RSS Feed
Dec 21

Number 1s of 2009: 20 December 2009

Posted on Monday, December 21, 2009 by Paul in Music

Well, now.  If you’re British, you already know where this is heading.  But for everyone else, let’s set the scene.

It must have seemed so simple.  The X Factor would crown its 2009 winner on Sunday 13 December, release the single the next day (invariably a rousing ballad about how hard the winner had worked and what an incredible journey they had been on, and a hastily assembled clip-show video), and then soar to the top of the charts to be number 1 on Christmas day.  It worked in 2005 with Shayne Ward.  It worked in 2006 with Leona Lewis.  It worked in 2007 with Leon Jackson.  And it worked in 2008 with Alexandra Burke.  Ratings were huge.  No other record company was trying to compete.  Bookmakers weren’t even wasting their time offering odds on the Christmas number 1, because it was such a foregone conclusion.  They were only taking bets on who’d come second.

What could possibly go wrong?

Yes, really.  “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine reached number 25 on its original release in 1992, and was, to put it mildly, not an obvious contender for the 2009 Christmas number 1.  Its unexpected appearance at the top of the charts is entirely due to a Facebook campaign expressly intended to stop Simon Cowell from getting his fifth consecutive Christmas Number One.  This has been tried before.  A groundswell of support last year saw Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” reach number two in competition to the Alexandra Burke cover, but it was never close to winning.  Rage Against the Machine managed it with a 10% margin, selling half a million copies in a week.

So, nobody really expected this to happen.  When the midweek sales came out on Tuesday, and showed Rage ahead, people sat up and took notice – but at that point, X Factor was briefly ahead on the digital sales.  And besides, the singles chart counts from Sunday to Saturday; the RATM single had an extra day of sales, so it wasn’t too surprising to find it in the lead.  What’s more, the X Factor single didn’t come out on CD until Wednesday – and while CD singles aren’t a big deal for most releases these days, they do matter to X Factor releases, which sell in large numbers to very occasional record buyers.  When the CD single hit the shelves, the gap started to close rapidly.  By the time RATM themselves started doing the media rounds, pledging to donate their royalties to charity and hold a free show if they won, things were getting interesting.  RATM were still ahead with one day to go, but all logic said that the X Factor single would overtake it at the last minute.  And then… it didn’t.

You may well ask what exactly this proves.  After all, “Killing in the Name” was released by Sony – not just a major label, but the very same major label ultimately behind the X Factor single.  (Although claims that Simon Cowell personally stands to gain from its sales are apparently mistaken – it’s a different division.)  As an act of mass consumerism, the campaign is hardly the stuff of revolution.  Some people are claiming that it’s a victory for “real music”, whatever that means, but that’s a little silly; it’s at number one because of the campaign, not because half a million people suddenly woke up one week and decided they had a sudden urge to buy Rage Against The Machine’s seventeen-year-old debut single.

No, to understand this, you need to understand the quaint British tradition of taking the Christmas Number One seriously.  In the eighties and nineties, the race for the Christmas Number One was a big deal.  The same held for the first half of this decade.  And then the whole thing got hijacked by the X Factor.  I think that really pushed this campaign over the edge: not just the fact that X Factor coronation singles are invariably syrupy mush, but their appropriation and destruction of a beloved (if utterly pointless) national institution.  As much as anything else, this is about a big chunk of the British public putting its collective foot down and telling Simon Cowell that the Christmas Number 1 slot isn’t his personal property.

In interviews this week, Simon Cowell has liked to point out that most Christmas Number 1s were terrible.  He has a point.  It hasn’t been about “real music” in years.  Nor will it be next year.  In 2004, it was the lousy Band Aid 20 charity single.  In 2002, it was another reality TV release, the debut single from Girls Aloud.  2001 was a novelty duet between Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman.  2000 was Bob the Builder.  1999 was Westlife.  And before that, there was a similar stretch of dominance by the Spice Girls.  1995 was “Earth Song.”  1993 was Mr Blobby.  1992 was “I Will Always Love You.”  Go back to the eighties, and you get two Cliff Richard singles, two fifties throwbacks, and Renee & RenatoThe full list is here – and yes, it’s mostly crap.

But that’s not the point.  When the British public think about the Christmas number one, they think fondly back to the days when it was a race.  Sometimes something half-decent won, like boy band Easy 17’s “Stay Another Day” in 1994.

