In recent weeks, Taylor Swift has been making a little bit of musical history, to put it lightly. Not only has she managed to top charts thanks to the re-recording of her 2012 album Red, but she’s also managed to top the charts globally with “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” – the longest song to ever grace the peak of those charts.
At this stage, it’s hard to see where the Taylor train is going to come to a stop. She’s been at the top of her game for years, and with an ability to constantly overcome just about anything thrown her way, it seems like there’s no mountain she can’t climb.
As such, it seems as though her re-recorded version of “All Too Well” is in prime position to chart in triple j’s Hottest 100 of 2021, for which voting is ostensibly set to open in the very near future. However, Taylor and the countdown have something of a contentious relationship, with triple j being forced to boot the artist from their 2014 poll following a Buzzfeed campaign that violated the countdown’s rules.
Since then, there’s been no sign of Taylor in the countdown at all. But could that all be about to change thanks to her latest track?
To answer that question, we spoke to Tyler Jenke, who – in addition to serving as the Editor of Rolling Stone Australia – has been dubbed a Hottest 100 expert thanks to his innate knowledge of the poll, its history, and its many statistics.
While there’s no hard and fast answer as to whether Taylor Swift is about to make Hottest 100 history, it’s important to unpack the information surrounding this situation.
Let’s start with an obvious question: why has there been such a Taylor Swift resurgence recently?
To properly explain this question, we sort of have to go back in time a bit. In 2005, Taylor signed with US label Big Machine Records, and she kicked off a relationship which resulted in the release of her first six albums, including the likes of Red, 1989, and Lover, which was her last album with the label in 2017.
In November of 2018, Taylor signed a deal with Universal Music Group following the expiration of her old deal, and months later Big Machine was acquired by Scooter Braun, who Taylor had previously denounced, accusing him of “incessant, manipulative bullying”.
Now, there was some rather technical industry stuff at play here, but the basic gist of it was that Taylor did not have the rights to her old songs; they still belonged to Big Machine. She later explained that she had been trying to buy back her old recordings, but Big Machine played hard ball and said she could only do so if she signed another contract. As Taylor put it ahead of Scooter Braun acquiring Big Machine; “My musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it.”
This might seem like it’s a rather rough situation, but Taylor wasn’t the first artist to be caught up in situations such as this. It’s a similar reason as to why some artists won’t have certain records available on streaming services, or why some albums can’t be reissued despite fan demand.
So, this issue kept on bubbling away for a bit, and Taylor kept finding herself put in difficult positions that affected her as an artist, including preventing her from performing her older songs at the American Music Awards in 2019.
Now, this is where Taylor hit upon a rather genius move. Since she was unable to make money off of her old recordings, she instead chose to make new recordings of the old songs. As such, she decided to effectively cover her own work, making the new recordings sound as much like the originals as possible, so that she now has masters of the songs she couldn’t legally acquire previously. Effectively, she no longer has any use for the old songs since she owns the new ones.
So far, Taylor has released two re-recorded albums, including Fearless back in April, and Red in November. As you might expect, this has not only been deemed as a massive win for artists going against labels, but also for Taylor herself, who has put this struggle – which many who aren’t in the industry would likely have never assumed would be an issue for artists – in the public eye.
But not only that, Taylor has also been digging through the vault to pair these new recordings with older songs that we’d not previously heard. Effectively, she’s sort of released a deluxe edition of these albums, all while reclaiming her own musical history and recording other new albums, too.
What does this mean for an artist of her stature?
This basically means that Taylor Swift is once again in control of her own music. It feels a little bit like a David and Goliath type of battle, though David – in this case – is a global pop star who has still managed to overcome the restrictions of the industry.
Everyone loves an underdog, and Taylor Swift’s victory is proof that no matter who you are, you can still be put into difficult situations that you can overcome. It’s quite a powerful story at its heart.
What does it mean for fans?
