Let's start with the details before the analysis makes them pointless. On 20 December 2009 the winner in the annual competition for the UK Christmas Number One music single was announced. It was, rather unexpectedly, 'Killing In The Name' by Rage Against the Machine, a rap metal classic from 1992. The secret of the single's sudden festive success was a campaign on the social networking site Facebook. The 'Rage Against The Machine For Christmas No. 1' group, started by Jon and Tracy Morter, attracted over 960,000 members. Its aim was not just to get 'Killing In The Name' to the Christmas Number One spot. It was to prevent that spot from being taken, for the fifth year in a row, by the winner of the X Factor reality TV talent competition. This year's winner, `The Climb' by Joe McElderry, was relegated to Number Two. As far as anyone can tell, this chart result has been driven exclusively by the hype generated around this Facebook campaign.
I write this on the evening of the 20th December with a sense of mild but mounting dread, because I know what's coming. Fair play to the Morters, who have pulled off something quite spectacular. I just know that, as a planner, it is going to be my fate for the next several months never to hear the end of this. This is going to be the social media victory to end all social media victories. This is the archetypal story of ordinary consumers using the power of social networks to stick it to the man. Never mind that Rage Against The Machine's back catalogue is owned by Sony BMG, the same company that released Joe McElderry's single, and that this competition has been like a license to print money for them. Never mind that `Killing In The Name' is not only a violently anti-corporatist song but one of the least festive things you'll ever hear in your life. This is going to be the story of the power of crowds that will run and run and run.
It will appear, I confidently predict, in every PowerPoint presentation on social media for the next year. It will be impossible to sit in any meeting about digital marketing without hearing about it. Every trends deck, channel plan and comms strategy will feel duty-bound to namecheck it. It will become part of the frame of reference for comms strategists as surely as the Iranian election and the T-Mobile Flash Mob. (If you don't know what these are, look them up. There'll be a PowerPoint presentation waiting to enlighten you.)
Does it deserve this fame that it will inevitably garner? Maybe it does. It's quite an achievement, after all, despite the difficulties listed above. My problem is that it feels like such a hollow achievement. If good communications and brand planning should have as its aim to identify and meet people's wants, feelings, desires and hopes, then this seems a little small. It meets one desire - the desire to keep The X Factor off the Number One spot. But even in doing that it reminds us of the keen sense of loss we feel for the time when having a Christmas Number One was meaningful: when the last edition of Top of the Pops before Christmas was a national event; when the tail of singles releases was so short that you needed to sell a phenomenal number of records to be Number One; when music-buying, rightly or wrongly, felt like part of some collaborative effort, at Christmas time most of all. All of these drivers of behaviour are almost gone now. In the last ten years only two Christmas Number Ones have not arguably been propelled to the top by some sort of media (usually television) event. The charts have become a proxy, a sort of front organisation for other attempts to create common experiences through the media.
In its way, this Facebook victory is no different. This time the charts are acting not simply as a proxy for TV, as they have in recent years, but as a proxy for the battle between the perceived blandness of mass media and the perceived humanity and vitality of social media. In an interview, Zach De La Rocha, the Rage Against The Machine front man, described this as a battle between a 'sterile pop monopoly' and an 'incredible grassroots campaign'. I'm not so sure, myself, that this doesn't represent a rather sterile Facebook monopoly. Not on the part of the group's creators, but on the part of everyone who didn't want another X Factor Number One and who therefore got behind the Facebook campaign. Can almost a million people who joined the group, or the half million who downloaded the song, really have wanted `Killing In The Name' at Number One? Or did they just want something other than The X Factor? Where was the creativity of intention that said that we don't need a Christmas Number One any more? Why didn't half a million people organise into flash mobs across Britain and sing songs, or sweep the streets, or hand out soup and tea on some of the coldest nights the country has seen for a long time? That would have been harnessing the power of social networks far more than joining in a rather reductive either/or game through the charts.
So congratulations to everyone who took The X Factor off its perch - it is, on its own, one hell of an achievement. But to those of us who make a living talking about consumers and brands, let's pause a bit before we decide that this is is the best that hundreds of thousands of interconnected human beings can manage to do with their new medium.
(I realise this post has had very little linguistic content. The song is noteworthy for its rather sweary refrain, though, which is presumably the reason it was selected as the anti-X-Factor candidate. With that in mind, I can do no better than point you towards my former colleague Jesse Sheidlower, whose book and blog The F Word deal with the word in question in impressive detail. Let this be a starting point for anyone who feels tempted to wade in complaining about swearing in the Christmas Number One.)
# Alex Steer (20/12/2009)