One of the many arguments offered as to why The X-Factor is a Bad Thing for pop is that Simon Cowell has taken the fun out of the race for Xmas No.1. It strikes me that this is a little rose-tinted – was anybody really that enthused with said “race” in the pre-Cowell days? Of course the Christmas market has been very important to the record industry, because so many units shift then. And in that context the idea of “the christmas no.1” was a good bit of marketing – sell a few more records by alerting people to the fact these singles was in the shops with a bit of press coverage and a 3-minute slot on Newsround. Did people enjoy this stuff? Absolutely! Did they care? That I’m less sure of. So maybe people are just sad that a bit of marketing razzle-dazzle they enjoyed has been swapped for a bit of marketing razzle-dazzle other people enjoyed. Nothing wrong with that, if so – the roots of any ‘tradition’ are likely to involve a bit of opportunism on somebody’s part.
But very possibly I’m wrong. I’d love to hear people’s experiences of these struggles for Christmas No.1. A quick straw poll of Christmas #1 races suggests two in particular have stuck in the mind. The first is 1987, when “Fairytale Of New York” didn’t quite make it. The other is 2003, when The Darkness’ kitschy “Christmas Time” was narrowly beaten by Gary Jules. Between those two, precious little – I remember the BBC trying to make a thing of it when Bob The Builder and Eminem were in contention in 2000.
But between “Fairytale” and the Darkness something else happened. “Fairytale” has joined the Christmas inescapables, but it anticipates more recent trends in Xmas chart activity: it was pushed towards #1 not just because it was Christmas but also because it was unorthodox: a slap in the face of Christmas as well as an embrace of it. That’s what makes the record so appealing – but since 1987 it’s the unorthodoxy that’s generally powered those “Christmas #1 races” which have caught the interest.
“Stan”, “Mad World”, “Killing In The Name”: not only are none of these records Christmassy, they’re all the kind of bleak or mordant or angry songs that represent a sort of anti-festive option. Records like these don’t normally do well at Christmas, except there’s now a mini-tradition of them doing precisely that, and “Mad World” took the anti-option all the way to the top. The song it beat, “Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End)”, was an arch attempt to make and mimic an old school Christmas record. So by 2003 (and probably before) the whole idea of “Christmas No.1” had become a playground – a caricature of “Christmas music” against a self-conscious opposition to it. Is this the ‘tradition’ Simon Cowell is meant to be overturning?
Seems to me the idea of the “chart battle” is a fairly recent one, born out of a particular pop era. The excitement of the charts used to be less gladiatorial – you would hope your favourites would climb to the top, and maybe curse the rubbish that kept them off it, but nobody really talks about a “battle” between Engelbert and the Beatles, or Joe Dolce and Ultravox.
No, the battle is a creature of first-week-sales and known release dates: two records going “head to head” in the knowledge that the one which doesn’t make it won’t get a second crack at the top. Blur vs Oasis is the classic example: Sophie Ellis-Bextor vs Victoria Beckham another. If you can get a storyline in there, so much the better (for your sales too).
It’s interesting to me that some people are seeing RATM v X-Factor as an enjoyable callback to those battles, because they’re an example of “chart culture” that for once doesn’t date from the golden age of the 70s and 80s. Instead it comes from the supposedly devalued Top 40s of the 90s and 00s. And in a tiny way this is important: after all, the story of the charts isn’t just the story of what’s popular: it’s the story of what being popular means, and the narrative that’s recently come to define that meaning is the one laid down by my generation, who grew up with records that gently rose and fell. But the rhetoric around the RATM one seems a bit younger, more in tune with a chart defined by head-to-head fights and big quick events.
Nostalgia for the Christmas No.1 is partly a nostalgia for all of this chart culture, old and less old – the Xmas Top Of The Pops is the only one that’s left, after all. The meaning of popularity is changing again, and the ways it’s expressed and recognised will change along with it. One irony of the X-Factor fight is that it’s surely keeping the Christmas single sales boost alive: physical copies now account for a minute fraction of single sales, and as far as I know few are giving MP3s for Xmas. When the present market goes, the resonance of “Christmas Number One” goes with it. We’ll have to find new places to do battle in.