John Walker's Electronic House

Why I Care About The Christmas Number One

by on Dec.20, 2009, under The Rest

The success of Rage Against The Machine being at number one this Christmas is interesting not because it’s one in the eye for whichever baddie you want to pick – X Factor, Simon Cowell, dreary mums – but rather for the power it displays.

I’ve never seen X Factor, nor have any idea what the winner – Joe I understand – sounds like when he sings. I’ve also no idea about the song he’s covering, which I read was originally sung by Miley Cyrus. (Which is about as ageing fact as you could ask for – I lost track of pop music before the song being covered was released.) It might be brilliant. I’m fairly sure it isn’t. But I don’t really have an opinion either way on whether a very drawn out karaoke contest merits so much attention – people seem to enjoy it a great deal, I’d rather wedge spikes into my face. I choose not to watch it (and to ignore most people’s Twitters on a Saturday evening), and thus it doesn’t get a chance to offend me. Not watching would seem a far more effective statement than messing with its Christmas No. 1 spot.

I also don’t care what song is at number one at Christmas. In fact, it’s only by this recent fuss that I’ve learned that X Factor winners have been Christmas number one for the previous four years. But as Cowell pointed out during the last week, before that it was Mr Blobby and Bob The Builder as much as it was anything more musical. The only interest I take in the seasonal chart is finding it amusing when greedy copyright whore Cliff Richard fails to get anywhere with his sanctimonious drivel.

I’m not especially over-excited at the irony that a song of such an unChristmassy nature has defied the season. My favourite memory of Killing In The Name comes from about five years ago in Bath’s Moles club. Back then they had a night called Purr in which live bands would play short sets, followed by a DJ playing mostly decent or interesting music. (I think Purr may have returned to Moles now, after going nomadic for a while, but for me it was about a certain time and certain people.) One problem Purr suffered from was the occasional invasion of the wrong type of students. Most weeks it was a fairly regular collection of people, but every now and then Quite The Wrong Sort would come in, shout at each other through all the live bands, and be generally awful. On such a week the DJ after the bands put on the Rage song, and these young flibbertigibbets, filled with their first tastes of alcohol, rushed to the dance floor to jump and enthusiastically shout the chorus. During this display, with all us old folks (late 20s, so very old) stood at the side acknowledging the song was no longer for our generation, a splendid bouncer, Big Ed, came up to Kieron and me. He leant his head toward us and joined in with the chorus, shouting, “FUCK YOU, I WON’T TIDY MY BEDROOM!” And in doing so said everything that needed to be said about the situation and made his way back to the doors.

I see no great victory against the likes of Cowell or the record labels. As everyone has pointed out since the start of this, both are signed to Sony, and blimey they must be rubbing their hands in glee. Just shy of a million copies sold once combined, which even at the budget prices KITN was going for has given them a pleasant Christmas treat. And Cowell is only likely to have sold more copies of the X Factor single once the race was on. If he expressed disappointment in public, I’m sure it was only to increase sales.

I don’t feel there’s anything special about preventing this kid from getting a Christmas number one. He hasn’t earned the right to one, and indeed it was the crushing inevitability of his success that inspired the campaign, rather than a personal vendetta. The suggestion that it’s unfair to him is quite ludicrous – his career, as phenomenally brief as it will likely be, will carry on regardless.

The reason why I am excited by the result that’s occurred is how it demonstrates the terrifying power of the internet. A couple of Facebook picked a seventeen year old song, and now it’s the Christmas number one.

The story is being reported for being remarkable because it’s the first number one by online sales alone, and because it’s the fastest selling online song of all time. It’s being recognised as the result of a Facebook campaign. It’s being discussed as a result of people being disgruntled by the X Factor control of the number one spot. But it’s not being discussed as an example of an enormous power that renders hugely long-held and firmly established parts of culture as meaningless.

Colin Paterson on the BBC suggests this could become an annual event. I’m fairly certainly he’s absolutely wrong about this. Next year there will be so many separate attempts to pick a song to campaign for that the power will be diluted across dozens of smaller groups. Paterson misses the point also. What’s far more possible is that on any day in any month someone could choose the next number one when no one’s expecting it. On the 14th of July someone on Facebook or Twitter or /b/ or whatever rules the roost by then announces, “Let’s make China In Your Hand by T’Pau number one this week.” And then it can be. Because getting to number one really only takes a few thousand sales these days.