Or “2 Become 1” in 1996, or even the occasional genuine classic like the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” in 1981.  More often, it was something jawdroppingly awful, but that was part of the charm too.  Here’s veteran MOR singer Cliff Richard with his 1988 Christmas number 1, “Mistletoe and Wine.”  Look out for the cutting edge choreography in the last couple of minutes.

The point is, it’s about the contest, even if the contest is pointless.  And that’s why people resent the X Factor coronation singles in large enough quantities to pull off something like this.  Nobody would care if it came out in February.

Is the music irrelevant, then?  Not entirely.  The X Factor winning single is always supposed to be the pay-off to the story that they’ve been telling on the screen, and it’s usually a cover version of a song that makes all the right points; “Killing in the Name” was chosen because its sheer inappropriateness, utter randomness, and vaguely unfocussed yelling was perfect for the story the other side wanted to tell.  In both cases, it’s not about what the song actually says, it’s about what it means (or is meant to mean) in context.  It’s all very Phonogram.

You’ll note I haven’t said much about the X Factor single itself.  It’s by 18-year-old Joe McElderry, a sweet if bland kid who does have a decent voice, albeit one that seems more suited for musicals, and who has had the misfortune to get caught in the crossfire here.  That said, he’s such an archetypal X Factor contestant that it probably hasn’t helped.  If somebody like runner-up Olly Murs had won – more of a personality, a bit less anonymous – I wonder whether it would have made a difference.  In some gloriously misjudged interviews earlier in the week, Cowell and fellow judge Cheryl Cole accused campaigners of “bullying” McElderry.  Coming from a show that deliberately invites bad singers back to be humiliated on national television before a mocking audience, they would be in no position to take the moral high ground on that one, even if it were true.

McElderry’s single, in another questionable call by Cowell, is “The Climb”, a cover of a Miley Cyrus song taken from the soundtrack to Hannah Montana: The Movie.  It’s a choice that practically embodies all that is safe, boring and corporate about the X Factor; despite furious endeavours on the part of her record company, Miley Cyrus has not yet taken off as a mainstream star in Britain outside her original Disney audience, and hitching McElderry to her, however remotely, was probably an error intself.  It’s also, ironically, a song about the importance of trying your best and working hard, because it’s not the winning that counts, “it’s the climb.” 

Chances are we’ll be coming back to “The Climb” next week, because X Factor coronation singles tend to stay at the top for several weeks, while RATM is a one-week protest stunt.  This has, in fact, happened before – back in the show’s first year, Steve Brookstein entered at number 2, though he had the excuse of competing with Band Aid 20.  He climbed to number one the next week.  McElderry will probably do the same.

McElderry could also, with some justification, point out that RATM’s total probably contains a hell of a lot more duplicate purchases than his – and that with only 50,000 in it, RATM’s extra day of sales might conceivably have tipped the balance.  In fact, his record sold as well as the other X Factor winners.

Wrapping up, we might as well note that Rage Against the Machine had a total of six UK top 40 hits during their original career.  Until this week, their biggest hit was actually “Bulls on Parade”, which made number 8 in 1996.  Frankly, it’s not one of their better ones, so here’s the video for “Sleep Now In The Fire” instead.

And Simon Cowell can take comfort in this: he may not have the number one spot, but his show does still dominate the rest of the chart.  Between them, X Factor alumni and judges, and old songs charting on the strength of an X Factor cover, take up 11 slots on this week’s chart.  Throw in Susan Boyle and you get 12.  And that’s before we even get on to songs by other artists which were promoted on the results show.  But still, it’s not quite his world any more, this week.

This week’s other new entries:

Bring on the comments

  1. “Starstrukk”

    Somewhere, Scott Lobdell’s head just ‘sploded.


  2. Mike says:

    This whole thing (the idea of a Christmas single, X Factor-related songs dominating the singles charts, etc.) appears to me, a foreigner, as something vaguely quaint and amusing and British, yet would make my blood boil if it was going on in the States. So go figure.

  3. Paul – Just wanted to say I love these chart updates you do, and it’s really helped reignite my interest in pop music during 2009. Seeing just how influential the X-Factor is week after week was a real eye opener too, and I totally agree with your analysis of why RATM worked so well as a bizarre antithesis.

    Merry Christmas and all the best for 2010!

  4. kelvingreen says:

    Well, I’m not a huge fan of the Rage single, and I’ve not heard the other one at all, but I bought the former single anyway, partly because (a) as you say, the Christmas Number One isn’t Cowell’s property, and (b) Rage are giving their proceeds to a worthy charity. The latter reason is worth it alone.

