How often do the pop charts become a tool for a social statement? This week in Britain, that's just what they are.
Every year in the U.K., the pop singles chart that's dated for Christmas week is a very big deal. Music fans and media outlets attach enormous significance to whatever song happens to hit number one that week, as it tends to be the highest sales week of the year. (Unlike the Billboard Hot 100 in America, which ranks singles based on sales, airplay, and live streaming from top music websites, the U.K. chart is compiled entirely from sales data.)
Artists like the Beatles and Cliff Richard (a U.K. superstar) have topped the Christmas chart, as have recent British biggies like Spice Girls. There's also a tradition of actual Christmas songs (i.e. "Do They Know It's Christmas?") taking the top spot.
Since 2005, however, the Christmas-week number one has been a song by the winner of X Factor, the American Idol-like competition show that Simon Cowell hosts in Britain. Since each season's winner releases their coronation single (meaning the song they sing the night they win the show) just in time for the Christmas week chart, it understandably zooms to the top.
Is this a slick marketing move on the part of X Factor? Absolutely. By timing their victory show with Christmas Week, the producers are carefully manipulating the public for maximum results.
Not that X Factor only matters a Christmastime. Just like with American Idol, established artists who perform on X Factor almost always see their singles zoom up the next week's chart.
For some people, this type of dominance is infuriating, since it lets X Factor's particular brand of pop dominate the U.K. music charts. (Think Leona Lewis, who rose to fame on the show.)
This year, a Facebook group was created to do something about that. The plan? Rally people across the U.K. to buy online copies of Rage Against the Machine's 1992 song "Killing in the Name" during the sales period covered in the Christmas week chart. Since the U.K. chart is based entirely on sales and allows any track to chart, no matter how old it is, it was conceivable that if enough people bought the Rage song that it would zoom to number one ahead of X Factor's latest winner.
And that's what happened. Selling over 500,000 digital copies, "Killing in the Name" hit number one for the U.K. Christmas week ahead of X Factor winner Joe McElderry's cover of "The Climb," originally by Miley Cyrus. The McElderry single sold around 450,000 copies and easily would have topped the chart without this grassroots campaign. (For that matter, sales that high would've let it top the American chart, too.)
In one way, this is a crazy-awesome coup. A true rage against the machine of corporate entertainment. Some random kids on Facebook decided to protest X Factor and challenge its market-savvy release structure, and they succeeded.
Their victory suggests that many people in the U.K. are disdainful of the show and its music. The U.K. chart company has systems in place to keep, like, one guy from downloading 300,000 copies of a song and skewing the chart, so this really can be seen as a large-scale countercultural protest.
As Billboard.com reports, Rage Against the Machine are responding to this sudden movement by donating most of the proceeds to charity and playing a free show in England. So the protester's purchases will lead to charitable donations and free live music. That's cool.
Personally, I enjoy seeing a public movement gain so much momentum. I mean, I don't especially care for RAtM, and like anyone I enjoy a lot of the pop music dispensed from Simon Cowell's empire, but it's just exciting to see a campaign like this take hold. Like the Twitter movement that reported on the post-election riots in Iran, this gesture demonstrates that "the people" can use technology to upset the so-called "natural order" created by those in power.
Not that the U.K. singles chart is as important as the riots in Iran, of course, but the underlying premise is the same.
It's also true that this type of action doesn't mean anything by itself. If people really want to change the way popular music is distributed and consumed in Britain, then they'll have to do more than buy some old rock song. But what if by demonstrating the enormous dissatisfaction that many people have with the way things are, the Christmas Chart Massacre is the first step toward some kind of real change? I'm not calling for the end of Simon Cowell's influence -- it's not going to happen, and again, I like a lot of the pop he's ushered into the world -- but I would be inspired to see something so grassroots create a long-lasting impact on popular culture. Power to the people!
On the other hand, this entire brouhaha could be construed as the apex of jerkdom. It's like that kid in your high school who said you were an idiot for liking a network sitcom, and that you couldn't possibly understand A Catcher in the Rye, just managed to get elected head of the prom committee. And now the theme of the prom is "Killing in the Name," and the decorations will be black, and anyone caught humming "The Climb" in the bathroom will be mocked over a loudspeaker. What's being presented as a thrilling turn of the tables could also been seen as a spiteful chance to get back at a vaguely identified force that makes some people feel pushed to the outside of the culture.
James Masterton, who writes about the U.K. charts for Yahoo.com, decries the Rage victory like this:
Proper music fans will see it as a matter of some considerable regret that the biggest selling single of the week is not a record that has been bought by people appreciating the way it sounds but instead downloaded by people because it was a joke, something that seemed like a good idea, a misguided statement against something they didn't previously know they disagreed with or because a guy they knew on Facebook sent them a message suggesting that they do it. If ever there was a downside to the free for all that the download era of music brought to the table then this is it, a record topping the charts in a drive by attack and for the most part purchased by people for what it represents rather than as a reflection of its cultural popularity and the way it actually sounds. Just as Elton John and his turgid Diana record sits as a stain on the list of biggest selling singles, so too the Christmas Number One of 2009 forever requires a footnote to explain the reasons behind it. I can't pretend that is anything particularly worth celebrating. That said, having just seen the instigator of the campaign appear on Sky News and suggest with a straight face that "the chart doesn't represent the music that people in the UK like" it is a matter of some considerable joy to note that people have participated in bringing to fruition an idea conjured up by a total idiot.
If this becomes a trend and, say, "Bulls on Parade" hits the top for Valentine's Day, it'll be annoying. Ultimately, the U.K. charts really should reflect the music that people like. That's helpful and interesting information. But taking one week to remember that the people can speak in unexpected ways is helpful, too.
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