A perplexing story unfolded over the first few weeks of December, as Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name, originally released in 1992, made it’s way to the top of the UK charts just in time for Christmas. The UK media makes a big deal over what happens to be the top selling song leading up to Christmas day, making it into a big story. Additionally, one could not avoid those people who were working with the Rage Against the Machine Christmas #1 campaign. For the first time in thirty-three years, I was actually aware of the battle for the number one single at Christmas.
As much as I like Rage Against the Machine, and as amusing as the campaign was, one word continued to echo around my head: Why?
The artists themselves, of course, would like to be number one. It means that they are selling more songs than anybody else. Always a good place to be. But why did the fans care? Why should people time their purchase to make an impact on the charts — doesn’t that just deprive you of having the music when you want it? Many people appear to have bought a song they already had, in order to help push that song to number one … that is just strange. The goal became the chart position itself, as though being number one makes a song (or a band) better than it would have been without it. Or more successful. Or more popular.
None of this is true. The chart is merely a representation of what people happen to be buying — it makes no statement about the quality of the music.
Take, for example, Led Zeppelin. They have never had a number one song. In 1971, they released their fourth album. It remains a popular little collection of songs, boasting oft-heard numbers such as Stairway to Heaven. It was released in November, just in time for Christmas. The Xmas number one that year? Benny Hill, singing Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West).
On May 5th, 1973, Led Zeppelin broke the record for the number of people attending a concert. The number one song at the time? Dawn (featuring Tony Orlando), Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree. Of course, that was knocked off shortly thereafter by Wizzard with See My Baby Jive.
I cannot think that anybody actually believes that Dawn or Wizzard were more popular than Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s (or at any point in time). Nor are people apt to suggest that many people consider Ernie to be a better (or more popular) song than Stairway to Heaven. It just happened to sell a large number of copies over a short period of time.
The presence of number one hits do not make Dawn and Tony Orlando or Wizzard into more successful acts than Led Zeppelin, from any perspective — financial, aesthetic, critical, or otherwise. Nor does the Christmas number one battle mean anything in regards to Rage Against the Machine or Joe McElderry. The former has its legacy pretty much written — their big hits and influential work was done 15 to 20 years ago. The latter has just released his first song, and (presumably) his career is still ahead of him, whether or not that song was number one on Christmas day.
The Guardian has suggested that the campaign is a good thing, that it shows that the chart reflects the “democratised” nature of purchase-by-download. I disagree.
The presence of Killing in the Name Of at the top of the chart is merely a victory of viral marketing via social networks over the television marketing of shows such as X Factor. Neither is much to my liking. Rather than having a music chart that can reflect the music that people in December 2009 like and enjoy, all this battle does is remind us that what drives music sales is not the quality of the music being produced, but the quality of the marketing behind the music.
The Facebook group, and overall campaign is simply a marketing campaign. A free marketing campaign, which record labels will certainly attempt to emulate in future years, attempting to get nostalgic adults to knock their children’s music from the number one spot with their superior purchasing power. A true “victory for pop” (to borrow the phrase from The Guardian) would be for a song to gain momentum without a “grassroots” marketing campaign on Facebook, or a season of television to promote the singer. It would be for people to discover a piece of music, love it, share it, and watch it grow in popularity.
Music is not — or should not be — about the chart or the marketing. It should be about the music. The campaign that put Rage Against the Machine at number one simply shows how far away from that we are.
Not all of it is bad, however. The benefit of having a grassroots campaign is that the people involved in the marketing actually care, network, and bond. In this case, those behind the Rage Against the Machine campaign are also trying to support Shelter. As this is a charity that I like to support, I’d suggest that you might want to make a donation.