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An Anarchic Christmas Miracle

by | 21 December, 2009

This year the UK has witnessed a Christmas miracle.

A miracle in the form of an organic, grass-roots movement to topple the multi-million-pound star-making machine that is the X Factor with an anti-establishment anthem that declares ‘Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me’.

For four consecutive years Simon Cowell’s progeny have taken the coveted Christmas number one slot. And although other artists have tried to champion alternative options up the chart, none have captured the hearts and minds of a nation quite like this one – to bring ‘Killing In The Name’, a 17-year-old song by Rage Against The Machine, a band that split nine years ago, to the top and, as the band state in another of their famous songs, ‘take the power back’.

At the beginning of December, even before more than 15 million Britons had tuned in to see Newcastle’s Jo McElderry crowned as X Factor winner, Jon Morter was struck by the seeming inevitability of another reality show-produced chart-topper and declared to Simon Cowell – via a Facebook group – “Fuck you, I won’t buy what you sell me”.

Within days, thousands of people had joined the chorus, and music fans and anarchists alike began to get an inkling that this might just work. By Monday, December 14th, when sales for the Christmas number one opened, hundreds of thousands of people were backing the campaign.

Rage Against The Machine

As Rage’s song appeared in the charts, as if from nowhere, the national media began to take notice and everyone from the NME to the BBC to The Times newspaper began reporting on it. The Facebook group had grown to more than 750,000 members, and the midweek charts showed that ‘Killing In The Name’ was beating McElderry’s cover of Miley Cyrus’s ‘The Climb’ by 175,163 to 109,726 on download sales; but that was before the physical CD copies of Joe’s single became available that day.

The band’s guitarist Tom Morello, probably still not quite believing this could happen, commented: “The one thing about the X Factor show, much like our own American Idol, is if you’re a viewer of the show you get to vote for one contestant or the other, but you don’t really get to vote against the show itself, until now.”

“There are a lot of people who don’t feel represented by it and this Christmas in the UK they’re having their say.

“My hope is that one of the results … is there’ll be a new generation of rockers who will take on the establishment with the music they write.”

In typical anti-establishment style, when Rage Against The Machine made an unexpected appearance on BBC’s Radio 5 live on Thursday, December 17th to discuss the campaign and perform the track – and had apparently agreed not to sing the 16 ‘fucks’ that underpin the song’s finale – it took nine absences of the word before front man Zac de la Rocha venomously spat ‘Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me’ into the microphone and across the airwaves. It took the show’s presenter’s five audible ones to angrily interrupt the performance, before declaring: “Everyone buy Joe’s single”.

Simon Cowell branded the campaign “stupid”, “cynical” and “very Scrooge”, but many other celebrities began to publicly pledge their support.

Nirvana and Foo Fighters legend Dave Grohl, who was touring the UK with his super group Them Crooked Vultures at the time, heard about the campaign at a motorway service station, and said he would buy the Rage single: “When people rise up and decide, ‘Hey man, I’m sick of this, let’s derail this other thing for something real’, I’m all for it.”

And while the cynics cited the fact Rage Against The Machine were signed to the record label Sony, the same label that houses Cowell’s Syco label, and called the protest pointless, as Sony would be the real winners regardless of which song came top, Rage announced they would donate all their proceeds from the sale of the single to the homeless charity, Shelter.

The influential actor and intellectual Stephen Fry tweeted his support for the campaign (“buy it now”), the charitable pledge, and the band’s swearing on Radio 5 (“well done, there isn’t enough on TV and radio”), and by Friday morning, sales stood at 306,115 for RATM versus 297,192 for Joe McElderry.

And then Paul McCartney – who had in fact performed on X Factor – weighed in on the debate: “I like the idea of this Rage Against The Machine thing that’s happening. I think that’s kind of interesting.”

“It’s out of leftfield, you know. Everyone expects Joe to do it, and he certainly will sell a lot of records. And if he gets to number one, good luck to him. But it would be kind of funny if a band like Rage Against The Machine got it, because it would prove a point.”

On Saturday Rage Against The Machine released a statement saying they would perform a free concert in the UK if their fans got ‘Killing In The Name’ to number one.

“Attention Freedom Fighters. Rage versus X Factor will be decided by Saturday’s sales. Spread the word. Knock on doors. Host downloading parties. Knock over old ladies buying X Factor. The clock is ticking.

“If ‘Killing In The Name’ is number one – we are coming. And it will be the victory party to end all victory parties.”

Meanwhile Joe McElderry was quoted as saying: “I’ve not heard the (RATM) single. I’ve heard it’s got quite a few swear words in it.”

And then, on Sunday, December 20th, the almost 1 million people who had signed up to the Facebook group witnessed a Christmas miracle, and the face of the modern British music charts at Christmas was changed forever, when ‘Killing In The Name’ sold around 500,000 copies to beat Joe McElderry’s sales of around 450,000 to the 2009 Christmas number one slot.

The band declared it a “huge victory for fans of real music”.

“We extend our heartfelt thanks to every fan and freedom fighter who helped make our anthem of defiance and rebellion the Anarchy Christmas Miracle of 2009.

“As promised we will play a free concert in the UK in celebration of this incredible upset victory over the heavily favoured X Factor single. We are also pleased that so much money has been raised for homeless charity Shelter and are happy to donate as well to aid this important cause.

“While there are many lessons that can be drawn from this historic upset, the main one is this: that ordinary people, banding together in solidarity, can change anything, be it the pop charts or the world.”

Amen to that.