Sunday 5 July 2015

Rage Against the Machine and the War That Wasn't There

From December 2009, when people got sufficiently annoyed about the X-Factor winner getting Christmas number one every year that Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” was sent into the charts as a protest.

I didn't buy “Killing in the Name” last week. This was simply a matter of laziness and absent-mindedness: the truth is that I was genuinely excited by the whole affair. Last week felt like a glorious battleground, with talent and imagination on one side, and unthinking mediocrity on the other. Pretty much the first thing I did after returning home on Sunday night was to check the internet and see whether the forces of good had been victorious. To see if Art had beaten Commerce, if passion had taken down background noise.

And then Rage Against the Machine won. And I felt incredibly stupid.

Of course, everyone knows by now that unsettling the charts hasn't produced any practical results. Cowell hasn't suffered, still selling an astonishingly large number of singles. The sales-driven nature of the music industry hasn't suffered, given that both Joe McElderry and Rage Against the Machine are signed to Sony. And I can't honestly believe that the campaign really changed anyone's mind about what counted as “good” or “worthwhile” music. The best you can say about the series of events is that it was an amusing practical joke that raised money for charity.

We knew all of this last week. But back then, the practical joke still seemed like a noble goal. Middle fingers were being extended en masse to the people who had the nerve to fill the charts with dreck. It didn't matter who was making money; all that mattered was that our disapproval was shown. But this was a trap: as soon as the campaign caught the public imagination, Simon Cowell won. Not just financially – that was inevitable. In being excited by this campaign, hundreds of thousands of people, myself included, were drawn into Cowell's ideology. Without realising it, this campaign made us accept the X-Factor's theory of what music should be.

The thing is, I don't even like Rage Against the Machine. They're clearly talented musicians. I've heard from people whose judgement I trust that they have incredible stage-presence. And I appreciate that their work is innovative. But “Killing in the Name” is a clattering, cacophonic, aimless rant at nothing in particular, written by grown men who seem to believe that yelling “fuck you” is in some way a transcendental act of rebellion. It's a song that attempts to bring down governments, but sounds more like an adolescent wailing about how unfair his life is. And this song was meant to be the champion of music as art.

I severely doubt that “Killing in the Name” was the favourite song of many people who bought the single last week. It certainly isn't the one most heavily opposed to Cowell's ethos. There are thousands of songs that are more heartfelt, or angrier, or more oddball than “Killing in the Name”. For saying that its choice was meant to be a howl of rebellion, the song is ensconced embarrassingly firmly in the pop-cultural establishment: the thing is seventeen years old, and is now considered family-friendly enough to appear on Guitar Hero II, or to be performed at 9am on 5 live. By choosing to buy a copy of “Killing in the Name”, one branch of populism was being replaced by another branch of populism, and just because “Killing in the Name” is more passionate and imaginative than “The Climb”, its position as the Cowell-beater was only ever a compromise.

This wasn't about Anti-Cowell music beating Cowell music. It was never attempting to be a victory for the odd, or the passionate, or the heartfelt. It was never really about music at all. This was about people creating a dramatic show – an imaginary war – where they could watch the hated Cowell's dark tower fall.

And this is where the ideology of the X-Factor comes in. True, it is a show that is only interested in generating mindless, heavily-produced, pigswill pop. But, as I understand it, the X-Factor isn't really about the music. It's about building stories. The functional, accurate, and absolutely identical voices of X-Factor singers aren't what people are voting on. They vote for the underdog, or the likeable guy, or the girl who's had an awful life, and is fighting here for her big chance. Music is judged not as music, but as part of a much larger drama. And those that win, those whose stories have the happy endings, are those who are chosen by an audience to be the most popular.

By pitching “Killing in the Name” against Joe McElderry, we were being made to think about music in the way that the X-Factor wants us to think about music: not as being a good song, but being part of a good story. We were made to buy music not because we liked it, but because we liked what the singer stood for, and we liked the thought of it winning a contest. We were persuaded that popularity and commercial appeal were just as worthwhile a barometer of musical quality as whether we liked a song.

In short, the race for Christmas number one was the final round of the X-Factor. And choosing which single to buy was no different to voting for your favourite singer on a premium rate number.

Seeing that “Killing in the Name” was the Christmas number one made everything horribly clear. The war I thought I was fighting had never happened. My symbol of Art had won a tacky popularity contest. And, as the crowd burst into applause, Simon Cowell was smiling.

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