For fans, it’s an amazing opportunity to once again experience this music. When the controversy first happened, many diehards basically disowned the early recordings from Taylor since it meant that if they streamed those songs, Taylor wouldn’t be receiving any money.
So for quite some time, fans who might have been listening to songs like “I Knew You Were Trouble” or “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” repeatedly had to effectively forget that these songs existed. Now, it’s like these songs have once again flashed back into existence. So again, many fans are listening to these songs like they’re new again, and Taylor is getting properly paid for her work. Basically, everyone in Taylor’s corner wins.
Now, Taylor Swift has had a bit of a history with the Hottest 100. Can you explain that?
The Taylor Swift controversy is arguably one of the biggest Hottest 100 events of the last decade, and it’s likely up there with the ‘change the date’ debate from a few years ago.
So as a bit of an explainer, Taylor released her 1989 album back in 2014, and if you weren’t paying much attention at the time, it’s worth noting that it was a bit of a success. Not only did it top charts globally, but lead single “Shake it Off” was one of her biggest songs ever.
Now, around this era of the poll, there was a big push for folks to try and rig the Hottest 100 countdown. This meant that there were campaigns launched on social frequently that tried to get folks to vote for an outlier in an attempt to get it to top the countdown. We’re talking about getting songs like Psy’s “Gangnam Style” up to the top, or other massive songs that triple j might not play.
For a while, it seemed like a comment on triple j’s perceived “elitism” of ignoring songs that had mainstream popularity, but soon it just became a mixture of a meme and a social media pest.
In 2014 though, “Shake it Off” became a huge lightning rod for this sort of thing, and despite triple j never playing the original song, a campaign came forth from Buzzfeed in early 2015 in a last-minute attempt for the song to top that year’s Hottest 100, culminating in a huge hashtag called #Tay4Hottest100.
As it sort of got down to the wire though, many folks seemed to think the song might just storm the countdown. But suddenly, there was this revelation that KFC had thrown their support behind the campaign, announcing a promotion whereby customers have a chance to win a voucher valued at $19.89 if they share their favourite Swift song.
What this meant then, was that the song was in violation of a clause in the countdown, where triple j noted they reserved “the right to remove artists from the list who have benefited from competitions or commercial campaigns that incentivise fans to vote for them.” So this wasn’t Taylor’s fault, but well-meaning fans had got the track banned.
triple j later confirmed this via a satirical Buzzfeed/style website in which they made an official statement, effectively noting that the song had been rendered invalid by the campaign. However, interestingly, they also explained that even if the campaign had been valid, the song would’ve only made it to number 12.
So this became the only song that we know triple j actively removed from the countdown due to outside interference (though Pauline Pantsdown’s “Back Door Man” was removed from airplay during the poll in 1997), and then the next year triple j introduced a new rule which basically read “don’t troll the poll”. So in no uncertain terms, they said, ‘Don’t try and pull a Taylor Swift-style poll-rigging in the future’.
Interestingly though, this wasn’t the first time we had successful campaigns rig the countdown. In 1994, Brisbane band Pale launched a campaign to get this song “Lemon Sparked” into the countdown, and while it didn’t top the poll, it did hit #62, beating out the likes of Blur’s “Parklife”.
Eight years later, triple j presenters Wil Anderson and Adam Spencer launched their own campaign to get a fictitious metal song called “6.66” by Salmon Hater into the countdown. They’d made up the song and band in some off-the-cuff banter, but soon enough, a fan made a real track and the hosts launched a campaign to get it into the poll. Again, it only got to 26, but it left a bad taste in the mouths of fans.
Has Taylor Swift ever come close to making it in the countdown in other years?
Well, not quite close to making it in, but she’s technically been eligible to chart. In 2015, Milky Chance covered “Shake it Off’ for a Like a Version session just weeks before the countdown kicked off, but while that was on the voting list the next year, it didn’t make it into the final 100.
