My friend Hazelnut has made a compelling case and puts it most persuasively, however, in the spirit of fairness I feel compelled to defend the alternative position, that held by those who bought the Killing in the Name Of track and those like myself who did not, but nonetheless were amused and excited by the success of the campaign. I do not intend to put a price on the head of anyone who legitimately holds contrary views - however, I do disagree with them.
In the United Kingdom, ‘Christmas Number One” chart position has for decades been the most sought after position of the year. Christmas sales are naturally higher than at any other time and consequently the media attention on who will sell the most is higher. The person who achieves the Christmas Number One may not be guaranteed a long lasting career, but the feat itself guarantees a certain immortality.
Since 2005, the winning single has been that released by the champion of The X-Factor, a popular prime time talent show in which judges such as Cheryl Cole and Simon Cowell whittle down the contestants based on their professional opinions and the audience votes for their favourite. This does not work perfectly due to the British predisposition towards backing the underdog regardless of talent, but by-and-large the winner tends to have genuine ability although in the author’s humble opinion are often markedly lacking in any unidentifiable ‘X-Factor’. However, that is the personal opinion of someone who broadly fits into the champagne socialist position identified above.
I have mentioned that the British have a predisposition towards backing the underdog. The X-Factor itself is popular in part due to this phenomenon. It provides an opportunity for the general public to back an ordinary person and elevate them to stardom, watching every step of their development into celebrities. It is easy to see the appeal of this in contrast to the mysterious process by which record companies seem to magically conjure up ready-made celebrities before the public. However, in-common with most successful underdogs, The X-Factor’s success went to its head, no longer was it assumed to be championing the underdog but had become an institution in its own right. The assumption emerged that the Christmas Number One would always be held by its winners. Even Ladbrokes closed its books on the subject.
I hope that given this background it is understandable that some people were irritated by this predictability. An underdog is not the same as a dead dog and if no-one could stand up to the X-Factor there was no underdog to back. This is the crucial point. The choice of Killing in the Name Of as the track to take on the X-Factor, to turn the Christmas Number One into a challenge once again has very little to do with the content of the song itself.
I am not a great music fan and cannot possibly provide a detailed review of the track - Hazelnut is undoubtedly the man for that job and I hesitate even to write the following words. Nonetheless, music is subjective. I do not detest or loath Killing in the Name Of, In fact, I quiet enjoy it. It creates a tense atmosphere, builds up nicely, has a catchy hook and is undeniably a crowd pleaser. Whilst I freely admit that its sentiment is somewhat childish, it does contain - however crudely- the spirit of backing the underdog. It is manifestly not a song about individual rebellion, the chorus of ‘Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me’ sounds its best when it is shouted en-mass. I credit Rage Against the Machine with sufficient intelligence to have realised this, even if their fans do not. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that few young rebels truly wish to be loaners who do not submit to the whims of the group. They are not rebelling against authority per se, but against the arrogance of authority in its assumption that it will always be obeyed.
On this analysis, it appears to me that Killing in the Name is, notwithstanding the above, in fact a reasonably sensible choice of track. However, as I have said, I do not believe that the choice of track was that important. The intention was to create an underdog who could fight the arrogance of the authority that blithely believes that they will always be obeyed and that their horse will win. The question of who to choose to fight this battle is not an easy one. One could go for the most controversial unchristmassy track possible; a song about rape and death by an obscure and obscene thrash metal band would undoubtedly win over a cynical wing. However, it would alienate the moderates and those who actually enjoy the Christmas festival. On the other hand, a campaign to get Cliff Richard or some such artist to the top would lack the spirit of rebellion necessary to gain the momentum to succeed against an undoubtedly formidable foe. Killing in the Name is a good choice then - it is sufficiently controversial to bring in a large number of cynics, but equally it is undoubtedly populist - it appeals to a wide cross section of people. No doubt everyone can think of better songs, but as I say, this is not about the quality of the song.
Now the public had their underdog they would get behind it. They wanted it to win and the methods did not matter. Yes, they might say that they were doing it to rebel, but when the sensible criticisms were raised they did not falter. A Crystal Palace supporter does not give up his allegiance when it is pointed out that they are not the best team in the world. That is not the point of the battle. The point is to win. To show the authority that its assumptions are wrong. It is for this reason that they crowed when Simon Cowell joined the battle and called them ridiculous. It is for this reason that they ignored the fact that Rage Against the Machine are signed to Sony anyway. This did not affect their objective - to show that the X Factor Winner was not the foregone conclusion. It started to work. The press reported that Killing in the Name was ahead. Ladbrokes reopened the betting.
The result was announced. The underdog, Killing in the Name had won by a nose.
So what is the point of all this? What is its legacy? If it was supposed to be rebellion against chart music, it failed. The X Factor Winner went on to take the number one spot the following week. As I have suggested however, this was not the point. If I was being political I would suggest that this was about keeping the status-quo on its toes, proving that the experience of the past does not always predict the future and that collectively people will not always bow to the same master. For some people this may have been what this was about. For most though, this was about a love of competition, of backing an underdog and seeing them through against the odds. Sticking with them out of loyalty and belief. This is a trait found in the successful, ultimately it is the trait that wins wars, climbs mountains and puts people on the moon. On this analysis, far from representing the cry of an irresponsible and petulant people, this battle - both sides of this battle - demonstrate that this competitive, determined spirit is still there.