It was in keeping with the Christmas season's “Good news of great joy for all people...” that I opened our Carol Service last night with the news that Rage Against The Machine are Number 1 in the UK Pop Charts! What is the big deal? Well, for the last five years a strategically marketed consumerist pop machine has stolen the Christmas Number 1 single in the UK. Television phenomenon X Factor has ended their final show with the declaration of its winner whose single then goes on sale a couple of hours later, at the outset of the Christmas week single sales download- off. In well over fifty years of the single sales charts it has been the most cynical and contrived fixing of the pop charts and in the last couple of years there has been a bit of a backlash with attempts last year to get Jeff Buckley’s majestic version of Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah to number one instead of the X Factor winner Alexandra’s rather more anaemic version, though to be fair to Alexandra Burke it wasn’t the worst X Factor Number 1! This year’s campaign led by Jon and Tracy Morter from their own front room via Facebook had enough support to cause Rage Against the Machine’s Killing In The Name to sell 50,000 more downloads than Joe McElderry’s The Climb, all the more remarkable for being only available on download and never being “officially” released!
Though Rage Against the Machine was the perfect name for the band that broke the Machine’s monopoly and dictatorial inevitability, I was slightly disappointed with its choice; it is actually part of the same “Machine” as the X Factor winner being released on the same record label! For me, if they had thought a little more carefully they could have had Grizzly Bear at Number 1. Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest is up and around many people’s best album of 2009 and being an independent release would really have been a real David beats Goliath kind of Christmas. However, Jon and Tracy were probably not thinking too deeply when their wizard wheeze was set in motion and well done to them. Rage Against The Machine’s Zack de la Rocha, described it as “incredible organic grassroots campaign” and that is what the lesson has to be; that a small private thought shared in everyday conversation has the power to change how the world is and literally rage against the machine!
This is the biggest victory over X Factor. For a couple of years I have been suggesting in my preaching that I believed X Factor to be spiritually dangerous. Reformed theologian Calvin Seerveld has warned that,”any public which denies artistry its rightful place under the sun forfeits a rich source of imaginative knowledge. If the public is unwilling to learn the difference between, on the one hand, the visionary leader and the honest artisan and, on the other hand, the shyster, the opportunist and the trendy fellow traveller, that public will become colourless or a pastiche. This means that people at large are called upon to be attentive, relatively well informed, critically compassionate patrons of the arts.” X Factor is an archetypal machine of the shyster and it has I believe implication for our society and the follower of Jesus whose task is bringing the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
Alex Petridis, the rock music critic for the Guardian, argues that what is happening in the pop and rock scene have sociological implications. In his music review of 2007 he argued that the Pop Idol and X Factor has produced democratic record deals and ultimately diluted the edge of music. If an artist wants to get the vote of the armchair television watcher he has to sing songs that appeal to the 8 year old child and their octogenarian Granny in order to maximise their vote. This affects the art, blands it out, leaves it insipid and anaemic. That the youth of the 00s are less radical or revolutionary than their 60s counterparts should not surprise us he concludes.
Rock legend Joni Mitchell, one of the paragons of change in the sixties also believes that we are suffering the affects of musical dullness. Quizzed by MOJO’s Robert Hilburn on the long-term impact of the musical and cultural strides made by her contemporaries, she described them as “the greediest generation in the history of America”, and despaired of the example they have shown subsequent generations. Asked about the strong undercurrent of discontent in her most recent album, 2007’s Shine, she replied; “I was angry at the handling of New Orleans and how quick the American people were to impeach a man for sex and how slow to move on other things that made everyone in the world want to nuke America. I was also angry at the inability of this generation to know what to do; their inability to move at all, which is an unusual thing for youth.”
Asked what she meant exactly, Mitchell went into overdrive, “In their youth, my generation was ready to change the world, but when the baton was passed to them in the ‘70s, they fell into a mass depression because all revolutionaries are quick to demolish and slow to fix. When handed the baton to fix it, they didn’t know what to do so they kind of degenerated into the greediest generation in the history of America. The hippie, yippie, yuppie transition from the ’60s to the ’70s to the greedy ’80s and Ronald Reagan – my generation dropped the baton and spawned this totally lacklustre generation... Machiavelli said, ‘People don’t know what to do with peace. It always degenerates into fashion and fornication,’ and that’s what we have. We are not building the kind of strong people in this third generation that we are going to need for the catastrophes that lie ahead. They aren’t getting any ethical instruction. I’m reluctant to say moral because it can get so diabolical. The things that are done in the name of morality are completely diabolical.”
To the theologian, the rock journalist and song-writing legend I want to add the concerns of the pastor. My personal concern is for the effects of the music we listen to on our ability to follow Jesus. Does the music we listen to help or hinder us as we attempt to live this radical way of life that is an antithesis of the spirit of our age? Does it give our subversive lifestyle edge or does it blunt our sharpness? My concern heightens not lessens when I critique the effectiveness of modern worship music. Has the emergence of a worship industry with its own pop scene, chart stars and place on our iPod playlists had any implications on our Church liturgy and personal spiritual development? By not using strategically music for spiritual formation and societal transformation are we allowing it to rot our souls, make us flabby and unfit to be disciples of Christ? I think so and X Factor is the machine that needs raged against if we are turn these events around. Perhaps this little victory over the Christmas Number 1 Single will inspire a whole generation to rise up and rage against a good many other bigger and more dangerous machines and fight a few good fights once again!