There was another bit of controversy in 2015 when Ryan Adams covered the entirety of Taylor’s 1989 album. triple j even went to far as to play his cover of “Wildest Dreams”, leading to speculation about whether that song would make it in and the sort of controversy that could ensure. For what it’s worth though, Adams’ cover wasn’t mentioned in that year’s official voting list.
Then last year, there was a bit of speculation about whether Taylor would make it into the countdown because triple j had been playing her Bon Iver-featuring track “exile” from the folklore album. Now, while that song wasn’t on the voting list either, it’s important to note that any song is technically eligible to be voted for in the countdown’s voting period, just as long as it was released within the catchment period.
In this case, “exile” had been released in the period of eligibility, and even though it wasn’t on the voting list, it seemed as though it could make it into the poll. Ultimately, it didn’t though. That’s not to say the track was ineligible (though it’s unclear whether Taylor is in fact banned from all Hottest 100 countdowns or whether it was solely “Shake it Off” in 2014), but it seemed like there was a chance for a redemption arc.
Interestingly though, a track doesn’t need to be played on triple j to make it into the countdown, either. The same year that everyone was wondering about the #Tay4Hottest100 campaign, Sia snuck into the number nine position with “Chandelier”, despite never having it played on the station previously. So basically, any song is eligible as long as it’s not in violation of any of the countdown’s rules.
More recently, there’s been a lot of discussion about Taylor’s new version of “All Too Well”. Why has that been so heavily talked about?
“All Too Well” was originally released on Red back in 2012, and it quickly became one of her most beloved songs. Not only for the lyrical and emotional complexity it portrayed, but because of the mystery surrounding it. Who was it about? There’s long been speculation it was about Taylor’s relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal, But fans also wondered about what happened to her scarf that she talked about in the lyrics. It sort of spawned its own strange mythology over the years.
Fast-forward almost ten years later, and Taylor unleashed the ten-minute version of the song. It’s far longer than the original, and it restores lyrics, melodies, and extra parts that were excised for the commercially-released version. So it’s a huge boon for fans who have wondered about the rest of the story.
But what’s interesting is that it has such a legacy behind it that when the ten-minute version arrived, fans went wild. The song was given a live debut on Saturday Night Live where it became the longest song played there, and it soon hit the charts, going on to become the longest song to top the US, Canada, and even Australian charts.
It’s such an amazing thing to think that this song has found a new life almost a decade later, and broken records in the process.
What do you think its chances of making it into the Hottest 100 are, and if so, what would it mean for the countdown?
Now, we’re sort of in the midst of a perfect storm. You’ve got this song which is such a cultural touchstone due to its content, its legacy, and its importance in the career of its creator, and now it’s breaking records. While triple j haven’t played it yet, I would like to think its impact might have the same effect as Sia’s “Chandelier” did and urge folks to vote it in even if it doesn’t appear on the voting list when it arrives next month, ostensibly.
But the most amazing thing in terms of the Hottest 100 is that it has the potential to create a new record. Currently, the shortest song to ever make the countdown is a clear winner thanks to Frenzal Rhomb’s “Russell Crowe’s Band”, which runs 1:12 and hit 26 in 2003. But the longest song record, that’s tied between Green Day’s “Jesus of Suburbia” (#61 in 2005) and Kanye West’s “Runaway” (#14 in 2010), which both run 9:08.
So if Taylor is able to defy the expectations of history and make her way into the Hottest 100 countdown with this song which is itself making history, it’ll not only be a massive coup in that sense, but will also take out the record for longest song, beating out the previous record-holders by a total of one minute and five seconds. Plus, it would feel sort of poetic to have Taylor ruin Kanye’s fun, all these years later.
Of course, one question that we might have to answer in the near future is, what happens when Taylor re-records “Shake it Off”? Will that be eligible for the Hottest 100? Will it make it in? If it does, can you imagine the amazing full-circle nature of it all if it reaches #12. Honestly, I can’t wait for that moment to arrive.