The Brits, a group to which this writer counts himself among, have some admittedly odd traditions, and the Royal Family is pretty low down the list. We also have events which see people rolling cheese wheels down a hill and chasing after it, games of cricket which last five days, and the Christmas number one.
In the UK the “Christmas number one”—meaning the song sitting on top of the singles chart on Christmas Day—is something of a national institution. For decades it’s been quite an honor to achieve the all-important Christmas number one because it means when people are at their most festive and full of warmth (in theory) this song will join the playlist alongside the traditional Christmas favorites.
People are at their happiest if the Christmas number one is sorta kinda Christmassy-themed, and Veteran Brit rock & roller Cliff Richard seems to always take a swing at it. So that’s the general, superficial history of the whole thing.
For a few years preceding 2009 the whole thing had gotten a little too predictable and, to be frank, horribly coordinated. The winner of Simon Cowell’s The X Factor (UK version obviously) had been putting out a schmaltzy song, perfectly timed for the festive period. The combination of mass exposure to a rabid TV audience, heavy major label pressure, and admittedly perfect timing, meant that the Christmas number one spot was pretty much tied up before anyone else even got a look in. In 2009 that all changed.
Joe McElderry won The X-Factor that year. Then just 18 years old, the teen from the Northeast of England was fresh-faced, wide-eyed, and cute as a button. His song, a cover of Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb,” actually didn’t have anything to do with Christmas at all. But it was, to mainstream audiences, a heart-warming ballad. Yes it was insipid, cynically composed. It was written for an American pop star at the start of her career, for a Hannah Montana movie in fact. Nobody involved actually gave a shit about the “uphill battle” McElderry had to get through to win the TV reality bulldozer.
“Got to keep trying
Got to keep my head held high
There’s always going to be another mountain
I’m always gonna wanna make it move
Always going to be an uphill battle,
Sometimes I’m gonna have to lose,
Ain’t about how fast I get there,
Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side.”
Joe McElderry’s “The Climb”
Bless McElderry, despite his appearances on a competitive reality TV nightmare, there was and is really nothing wrong with him. He was just a teen singer with big dreams, a decent voice and bags of ambition. The beef of the UK’s music fans wasn’t with him, but rather with a music industry machine which was predetermining the Christmas charts. It wasn’t a fair fight. And so, with modest hopes and no small amount of nobility carrying him forwards, a DJ from Chelmsford called Jon Morter started a social media campaign to usurp Cowell and his cronies for no other reason than he, like so many others, was sick to death of major label manipulation. Talk about an “uphill battle.” Morter was taking on the British major label music industry, with all of its money (at the time). That’s the irony here — the words to McElderry’s song applied more to Morter than his opposition.
2009 saw the music industry at a bit of a crossroads. We knew that streaming and downloading was going to shape the future. And this offered up the clearest sign, in the best possible way. A campaign like Morter’s wouldn’t have been possible prior to the streaming/downloading revolution, because old songs weren’t still available to buy in mass quantities (as singles) years after their release. Reducing the importance of hard copies meant that, in theory, any song could get to number one if enough people jumped on their computer and downloaded it.
That’s what led to Morter’s “eureka” moment. What song would offer a better, more concrete protest than Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name of…”? Cowell, The X-Factor people, and the music industry big-wigs were pushing poor little McElderry on the public like ‘here, you WILL have this and you’ll smile and you’ll like it.’ The people, led by Morter and Rage Against the Machine, responded by saying ‘fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.’
Morter had tried to do the same thing (kinda) the previous year, when X-Factor winner Alexandra Burke beat his horse, Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”. But still, he was encouraged by the fact that he got some traction with the ’80s blue-eyed soul tune. A year later, his campaign to light a fire under the public’s zombified asses with a ’90s rap-rock classic — expletives and all — going up against a Miley Cyrus cover was far more successful.
To be fair, McElderry remained likeable and humble, telling The Guardian, “Fair play to the guys who have organised the Facebook campaign — it’s been exciting to be part of a much-hyped battle and they definitely deserve congratulations. This time last year I never thought for one minute I’d win The X Factor, never mind having a single out. I’m just delighted to be in the charts.”
Mind you, his career never really recovered. But it was worth it (for many) to hear Rage on the radio again and to be reminded of the lyrics that, to be honest, people need to have forced on them from time to time:
“Those who died are justified, for wearing the badge, they’re the chosen whites
You justify those that died by wearing the badge, they’re the chosen whites.”
Rage Against the Machine – “Killing in the Name of…”
As for Morter, he told The Guardian, “I think it just shows that in this day and age, if you want to say something, then you can — with the help of the internet and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. If enough people are with you, you can beat the status quo.”
And after all, wasn’t “beating the status quo” the point of the whole thing?
The saga of Rage Against the Machine vs. The X Factor will go down as one of the most glorious, oddball Christmas number one battles in history.