Well, that’s that: the machine has been given a good beating and we can look forward to “Bulls On Parade” on the festive Argos ad next year. I will admit I didn’t think the RATM crew could do it: I was wrong. But as the dust settles on this most fractious and increasingly entertaining Christmas No.1 race, who has actually benefited? Here’s my round-up of winners and losers.
Joe McElderry: He’ll be Number 1 next week most likely, but while the ‘battle’ was never about him this puts him firmly in the “Leon Jackson” box, not the “Will Young” one. On the other hand, the constant refrain from the judges during the series was that he had a musical theatre kind of a voice, and this might nudge him in that direction and away from the fickle world of pop. Before dabbing your eyes over Joe’s lost dreams, it’s worth noting that if he’d sold as many as Alexandra did with “Hallelujah” last year, he’d have been #1, Rage or no Rage.
Rage Against The Machine: It’s good profile-raising stuff for them and their other material will do well from it, though unless MP3s come with reading lists in their IP3 tags the ‘educational’ element of RATM may be a little missing. The downsizing of their song’s target from “institutional racism” to “Simon Cowell” is probably a fairer reflection of their listeners’ concerns anyway but it’s left them looking a little… cuddlier… than once they did (and their participation in a classic British radio brouhaha has only helped). They themselves have joined in with gusto, of course: “RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE THANKS ‘EVERY FAN AND FREEDOM FIGHTER’ FOR THE ‘ANARCHY CHRISTMAS MIRACLE OF 2009′” blared their press release.
Simon Cowell: Cowell has not come out of this terribly well (though obviously not materially poorer): he handled it remarkably badly, turning just another web campaign into an actual issue by taking public note of it. In the last few days he’s come on-message, talking about the excitement of the competition, etc etc. But it’s his early churlishness that’s the lingering – and rather delicious – memory. The outcome will hardly dent his personal power, of course, and his public image thrives on dislike – but the effectiveness of the campaign might mean his “first among equals” prominence on his own properties needs to be dialled back.
The X Factor: With 18 million viewers – 17.5 million more than the maximum number of RATM buyers this week – the X Factor isn’t going anywhere, and it’s wishful thinking to imagine this damages ITV’s biggest light entertainment show since Morecambe And Wise. The Dubai-esque follies reportedly planned – “World X-Factor”, 5 judges, a ‘novelties’ category – will do for the programme in the end, but that won’t have anything to do with Rage. As I’ve argued before, what this result exposes is the problem of the winner’s single being so vestigial to the rest of the show: the storyline is over, the narrative complete, the single is just a “happy ever after” and who cares about the details of that? The X Factor’s mistake was to get to the position where its winner NOT getting a No.1 was a much more interesting story than getting one.
The Christmas No.1: as a lot of people have pointed out, the Christmas No.1 isn’t generally much good anyway. I’m still not convinced this idea that there’s a “tradition” of battles at Christmas for the #1 slot has any very deep roots, but we had a battle this year and a lot of fun it was. The big loser here may be the BBC, as the knock-on-effect of this is that its attempt to keep the corpse of TOTP alive for a once a year family shindig is now going to require some tricky politicking.
Real Music: here we get into more contentious areas. The “RATM is a win for real music” argument – and it’s being made by Rage themselves so we should take it seriously – comes in many different forms. At its mildest, it’s just opposition to a light ent show getting droit de seigneur over the charts at Christmas, and saying that a loss for the X-Factor makes pop more exciting. This is true, though a lot of people who normally don’t give a monkeys about pop or the charts suddenly coming over all Paul-Morley-In-1982 about them might raise the odd eyebrow.
Beyond that, though, the idea that Rage beating Joe is good for real music rests on two exaggerations: an exaggeration of the hegemony of the X-Factor, and more seriously an exaggeration of its typicality. The X-Factor gets one or two number one hits per year, and is hit-or-miss in launching its stars careers: it is powerful but it cares mostly about itself, not the wider world of pop. And the music that gets to number one off the back of the X-Factor is almost as distanced from the rest of the chart as RATM’s is (very few of the pop fans I know had kind words to say about “The Climb”).
Two things I’ve seen held up as self-evident truths on why the X-Factor has stifled the industry: it means the charts are full of crap ballads, and it stops record labels investing in artists. The only problem is that the charts aren’t full of ballads – charity singles aside there hasn’t been a #1 ballad this year! And given that two of the #1s there have been were by Dizzee Rascal, a critic’s darling since 2002 who was given an awful lot of time to deliver financially by a big label, it looks like “not investing in artists” isn’t the problem either.
In other words, the idea that the X-Factor music sucks isn’t interchangeable with the idea that pop sucks. The only element of “real music” that l’affaire RATM helps is the ancient rock v pop, or alternative v pop binary. Will the win have any longer-term effects? Well, the closest parallel to this isn’t the Sex Pistols and “God Save The Queen”, it’s metal monsters Lordi winning Eurovision in 2005: a similar irruption of ROCK into a staid citadel of pop, pushed on by bottom-up public opinion. The consequences of the Lordi win were a rash of rock-esque Eurovision entries, and then business as usual. I expect much the same here.
The Charts: A spike in public interest and sales of close on a million look like a big win for the charts. But this would be an optimistic reading. The purpose of the charts – its mission statement, if you like – is to reflect which current music is most popular among British listeners. The reasons for said popularity may not be pure, but there’s a difference between the charts being swayed by something interesting happening somewhere else (like a TV show or a World Cup) and the charts as a playground of gesture. On the other hand, they’ve proved surprisingly robust so far so I almost certainly shouldn’t worry.
Social Media: You’ll hear this one a lot – the RATM win was a triumph for social media! And it was, though ironically the X-Factor is one of the most social media driven TV shows around – facebook fan groups, message boards and Twitter backchannels are vital in keeping a conversation around the show going, and the production team pay them close attention. The moment at which I realised the RATM campaign might actually work was when I read an ILX poster pointing out that most of the people on his Twitter feed saying “Go Rage!” were the same ones who’d been hashtagging and watching the show all season.
So this wasn’t really “old media” vs “new media”. RATM’s success is a victory for a particular style of social media – the quick-hit campaign, the flashmob, an impromptu community beating (or subverting) an established one, “doing it for the Lulz”. The people behind the campaign, as the BBC noted, had tried this before, with the rather less “real music”-ish aim of getting Rick Astley to #1. There’s a “social media for its own sake” feel to flashmobs and the same is to some extent true of this.
Sony: well, duh, good day at the office for them. And it’s also worth thumbing-up the organisers for linking their campaign to the Shelter charity as soon as it got momentum – 70 grand raised for the homeless at Christmas is the one unarguably positive outcome of all this.
The Great British Public: The hangover may be lengthy and tedious and culminate in a Richard Curtis film about the organisers. But for now real winners here are us: while there’s lots of interesting things to say about the RATM incident the overriding thing about it is that it’s funny. How could it not be? Cowell and Rage are (in public at least) both caricatures: when two such collide the results are often comical.
The basic gag is fine – though it got swamped by rhetoric soon enough – but the joy this week has been in the incidental details. Joe throwing darts at a picture of Zach De La Rocha. Rage calling their single’s buyers “freedom fighters”. Mail commenters praising RATM for being anti-EU. The BBC telling a band not to sing “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” and being surprised at what happens. The one word which sums the whole thing up is “pantomime” – everyone playing their big, campy part to entertain us all. And why not? It’s the season for it after all.