Why rage against the chart?

NOT since 2004’s re-release of the charity single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ has the Christmas number one chart spot not been all about The X Factor. Even when Rage Against The Machine took the crown in 2009, the whole race was centred around not letting The X Factor winner, that year Joe McElderry, win the prime title for a fifth consecutive year. It was rage against the music industry and its heavy-handed manipulation of consumer desires. It was Facebook versus television, and social media won out.

But did any of the people who went out and bought the Rage single actually care all that much about the music charts or the state of the music industry? Looking back at the Facebook group that started it all, it seems safe to say that the group originators, Tracy and Jon Morter, were keen to remind people what the music chart was and that it could and should be for everyone. They did some good things with their Rage campaign, raising over £100,000 for the charity group Shelter. They also were not nearly as antagonistic about the competition as some of the group members, who appear to have become far too excited over the tiniest taste of rebellion. Many of these Ragers who profess to ‘rage against the machine’ are probably about as anarchistic as a teenage David Cameron. The chart is all about capitalism in the end.

It seems a shame that a mechanism that was once an important measure of musical success has become so distorted. The Official UK chart is still produced by BBC Radio 1 every Sunday evening, but the music industry has charts coming out of its finely-tuned ears. Amazon and iTunes are both big contenders with a might almost as worthy as the Official chart, particularly as downloads- legal in this case- are becoming the most popular medium. Think back to the last time you bought a CD, an actual disk, complete with moodily-lit photos and lyrics and a long list of ‘thank yous’ on the back page- for most of you, I’m thinking, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? As is often the case with the download generation, we are becoming further and further removed from tangibility of product and this applies to our knowledge of chart positions too. Many of us can name a few recent singles we’ve heard on the radio but have no idea where these songs may have charted (unless a persistent and repetitive radio DJ tells it was at number one whenever he plays it). I don’t think any of us really care either; as long as we can continue to buy the music we want on the medium we prefer then it is inconsequential to us whether others may also be enjoying the same. We have, for the most part, outgrown the high school politics of popularity, which leaves only a small proportion of the population, between the ages of about ten and sixteen maybe, who are bothered by weekly chart outcomes.

Except at Christmas. For some strange reason, being top of the Christmas chart is seen as number one of the number ones. It was an integral strand of the popular Christmas film Love Actually- and this was in 2003, pre-X Factor, writer Richard Curtis recognising the strangely farcical nature of the Christmas chart having his desperate faded pop star Billy Mack (Bill Nighy, excellent as always) promise to perform naked on live television if he achieved the coveted standing. If this joking prediction ever comes true then the music industry has reached a strange junction indeed.

So who are this year’s prime competitors? First and foremost, obviously, will be The X Factor winner, of which there is no clear favourite at the moment due to controversy among the contenders. Former X Factor winner Joe McElderry is taking another shot with a cover of George Michael’s ‘Last Christmas’- a song which is certainly likely to sell but likely not as many as his predecessor’s undoubtedly will. Michael Bublé is releasing a Christmas album entitled ‘Christmas’ which currently stands at number one in the Amazon chart, based entirely on pre-orders as the album is not out just yet. It is not known which single he may release off the album, but any he does are going to be favourites to be in the Top Ten.  Coldplay are rereleasing last year’s Christmas single ‘Christmas Lights’ and Hurts have a new track, perhaps more appropriate for the week after Christmas as it is called ‘All I Want For Christmas Is New Year’s Day’.  Unfortunately Justin Bieber is also gearing up to compete with his song, ‘Mistletoe’, and I imagine that most of us will be more rattled if this gets to number one than we will be if X Factor does – because this is the one time of year that we care. If you’re looking for something a little more upbeat in your Christmas music, then how about The Wombles’ rerelease of the 1975’s ‘Wombling Merry Christmas’ which originally charted at number two?

Even acts, considered novelties themselves, such as The Wombles realise the power of The X Factor. Their album, released at the end of November, pokes fun at the cultural saturation of the show. For one thing, the album is called ‘The W Factor’ , for another, the album cover features a panel of Womble judges, one quite clearly Simon Cowell, hands over his ears, eyes diverted away from two Wombles dancing before him with rather tall blonde quiffs. It’s a visual gag which anyone who knows anything about popular music culture will instantly get- and its being made by an act who were commercially popular in their day, though never critically recognised. At least The Wombles play instruments though- and, if you listen with some nostalgia to the album, you’ll see that they’re not bad at guitar considering the thickness of their fingers. Their ‘Wombling Merry Christmas’ really is pretty catchy.

It seems then that the one time of year a larger proportion care about the music chart is becoming more and more of a jibing poke at the industry itself. We can be almost certain that The X Factor winner will take the number one place, but if oldie acts like The Wombles and even the usually dour-faced Coldplay can join the festivities, then it must all be in the name of something. We care about our music at Christmas; in the past it could get quite competitive. Now it seems we’re completing a cycle, rolling back into the BandAid spirit of 2004. People lighten up at Christmas, they’re more open to fun, even the musicians themselves who are ultimately ‘competing for number two because no-one else has the rather unfair advantage of such a long prime time TV slot’- and that comes from the mouth of Tomsk the Womble himself.