Monday, 21 December 2009

F*** you, Cowell

Far greater minds will hold forth much more effectively on the same subject, but that's never stopped me piping up before, so here goes...

When did you first hear about the attempt to make Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name" Christmas Number 1?

I remember smiling at the thought.

As if. As if a poxy internet campaign to get a relatively obscure, ancient and sweary song to the top of the charts would beat the X Factor juggernaut.

Well, good luck to them, I shrugged, and thought no more about it. The next thing that caught my attention was a pompous little blog post by one of my broadcasting heroes Andrew Collins.

Missing the point quite spectactularly, he notes the RATM song is old, and downloading it, far from harming Simon Cowell, enriches the company he works for.

Finally, he objects to being told how he should protest about things, concluding "Fuck you, I won't buy what you tell me."

So what if the song is old? So what if RATM aren't exactly armed insurrectionists? So what if a music journalist sniffily chooses to affect a lofty disdain for what used to be the biggest pop event of the year?

I'm an indie stone-kicking snob at the best of times, and much as I can't stand the unremitting silage that Simon Cowell has inflicted on the charts, I'm no fan of RATM.

But NONE of that matters. What matters is that someone thought to themselves: "Wouldn't it be great if there were a way of breaking the smug X Factor hegemony? Wouldn't it be great if a really sweary, shouty song was number one at Christmas instead of all those horrendous MOR power ballads? What's a really good sweary, shouty song? Hmmm.... I know, I'll set up a Facebook page dedicated to getting Killing in the Name to number one."

And that was it. The whole process probably took less than 5 minutes. And, thanks to the power of social networking, the idea took off.

With nothing in the way of resources, against the phenomenal might of ITV and X Factor, Killing in the Name got to number 1.

Watching the campaign gather momentum over the space of a few days was interesting. Shortly after various types I follow on twitter had 1) dismissed it 2) stopped talking about it, I noticed a number of people outside the self-regarding snidey London media circle were enthusiastically promulgating the campaign with a view to doing one thing, and one thing only - giving Simon Cowell a bloody nose.

The game was on. And as it played out, the RATM campaign developed something Joe and the X Factor machine simply did not have - a narrative. Oh the irony.

X Factor's brilliance lies in the brutal emotional excavation of its participants. The show relentlessly drills into the humanity of each hopeful contestant and reduces them to excoriated, blubbering husks.

All in order to satiate our cravings for mawkish (and preferably visibly raw) trauma. And yet, when the challenge came, X Factor's ability to manipulate a story was found wanting.

Joe's a nice bloke, singing a terribly average song. He won the X Factor. He's going to be Christmas Number 1. He could be as big as Shane Ward or Alexandra Burke for a bit, then we can get excited about Britain's Got Talent. Yawn. Whereas with RATM, every day brought a new, shiny, sparkly development.

Amazon's selling it for 29p and it's still chart eligible!
Simon Cowell has dismissed it as "stupid"! 

RATM swore on the BBC!

RATM are ahead in the official midweek charts, but most X Factor singles are bought by kids and grannies on a Saturday, so Joe's going to have a late surge!

Will the snowy weather affect the kids and grannies shopping trips?! 

RATM have endorsed the campaign and will make a donation to a homeless charity on the back of the number of downloads sold!

The underdog has a genuine chance of pulling off a shock victory! Everyone is talking about it!

The sheer exhilaration of watching this campaign go from nothing, with what seemed like absolutely no chance, to one of the most life-affirming showbiz stories this decade is gently gratifying. It is confirmation of the excellent Caitlin Moran's maxim that pop music is simultaneously "the most important yet most ridiculous thing in the world".

Of course, unlike the twitter campaigns to protect our parliamentary democracy or challenge dinner-party bigots, getting RATM to No 1 doesn't really mean anything. But to be caught up in it, to buy that single for whatever excuse or reason you gave yourself was to briefly, ephemerally (and almost certainly conveniently) do the Right Thing, and you knew it.

It also proves that, thanks to social media, someone who comes along at exactly the right time with exactly the right idea, even if they have no money at all, can mobilise more than half a million people against cynical, anodyne, corporatised dross.

A book I'm reading at the moment quotes the American author Willa Cather as saying the purpose of art is to "imprison for a moment, the shining, elusive element which is life itself - life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose."

I wouldn't pretend for a second that downloading a shouty, sweary pop song as part of a mass protest against the grindingly boring prospect of yet another X Factor Christmas Number 1 is in any way art.

But the sentiment within Cather's statement, the delight in being able to witness an elegant, spontaneous and prescient idea turn into an odds-defying success through the sheer enthusiasm of hundreds of thousands of people must be worth celebrating.

Well, that's what I think, anyway. Happy Christmas, y'all.

1 comment:

  1. hey, nick.
    i enjoyed that. as it goes, i think the battle was a bit tricky, mostly because both challengers lined sony's pockets, so they must be laughing all the way to the bank.

    i'd also be interested to find out if, despite losing the battle, x factor have sold more copies/made more money than previous years when they won against weaker opposition. can you even remember who was christmas number one in 2007? [Leon Jackson: 'When You Believe']

    having said all this, even if imperfect, the key point is [as you mention] breaking the X Factor hegemony and next year will consequently be more interesting.

    ian el p.