An Ethnographic Study of the Christmas Number One War of 2009

Yes the title is being slightly flippant. But so much has been written about this from quite impassioned points of view, I thought a step back might be useful, maybe even interesting.

This conflict consisted of 3 sides.

On one side, Simon Cowell, and everything that he stands for about homogenised music and coercive narrative driven so-called ‘reality TV’. He turns people, and art, into product, which he sells rather well, incidentally.

On the opposing side we find the #RATM4xmas collective, thousands and thousands of people who bought the Rage Against the Machine track, Killing in the Name, in order to protest the capitalisation of the music and entertainment industries. The song’s main message was ‘fuck you I won’t buy what you tell me’. People involved in this campaign also donated to Shelter.

And then, somewhere off to one side we find the tech-intelligentsia (tech, for the most part because the RATM campaign was fought largely online) who pointed out the irony that the RATM track was owned by SonyBMG, Cowell’s company, and that Killing in the Name’s anti capitalist lyric somewhat opposes rebellion-by-purchasing.

Cowell and the avatars of his narrative made their pleas, they spoke in the ’emotional dialogue to camera’ format that their viewers recognise and their detractors despise. And from the the angry opposing side bile spilled forth.

“[..] nobody’s buying The Climb in order to actually listen to it. They’re buying it out of sedated confusion, pushing a button they’ve been told will make them feel better. It’s the sound of the assisted suicide clinic, and it doesn’t deserve to be No 1 this Christmas.” Charlie Brooker – in The Guardian

This campaign wasn’t just against Cowell and what he has done to music and entertainment, it was against the people who subscribe to that entertainment too. Oh, not always with such malignancy, but almost always with a sense of pity for those deluded enough to buy into the Xfactor – as if they didn’t understand that it was a simple and constructed narrative, as manufactured reality isn’t a part of all of our lives, as if ‘quality’ was an empirical judgement.

The Xfactor the cultural equivalent of a Disney film, but with less kitsch value. It represents a collective dream, a wish upon a star – the wish to be Stars. It is also easy viewing for people with heavy lives and tired minds. Sure the Xfactor pretends to be real, but so does theatre, film, television drama, video games. Reality TV just pretends to be a different type of real, one that is potentially dangerous. To rival this constructed spectacle is necessary, to discount its cultural importance is ignorant. If you consider Xfactor to be a blight, look for the source of the illness, and not the symptoms.

There’s also more that the rebellion of the #RATM4xmas collective represented – the fact that they *were* a collective was incredibly important. This was a people-driven, peer-to-peer campaign using primarily social media driven action. Hundreds of thousands of people were mobilised, it was Christmassy because they were Giving To Charity (the act that absolves all) but above all, hundreds of thousands of people voted with their wallets, they stood up against the spectacle – and in a way they would have been unable to do so more than 5 years ago. They were empowered by technology – this was action, not just outrage, not just words.

The most impassioned, and nasty debate that I’ve heard on the matter has, however, come from the last camp, from some of the tech-intelligentsia. “These kids have no clue, they’re stupid, it’s a black and white act in a grey world, it’s symptomatic of a whole generation who can’t see past the façade to the machine inside”.

Sure the RATM campaign reacted in a binary sort of way, but do you know what? Most of them knew by the end that the money went to SonyBMG, most of them understood the irony of singing ‘fuck you I won’t buy what you tell me’ as they bought along with thousands of others, but they didn’t care. They didn’t care about the money, or charity, they cared about their culture, so they changed it.

They pressed the button that they had decided would make them feel better. And it did. Because it wasn’t just them, there were thousands doing it. To misunderstand this, to dismiss thousands of people as stupid is callous at best, and at worst, ignorant.

This was no revolution. This was a more-generally working class viewing public, versus the tech-literate, generally young, largely university educated (Facebook, certainly) online population, arguing how they wanted society. Not how they wanted it to be (this is just a Christmas number one, after all) – but that they wanted collectively to change it. Action to take, cause and effect, a kind of community that those who grew up in the 80s and 90s haven’t  really known. Big action, without anything between you and the button.

Did I buy the RATM song? No. I did buy White Wine in The Sun, mainly because I liked it, but also because a couple of people suggested it might be a nicer alternative to a sweary angry Christmas song. I also bought Pamplemoose’s song Always in the Season, because I really love the way it sounds and the things it says. Which I think is a good reason to buy something. And is no better or worse than anyone else’s choice.

Which is the thing really, that this is heading towards. No choice is less valid than anyone else’s, here. And in a way, all of these points of view yearn for the same thing: cultural and political engagement on a personal level. Which with betraying bankers’ bonuses, shamed politicians, a lazy, fact-less, right wing mainstream media and Cop15 having collapsed like a flan in a cupboard, might just be coming to a head just when we need it.

Here’s to a new decade.

Merry Christmas.

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3 Responses to “An Ethnographic Study of the Christmas Number One War of 2009”

  1. almost witty December 21, 2009 at 11:10 am #

    Now if only we could harness that desire and power to change things and, y’know, unite to combat climate change or something.

  2. danbye December 21, 2009 at 11:28 pm #

    I really don’t think it’s about working vs. educated classes. I didn’t buy the RATM, largely because I already have it, but I know a whole bunch of people who did. They are easily contained by the demographic “under 45”, but not by “working class”, “middle class” or any other. I don’t know anyone who bought the no.2. Who are these people? Does Simon Cowell have them cloned?

  3. Hannah Nicklin December 22, 2009 at 11:24 am #

    @danbye I don’t necessarily think class was the battleground, but I do think it was an interesting factor. Class is an uncertain and complicated thing at the moment – but perhaps your not knowing anyone who bought the no.2 denotes where you are situated, and why you’ve not encountered anyone from the other situation?

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