Something which seemed unthinkable only a few weeks ago has just happened. ‘Killing In The Name‘, a 1992 song about police brutality and racism has beaten the X Factor and Simon Cowell to the Christmas number one. The final festive chart topper of the decade is by fiercely radical rap metal group Rage Against The Machine. It’s a story that has captured the public imagination, and captivated the corporate mass media. But what is the significance – if any – of this event, and what does it say about the future of campaigning in the age when internet social networking has met deep economic recession?
When the ‘campaign’ began in November, many treated it as a light-hearted joke. Jon Morter (a DJ), and his wife Tracy (an astrophysics graduate turned gig photographer) apparently launched the ‘Rage Against The Machine For Christmas No. 1‘ Facebook group to make a point about the commercialisation of pop music, and the monotony of Cowell’s charges getting to number one for each of the previous four years.
“It’s a rallying cry,” Jon told NME.com about the choice of song. “It’s been taken on by thousands in the group as a defiance to Simon Cowell’s ‘music machine’. Some certainly do see it as a direct response to him personally. If that’s what they take out of that song, then that’s fine for them. We’ve nothing personal against him at all, we just do not want yet another Christmas chart-topper from that show again.”
However, the ‘joke’ soon became serious as the week leading up to the Christmas chart came round, and Facebook users joined the group in their hundreds of thousands. By 7 pm on the Sunday, almost a million had joined the party.
So what does this all mean? First, let’s take a look at the songs. In the blue corner sits Joe McElderry, winner of the X Factor, a prime time Saturday night karaoke contest/enormous focus group, the final of which was seen by eighteen million people – approaching a third of the UK population. ‘His’ song is ‘The Climb‘, which was originally performed by teen superstar Miley Cyrus, in her guise as ‘Hannah Montana‘. That version was released just nine months ago by Walt Disney Records. A slow ballad, its lyrics are full of ‘you can make it on your own’ individualism, with lines about how “the struggles I’m facing” are “not breaking” the singer. It’s hard to imagine a more blatantly commercial product.
In the red corner we have Rage Against The Machine, now veteran musicians whose ‘bombtracks’ have thrown down challenges to the powers that be ever since their 1992 debut. In the meantime they have supported radical resistance to the capitalist system, faced down police attack at the 2000 Democratic Convention, and – together with documentary maker Michael Moore and a group of fans – actually shut down the New York Stock Exchange for the day, a feat that can be seen in their video for ‘Sleep Now In The Fire‘. ‘Killing In The Name’, one of their earliest tracks, calls out “some of those who work forces”, who also “burn crosses” – a reference to institutional police racism recorded in the wake of the videotaped police beating of Rodney King and the Los Angeles riots. As is now well known, it ends with the screamed refrain of “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me”, a tirade which guaranteed near zero airplay, at least until recently.
It would be one thing if Sony Music – who own the Epic label that Rage are signed to – had decided to aggressively market this most unlikely of festive hits, and then hundreds of thousands had bought it. But it is the spontaneous, grassroots, and non-hierarchical nature of the ‘rage4xmas’ phenomenon which is arguably its most intriguing feature. Though the Morters have become unofficial mass media spokespeople for the movement, many thousands of individuals have played their own self-designated roles – whether that be through emailing requests to radio shows, rebutting online criticism (such as the Daily Telegraph’s ‘Rage Against the Machine v The X Factor: tragic isn’t it?‘ article) or just persuading their friends to get involved. Typically, an individual would make a suggestion on the Facebook group, then many hundreds would instantly follow it up, overwhelming mainstream media switchboards and inboxes.
The sneering disgust and fear of the mob in the Telegraph’s article typifies one pole of mainstream media response, the other being wry intrigue. While the right wing paper’s TV features editor claimed that “a snowballing horde of simpletons” were propelling a “tone-deaf pretend-anarchist” to the top of the charts in a “dunderheaded pseudo-protest”, the BBC was often more interested in the spectacle. The online BBC magazine even devoted a whole article to decoding the lyrics, suggesting that the explicit last section could be translated as: “Since I believe police officers and law-makers to be institutionally corrupt, I see no need to follow their instructions.”
Of course, the success of the song certainly does not mean that all group members or downloaders hold such opinions. However, posters quickly developed a sense of group solidarity, often referring to each other as ‘comrades’ in the ‘revolution’. Others described how they see Simon Cowell and the X Factor as being symbolic of the whole capitalist system, and the worship of profit at the cost of everything else. “Fuck you, I won’t buy what you sell me” quickly became the group’s rallying slogan. As slogans go, it’s not a revolutionary one, but perhaps it does indicate inchoate disillusionment with the current set-up, and the production line X Factor world of elite winners and demoralised losers.
Rage’s live performance on BBC 5 Live was censored on the 17th after the band didn’t do as they were told, and swore on breakfast radio. But before the song was aired, lead vocalist Zack de la Rocha proclaimed that: “I think that it says something about the real tensions that people are experiencing all over the UK and in the United States as well, and i think that people would love to hear a song that reflects some of the tensions that they are experiencing in their daily lives.”
Maybe, with no working class movement worthy of the name yet able to fight back against the recessionary ruling class onslaught, this is the initial form which anger is taking, within a generation raised to consume. Meanwhile, it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the internet – a tool given to us by advanced capitalist development – could potentially be used to resist the destruction which late capitalism necessarily brings.
Also published on the Mute magazine website.