Monday, 21 December 2009

Two fingers to the machine

For the last few years it has been a foregone conclusion that whoever wins The X Factor, the juggernaut singing competition which has just completed its sixth series on ITV1, will go on to produce that year’s no. 1 Christmas single. Remarkably, that pattern has been broken.

Our Christmas treat was supposed to be Joe McElderry’s cover of Miley Cyrus’s saccharine ballad, ‘The Climb’:

I can almost see it
That dream I’m dreaming but
There’s a voice inside my head saying,
You’ll never reach it…
My faith is shaking but I
Got to keep trying
Got to keep my head held high…

People who really want to listen to this kitsch can find its self-congratulating video on YouTube.

But we will struggle to raise an earnest festive tear over this year’s actual Number One, Rage Against the Machine’s thrash-rap anthem ‘Killing in the Name’, with its unsentimental coda, “Fuck me, I won’t do what you tell me!”

Lyrics here:

‘Killing in the Name’ sold about half a million copies, beating ‘The Climb’ by 50,000 in a victory organised predominantly via the internet. The ‘Rage Against the Machine for Christmas No. 1’ campaign, launched by part-time DJ Jon Morter on Facebook, won nearly a million members. This is important because it shows that the internet, although saturated with corporatism, has provided a space for alternative viewpoints to flourish.


The outcome of this small cultural struggle represents a mass statement against the commodification of art.

A certain use-value exists in all the products of human labour, as production that does not meet any needs is a waste of energy. In art however this use-value is not paramount. What is most important in art is its spiritual value — the affirmation of our humanity in objective form.

The capitalist has no interest in the human content of a work of art. He or she wants to know what dimensions it has, who created it and how ownership can authenticated, and what price can be fetched for it. That is why Marx wrote that that ‘capitalist production is hostile to certain branches of spiritual production, for example, art and poetry’.[1] As a member of a ruling class with privileges to protect, the bourgeois prefers to excise radical content, and as a seller looking for the broadest market, he prefers a sanitised commodity which will appeal to the maximum number of people. Of course a huge amount of outstanding art of all forms has been published, patronised etc by capitalists. But the more art tries to meet commercial imperatives rather than spiritual ones, the greater the danger that its human content will be compromised.

Is ‘The Climb’ art? Of course. But it is art degraded by its submission to commercialism. Almost every aspect of such art — lyrics, music, singer, performance, cover art, distribution, etc — is determined by its ability to generate profit for the bourgeoisie. Whereas ‘Killing in the Name’ is an outburst of sincere human emotion, ‘The Climb’ is kitsch: the mass reproduction of cheap, pre-packaged emotions.

Capitalism likes predictability. The reason that the novels of Jane Austen are adapted over and over again — and when the novels run out, we are given pseudo-Austen like the film Becoming Jane — is not because of the quality of Austen’s work per se, but because it has proven commercially successful time and time again. The filming of sequels works on the same principle. Shows like The X Factor are designed to provide a guaranteed return on investment. The young singers elevated to celebrity by the show are, by virtue of the process, those prepared to be manipulated by corporatism. The X Factor nakedly represents the bourgeois attitude to music and musicians — they exist only to be exploited for profit. If the music is outstanding, then perhaps that will help sales in the long run. But a capitalist tends towards the short-term and judges everything by the bottom line.

The submission of singers like McElderry to his corporate sponsors makes it harder for us to feel personal sympathy for his defeat. But ultimately he, like most other winners of such shows, is a victim of the process. The true measure of capitalism’s loyalty to the hopeful people it exploits is that Steve Brookstein, the show’s first winner, was dropped after one album [2].

The irony is that ‘Killing in the Name’ is owned by Sony records, one of the largest conglomerates in the world with an annual revenue of nearly $80 billion. Even though Rage Against the Machine has declared that it will donate its profits to the homeless charity Shelter, Sony will take its cut. Simon Cowell’s record company Syco is even a subsidiary of Sony. Cowell is unlikely to profit directly from sales, but the publicity generated around this small struggle cannot do any harm to someone who has milked faux controversy as part of his career, and another of his protégés, Susan Boyle, is currently at Number One in the album charts with the sugary-titled I Dreamed a Dream. Capitalism has hundreds of years’ experience in commodifying art, and when art movements try to break free it has proved highly skilled in recuperating those in turn. Anyone who felt betrayed to see the erstwhile ‘anarchist’ Johnny Rotten doing butter commercials knows the power of filthy lucre. Rock music has always been a form of working class expression, arising from the cultural space created in the post-war boom — but also, it has always had to wrestle with the power of the capitalists who control popular music’s means of publication and distribution.

Nonetheless this is a victory for music fans, a genuine grassroots rejection of corporatism. In the words of Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, it has ‘tapped into the silent majority of the people in the UK who are tired of being spoon-fed one schmaltzy ballad after another’ [3]. The recent financial crisis has increased the class consciousness of the masses, and although the British revolution will not come for many years, perhaps this is one small expression of that process.

Readers may also be interested in my article ‘Michael Jackson and the cult of celebrity’.

[1] Marx, Chapter 4 of Theories of Surplus Value (1863).
[2] Patrick Barkham, ‘Remember this guy?’ (Guardian, December 2008).
[3] Quoted on ‘Rage Against the Machine beat X Factor winner in charts’ (BBC, 20 December 2009).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

excellent stuff. cheers

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