    I suspect that if they’d given the lad that Journey song he sang earlier in the competition (and that has been doing the rounds in the hype run-up to Glee), he would have run away with it. But Cowell seemed to have something against the song for some unknown reason.

  5. jng2058 says:

    I find it interesting that, thanks to this column, I actually know more about the ins and outs of the British Top 10 than I do that of the country in which I reside, the USA.

    Mind you, I don’t actually care about either chart and am really just here for the comics. But its a testament to either your writing skills or my having become a habitual reader of this site that I read about it anyway.

    So good job, I guess.

  6. Barb says:

    Don’t Stop Believing is getting some play in its original version as well as the Glee cast cover in the US. I’m really glad we don’t have this silly Christmas #1 thing. One year I was visiting England over the holidays and there was this terrible group called the Cheeky Girls in the running.

  7. nothinfinah says:

    God, Stay Another Day was a great song. I wish iTunes had it, as I don’t have a copy of it anywhere 🙁
    The video was suitably 90s cheese tho’ 😛

    I miss the silliness of the whole Christmas Number one race now that I live in the States. Will it be a heart warming song about christian kindness or a rousing anthem about getting drunk and eatting all the mince pies?! Who knew!? It’s inextricably linked to christmas memories of my childhood, like guessing which soap star would be appearing in your local panto.
    For a while there it was practically guaranteed that Cliff Richard would be #1 and then later int he 90s the spice girls.
    Shame Pop Idol and X Factor have taken over everything.

    Anyway, Happy Christmas!

  8. […] indulges in other areas of pop culture some might consider lowbrow), but I thought his synopsis of Rage Against The Machine becoming this year’s Christmas single was especially well-written and a great article […]

  9. zippy8 says:

    “As much as anything else, this is about a big chunk of the British public putting its collective foot down and telling Simon Cowell that the Christmas Number 1 slot isn’t his personal property.”

    As well written, argued and analysed as this piece is you couldn’t ask for a better summary than this.

  10. Y’know… I don’t disagree with the idea that all of the music Simon Cowell is associated with is complete crap.

    But the way everyone is talking about this, Cowell seems to have a mass hypnosis ray that he fires upon an unsuspecting planet from his hidden fortress on the moon, making everyone buy this music before their good judgment takes back control and they spend their money on “real music”. We know that’s not true. He wouldn’t be able to keep putting it out if people didn’t keep buying it in droves. The fault for crap being popular is that everyone around you likes crap.

    So long as everyone keeps lying their with their mouths wide open, and waving their money them, guys like Cowell happily keep pooping into it.

  11. SC says:

    Just like what happened in “Love Actually” with Billy Mack.

  12. Jack says:

    Even being an ocean away, this little tale of insurgency against corporate ownership of mass culture seems to me like a small christmas miracle. Rage Against The Machine’s music really suits the times, with the economic crisis and all that, as a reminder that this way, the way capitalism has turned out to be – it’s not the only way OR the right way, for that matter.

    As politicians and governments keep spetacularly failing at the issues that humanity has to face at the begining of the 21st century, such as the erradication of poverty, the overall increase in mankind’s quality of life (not just a privilegd few) and the enviromental issues that have only been adressed so far in the “let’s look at the other way and hope it goes away manner”, popular insurgency and rebellion will become inevitable. Musicians and artists such as RATM have an important role in raising awareness for these issues, something way more important than cheesy poppy tunes that only provide trashy escapism for the masses.

  13. LiamK says:

    I like Charlie Brooker’s suggestion, that next year the campaign should be to get Joe’s single from this year to number 1.

  14. Reboot says:

    The suggestion I saw from Brooker was to get a couple of 8-year olds, have them chant “Simon Cowell is shit” for 15 seconds, and sell it for 2p (or the bare minimum required to chart, if higher)

  15. […] there are other Christmas Miracles on hand today.  My personal favorite is the way Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing In the Name” has claimed the #1 Christmas slot…, breaking the iron-fisted grip of The X […]

  16. […] of course, hilarious. Here’s a couple of pieces worth chewing over. Firstly, here’s Paul O’Brien with an overview of the whole history of Christmas Number-1. Secondly, here’s Tom Ewing playfully listing the winners and the losers from the whole […]

  17. Simon says:

    Cowell should have got McElderry to rush out a cover of ‘Killing in the name of’.

  18. Dawn says:

    I actually watched mistletoe and wine for the choreography. At first I was very annoyed at you, but in the end I was laughing. Still 4 minutes of my life I wont get back.

Leave a Reply