F*** me, they did what they told them. If you’d come up to me on the top floor of the New Cross Venue in 1992 and told me that 17 years later, when I’d be 35, this would be the Christmas number one, the 18-year-old me would have started questioning what was in the Stella they were serving up there. (Actually, I still do question quite what was in it…)
Blimey. During the week I’d come round to the campaign to get Rage Against The Machine to number one a little. What put me off? Not so much RATM being signed to X Factor impresario Simon Cowell’s label Sony, more the awful stench of one generation trying to impose its musical tastes on another. Back when Killing In The Name sounded fresh, us 90s youth were being lectured on how important and vital the Sex Pistols were, as some middle-aged shouters prepared for their lucrative comeback.
With the song so attached in my mind to those days, it also reminded me of the awkward relationship we have with the tastes of our youth. How many people who careered across the Venue’s dancefloor, or moshed in the Marquee, as Zack de la Rocha screamed “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” are now spending their 30s doing exactly as they are told? How many of the half-million or so people downloading Killing In The Name really appreciate the band’s radical politics? Aren’t we all too old to be worrying about the singles charts? And Christmas number one has been the province of light entertainment for as long as I can remember – the last credible Christmas number one arguably being the Pet Shop Boys’ Always on my Mind in 1987, and even that was an Elvis cover first created for a TV special.
But I went and bought the damn thing anyway, using all the anti-establishment effort of spending 29p at Amazon. “And now you do what they told ya…”
Because it’s bloody funny to see the decade ending with a great “up yours” at Simon Cowell and his life-sapping karaoke programme. One of the more depressing aspects of my time in entertainment journalism (and one of the things that persuaded me to sling my hook) was the increasing dominance of stories about what happened on the telly last night – nights in trying to avoid The X Factor by listening to, say, Five Live… and finding they’re talking about it there, too. It’s cheap and easy to cover, and allows editors to think they’re getting down with the kids even though it’s pretty much a cross-generational phenomenon. Of course, all this means that supposedly neutral news outlets become part of the whole promotional campaign rather than being above it… but they aren’t going to care when they’re picking up listeners/viewers/page views/readers because of it. Nothing chills a news editor’s blood than the slightest of suspicions that he’s out of touch.
My own feeling is that Cowell is taking British pop music back to the time before the Beatles, with bland, dull acts who performed undemanding covers, with the tanned svengali a kind of Lew Grade of the 21st century, with fingers in just about every piece of the pie. The Economist isn’t noted for its musical taste, but ran an interesting piece the other week about how digital distribution has made media blockbusters bigger – because of the ease of sale and of cross-promotion – and The X Factor’s the perfect example of that.
Is this going to change? Probably not. But hopefully the success of the Rage campaign is a reminder to the media that not everyone is obsessed with the X Factor, and a large number of people actively hate the incessant coverage it gets. But by the time it comes around next year expect them to be as in awe of Cowell and his end-of-the-pier show as they ever were. Hopefully it’s also a reminder to the music industry that they don’t have to wave a white flag every Christmas.
As Steve Lawson notes in his excellent blog entry, the only way to really change things is to actually get off your arse and support new music – go and see new bands, buy their music, talk about it, rave about them to your friends. The pleasure of going to a small gig is something neither Simon Cowell nor his X Factor production line kids will never know. He’s lost the battle for Christmas number one, but he actually won the war a long time ago and young whatsisname who’s recorded that awful song will go on to have some kind of career (probably on stage rather than in the charts, though).
In the meantime, which old track shall we try to hype up to number one next? Thinking back to those old days at The Venue, I have a suggestion…