TikTok, Isolation, And The Algorithm Impact: The Biggest Takeaways From 2020’s Hottest 100

Downtempo and downhearted - the Hottest 100 of 2020 reflected the year that was.

hottest 100 analysis 2020 photo

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Music mirrors life. It is a snapshot of the public pulse, and a much more accurate survey of a nation’s mood than any NewsPoll or Nielsen statistical crunch.

This past weekend’s Hottest 100 countdown was a perfect display of how fragile our collective psyche has become. The cursory listener, the type who listens to triple j once a year and strictly in the background, would have been shocked at the downtempo selection of music that made this year’s charts. The kids are alright, aren’t they?

Judging from the countdown, we aren’t partying like it’s 1999 anymore, we are living like it’s 1984. Paranoid, anxious, and drawn to languid music.

Spacey Jane’s ‘Booster Seat’, which landed at #2, recalls the singer’s first anxiety attack in frighteningly accurate detail, before confessing, Well, it feels like that again.

Glass Animals’ Dave Bayley, who wrote and produced the #1 track ‘Heat Waves’ wrote under the official video: “The song is about loss and longing, and ultimately realising you are unable to save something.”

‘Heat Waves’ perfectly captured a lack of control that was rife during a year when we lost autonomy we weren’t aware could ever be stripped from us.

Elsewhere in the Hottest 100, Drake was planning to “cry later” over a minimalist beat, Tame Impala was ‘Lost In Yesterday’, and Ball Park Music’s Sam Cromack was singing, “Happiness weighs a tonne/It’s all speckled in luck and heavy as fuck”, over a delicate lullaby that Simon and Garfunkel would have beefed up.

Sofi Tukker was under ‘House Arrest’ while Wollongong’s Hockey Dad became ‘Germaphobes’. Ruby Fields found things ‘Pretty Grim’, and even the cocksure Hilltop Hoods whacked a question mark in the title of their #9 song, ‘I’m Good?’.

Form Reflects Feeling

The production of many songs on the countdown shared a claustrophobic quality, with muted beats, muffled vocals (maybe they recorded them in masks?) and spaces left hanging in the polluted air between the sparse instrumentation.

It makes sense: When everything is uncertain, when the world suddenly becomes noisy and dangerous, people want music that soothes, a warm bath of a tune to soak into and forget the reality. Perhaps contradictory, if the songs they choose to immerse themselves in reflect the problems they are trying to forget, all the better. Music is both a salve and a comfort. It makes us feel less alone, especially if it echoes our loneliness.

When everything is uncertain, when the world suddenly becomes noisy and dangerous, people want music that soothes…

Technology also played a major part in the restlessness felt in this Hottest 100. Reams have been written about the isolating impact of social media, with the counter argument, of course, being that such technology can also serve to make the marginalised feel less alone. Both points of view hold water. The opposite of a great truth is another great truth. We saw examples of both this year.

Much like how Facebook pushes ‘information’ that confirms your personally held biases, Spotify’s ‘discovery’ algorithm pushes you into a feedback loop, presenting you with more and more music that sounds like what you are already listening to.

This seems like a good thing in theory — who doesn’t want to be played songs they will dig? — but it prevents you from stepping outside your musical comfort zone. Which is how actual ‘discovery’ happens. Even brand new music is treated this way, an ‘audio analysis algorithm’ will scan newly uploaded musical files and filter them based on hundreds of sonically-defined attributes. If you find yourself bemoaning the fact that ‘all new music sounds the same’, you are correct: It’s just a different same, dependent solely on what else you’re already listening to.

This goes even deeper than merely mirroring your musical choices with soundalike songs. Brian Whitman is co-founder of The Echo Nest. He basically pioneered music recommendation software, and his company was acquired by Spotify in 2014. His technology is at the root of how these algorithms operate.

In 2012 he wrote: “We crawl the web constantly, scanning over 10-million music-related pages a day… Every word anyone utters on the internet about music goes through our systems that look for descriptive terms, noun phrases and other text and those terms bucket up into what we call ‘cultural vectors’ or ‘top terms.’ Each artist and song has thousands of daily changing top terms.”

In other words, these algorithms aren’t merely reflecting the current trends, they are creating them. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. And, as you can see, it goes beyond music. In a year in which isolation, loneliness, depression, boredom, financial stress, anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and nostalgia were the overriding buzzwords, it’s no wonder that “every word anyone utters on the internet about music” is resulting in a sombre pall being cast over proceedings.

Virality Doesn’t Necessarily Equal Success

Then, there’s TikTok.

No social media platform has been built for music virality more than TikTok. The ‘react’ and ‘duet’ features mean that once a video catches fire, numerous copycat parodies pile on, sending a song hurtling around the stratosphere in less time than it takes to say ‘How Bizarre’. For example, thanks to TikTok, 2020 was the year that many teenagers were first introduced to a jaunty track named ‘Dreams’ by a previously unknown artist Fleetwood Mac.

Although 176 different songs surpassed 1-billion video views as TikTok ‘sounds’ in 2020, the Fastest 10 songs to reach a billion views on TikTok sits closer to the ARIA sales charts than the Hottest 100. Of the 10, only the already-ubiquitous ‘W.A.P.’ by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, and ‘Therefore I Am’ by Billie Eilish made a splash on the Hottest 100.

That said, entries like Jack Harlow’s ‘What’s Poppin’, Doja Cat’s ‘Boss Bitch’, Joji’s ‘Gimme Love’, and the runaway success of The Kid LAROI (whose tracks you’ll find all over the app) suggests that cross-pollination is happening — and it will only continue to grow alongside the app’s dominance.

Technology changed the way we listen to, and make, music — and in 2020, the isolation caused by the pandemic rapidly accelerated this trend.

Over the past few years, basic home recording setups have become capable of wrestling studio quality sounds out of free software, affordable microphones, and egg cartons on bedroom walls (to muffle passing traffic). DIY is no longer code for ‘lo-fi’.

Streaming services have furthered this democratisation. There are no gatekeepers anymore. Billie Eilish and Lorde, two of the biggest international stars, made million-selling hits on MacBooks. (As she confessed to Marc Maron, Lorde even made ‘Royals’ with a pirated version of ProTools.)

In 2020, when it suddenly became impossible to leave our homes, or to collaborate in close quarters with others, these home setups became a lifeline, and the music made reflected both the sombre mood and the limited tools at disposal. Insular music, made indoors, in solitude. Listened to indoors, in solitude.

The Festival Impact

The lack of music festivals can also explain the lack of traditional ‘bangers’ in the countdown.

Many musical memories are forged in the blinding sunshine, six hours deep into a festival, where a mid-afternoon set can suddenly become a transcendent experience. For years, the acts who played the Big Day Out would rank highly in the Hottest 100 due to the travelling festival overlapping with the traditional January 26 countdown.

The anticipation of seeing an act at the BDO is often coupled with increased listening of said act — or even a fresh discovery and subsequent imbibing of an entire back catalogue. Which is to say, these festivals acts are often fresh on voters’ minds. With no festivals on offer this year, this whole segment of the vote was removed. Even the traditional providers of block-rocking beats (Flume, The Jungle Giants, Fisher) offered up more slinky, reflective tunes this time around.

Music reflects our mood — and last year was an annus horribilis. So, here’s hoping that every single song that lands in the Hottest 100 of 2021 is filled with “huggin’ and a-kissin’, dancin’ and a-lovin’” instead of the “wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’” we saw this year.

And here’s hoping all the ‘Love Shacks’ around the country are able to be filled to capacity once again.

Nathan Jolly was formerly the Editor of The Music Network, and tweets from @NathanJolly