All I Want For Christmas is: an end to the shallow, image-obsessed, X-Factor culture
JACK RIVLIN: Why I’m backing Rage Against The Machine for Christmas number 1, even though I hate their music.
Remember when there were good songs in the iTunes chart? Before Woolworths and Virgin Megastores got crunched, idiots were still buying CD singles. Alas, the recession hammered the final nail into the CD’s coffin, and downloading became the order of the day for popular music fans. Today’s iTunes top ten is a who’s who of pointless wankers with stupid names like Ke$ha and 3OH!3. Their albums may as well be called Made In Taiwan, so synthetic is their sound. Currently only two artists in the Top Ten write their own songs. One is 1980s Cindies stalwart Journey, a band so naff that even iTunes describes them as “reviled by critics.” The other is, of course, Rage Against The Machine.
The chart ‘battle’ between Rage Against The Machine and Joe McElderry has made it hard to ignore the fact that we are all living under the tyranny of Simon Cowell. I don’t actually like Rage Against The Machine: I’m fairly sure you have to be one of those people who uses emoticons, goes paintballing and wears a fleece to enjoy their music. But I hate Joe McElderry and everything he stands for far more. A cover of a Miley Cyrus song at Christmas number one? You won’t find a more nauseating slice of commercialism on the shelves this Crimbo. The final straw for me came during an interview where McElderry was asked what music he liked. “New chart stuff, all the stuff in the charts” he responded in his high-pitched Geordie babble, complete with rising intonation. He might as well have said, “I like whatever you like.” That interview drove me straight to Ladbrokes.com where I stuck £10 on Killing In The Name wiping Joe McElderry like a dirty arse.
Joe McElderry represents everything that is wrong with popular culture. When I look at Joe I don’t see a, good-looking, quite-good-at-singing 18 year old student from South Shields. I see Fearne and Reggie from Radio One, I see a rack of ‘distressed’ jeans and checked shirts in TopMan, I see the T4 Hollyoaks omnibus punctuated by adverts for the iPod nano. All of these cultural crimes masquerade as ‘friendly’ and ‘cool,’ when in reality they are little more than advertising campaigns for an entire movement of contrived individuality. Joe McElderry, with an identity constructed in a Shoreditch office, is their mascot. He is all persona and no personality.
Obviously it’s not McElderry’s fault. Simon Cowell has made it his calling to use chumps like Joe as the inoffensive posterboys for a musical genre that is more tedious and numbing than it is repulsive. It’s hard to hate Vernon Kay or TopMan clothes; and it’s easy to have Hollyoaks or Radio One on in the background, but they rarely arouse more than a faint smile of recognition. The same logic applies to Cowell’s genre of music, particularly since most of the songs are covers of ones we’ve heard before: tried-and-tested, risk-free, guaranteed hits. That is the genius of X-Factor Pop: it doesn’t divide opinion like gangsta rap or heavy metal; it makes the music that a lot of people like, but no one loves.
Some people say that Simon Cowell has saved the music industry. As the decade ends, critics are looking on with “we-know-it’s-shit-music-but-isn’t-Simon-clever” admiration. Like him or loathe him, they argue, Cowell has rescued a dying industry by getting people to buy records again. Whether these people genuinely thought that music would stop being made because of a decline in Polydor’s profits is unclear. They certainly haven’t acknowledged that the real victims of a recession in the music industry would be rich record companies and manufactured talentless ‘stars.’ Take profit margins and turnover targets out of the equation and music reverts to what it should be about: good music. Cowell has propped up the industry with the same artificial, image-conscious genre that was losing out: he hasn’t saved music from anything except integrity. It’s all so shallow.
But what about Susan Boyle? Is talent show TV getting past its image obsession? No, chief. Boyle is the exception that proves the rule. Just when people were wondering whether the entertainment industry had got a little bit superficial, along came ugly Susan to prove it wasn’t all about how you looked. Even though all we could talk about was…how she looked. All the time we celebrated the fact an ugly person could be a popstar, we couldn’t help but being surprised that an ugly person could be a popstar. Boyle relieved our guilt about image obsession, despite keeping us focused on image. One SuBo gave Cowell the moral licence for a hundred more Joe McElderrys.
Cowell’s empire of artificial cool isn’t going anywhere, and Killing In The Name reaching number one wouldn’t change a damn thing. If anything, a chart ‘battle’ will, like a close election, bring out either side’s core vote. Rage Against The Machine are, depressingly, on the same Sony label as Joe McElderry. And who cares about the charts anyway? Anyone with any serious interest in musical talent stopped looking at them long ago. But there’s still a point to prove. Forty years ago, popular music was of a decent standard because everyone had a lot in common. Today, in our fragmented society, music industry bosses have struggled to cater to such a variety of tastes. The result is a lowest common denominator approach, producing songs which are hard to describe as anything other than “alright.” It would be nice if just for once, we could restore our faith in popular opinion and prove that not everyone falls for this manufactured drivel. That’s all I want for Christmas.