But that’s just an aside to the true portent of this result. The other important example to remember was Time Magazine’s Top 100 list back in April. (I’d link, but Time seem to have buried the evidence since, despite still having the credulous story about the result on their site.) The list that traditionally lists the top 100 most influential people in the world was suddenly changed, listing Moot, of 4Chan and /b/, in the number one spot. This required orchestrating over 16 million votes. But they went so much further than controlling who won one of the most notorious and widely reported international lists. They were able to control the entire top 21 spots, putting them in order such that it spelt out an acrostic:

(Picture stolen from Buzzfeed)

The internet can pick winners. The UK Christmas single was a minor example of this, controlling just 500,000 sales. Places like 4Chan are capable of bigger, and it’s under the control of the anarchic and amoral. So far /b/ has only focused its ability to fix a vote on the inconsequential. It’s a matter of time before it goes for something more significant. (Craig points out to me that I’ve rather stupidly forgotten about their anti-Scientology protests, which are of far more importance.)

In fact, the potential for this exercise of control likely doesn’t require the frightening masses of 4Chan. If we ever have online voting for elections, this will be in the hands of anyone who fancies starting the ball rolling. Whether that’s for serious motives or simply for the lulz, the combination of low turn-outs and voter apathy with a widely publicised internet campaign will see people getting into power. 500,000 votes for Rage Against The Machine doesn’t make any difference. 500,000 votes for a political party gets seats. It cost money for people to get the RATM song. Voting’s free. But that might never happen. Before that there’s so much else that people are going to think to meddle with. Things that seemed safe, normal, traditional, are going to get messed up.

That’s why I’m interested by Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name being the Christmas number one. It’s a sign. It’s going to get messy.


11 Comments for this entry

  • Centy

    The thing about the Time list showing moot and /b/ as being influential is sort of true though kids these days are (regrettably) influenced by these sorts of sites and viral campaigns. Though I agree that it’s application to more significant real world things will be interesting to watch and possibly horrifying.

  • Sam

    It’s a scary prospect, but I’m sure that if Internet voting was around a year or so ago, Ron Paul would be in power.

  • Adam

    This is why I think countries like China are afraid of the Internet. Though it’s one thing for China to be afraid of the Internet but what about democracy?

    I’m not sure what kind of controls are in place to make sure it’s only UK downloads counted in the Top 40 but it makes me wonder about the foreign influence the Internet can have on a country.

    To take your election example, I don’t think foreign people voting in our election would become an issue. It’s easily protected against. However what about propaganda?

    It will be interesting to watch the political scene move to social sites. Will the Internet create a more educated voter? Or will we vote for the party offering free emoticons?

  • VictoriaJane

    You ask a really interesting question but you ask it as if online voting is inevitable. Maybe the technology will change but the procedure will likely continue in a neutral polling booth environment, with the social element of the internet stripped out? Would be interested in any links to latest thinking from UK govt because latest doc I found is from 2001

  • Stijn

    Note that the Time top 100 effort was not actually the result of millions of individual voters. There was a report of how exactly they gamed the system, I can’t recall where, but basically someone wrote an application that voted for the relevant people in the correct proportions. The poll didn’t have IP checking or anything like it, so basically all it needed to be compromised was one kid with a self-made script.

    I do fully agree with this post apart from that, just figured I should point out that the Time Top 100 example might not be enitrely appropriate.

  • NM

    > It will be interesting to watch the political scene move
    > to social sites. Will the Internet create a more educated
    > voter? Or will we vote for the party offering free emoticons?

    Fortunately the Internet wasn’t around in the 30s, otherwise the Nazis would have gotten in to power in Germany.

  • Little Green Man

    There wasn’t ip-checking at first, but it was introduced when they realised the system was being gamed.
    However, it was mainly one person with a particular type of ip address who created a script and pretty much singlehandedly did this, as they were one of the few who could repeatedly re-vote.

  • James T

    I agree with John in that, if any significance is to be read into Facebook hype beating ITV hype, it is probably in the question of whether this power of the internet could ever be chanelled into something with a genuine impact. I suspect, however, that if things ever got really serious various other counteracting factors would come into play. The effectiveness of these remain untested by this RATM campaign, however, as the subject matter was sufficiently banal that the whole thing could safely be allowed to run its rather pointless course.

  • Quercus

    It has been many years since I cared about what was at the number one slot at Christmas (or any other time of the year in fact).

    What annoys me more is the blatant cashing in my releasing a “Christmas” single in the first place.

  • Adam

    I actually heard the argument that this Joe lad was missing out on sales because of this RATM campaign today.

    I don’t think he’s going to be getting less sales. The people that were going to buy it will buy it, and the pirates will pirate it.

    It just happens that a more people went out of their way to prevent him getting the number one spot. He probably got more sales from the hype.

  • Dozer

    That Time picture warmed my heart.