhile, Tori Amos' Cornflake Girl is a musical masterpiece both erratic and operatic in its execution. The lyrics of Amos and DiFranco especially have spoken to the frustration of womanity, offering refuge in anger and solace in recognition. It's a trait also seen in Fiona Apple's work, and honestly, can there ever be enough praise and awe heaped on PJ Harvey for giving the world Rid of Me?
This small selection I've used here as an example may not all be to your liking – but can it really be argued that the tortured wailings of Bernard Fanning on Powderfinger's My Happiness (coming in at number eight) or Matt Corby's Brother (a fine song, no doubt) are exceptional in ways that the aforementioned list of women consistently fail to be? Sure, all taste is subjective – but at some point, it's necessary to ask the question of whether or not these consistent numbers are a reflection of real subjective taste or social influence.
That we live in a society in which the achievements of men – particularly artistically – are heralded to a greater degree than those of women is a problem that requires attention. Creatively, women have a solid history of functioning as muses for men rather than being respected as artists in their own right. The stories and experiences of men navigating the world, both literally and emotionally, are considered universally applicable; those same journeys made by women are thought of as niche.
Interestingly, the eponymous album PJ Harvey’s ‘Rid of Me’ appears on was recorded by Steve Albini, one of the trio behind seminal minimalist rock trio Shellac. In addition to recording Rid of Me, Albini also engineered Nirvana’s In Utero, not to mention albums for The Breeders, the Pixies, Veruca Salt, Shannon Wright and the Dirty Three. He is a vocal supporter of Nina Nastasia’s music, and has recorded all of her albums so far; the sublime ‘How Will You Love Me’ with Jim White on drums is so deceptively dreamy that it takes a few listens to realise that it’s a melancholic birdsong for a love that can now exist only in memory, or what the Portugese call saudade.
So basically, when you argue that women just aren’t good enough to be considered eligible for 'Best Of' curations, you have to know that one of the world’s most respected and preeminent recording engineers doesn’t agree with you. Could it be then that the continued gender disparity on such lists has nothing to do with women’s talent or lack thereof at all? Perhaps the simplest explanation is that people just end up liking what they get used to hearing.
If we are going to pay real homage to music and its capacity to stir something deep within us – indeed, if we're going to praise our own ability to identify good musicianship and storytelling – shouldn't we be more willing to cast our net beyond the usual suspects? Alas, even asking the question results in an avalanche of rage about merit and tokenism. Women would be voted onto these lists more often if they were simply good enough.
Do we have a right to feel angry that a listener-voted list of best music from the past 20 years is so heavily populated by men? Perhaps not. But it is reasonable and fair for us to feel frustrated that once again the contributions of women have been ignored; and not just ignored, but discounted entirely. That many people aren't even willing to discuss why this might be beyond offering the paltry excuse of women's own incapability is a problem. It demonstrates that not only is general society fairly pedestrian in its tastes, but also lazy in its willingness to explore the concept and meaning of the very art it claims to value and understand.