Sunday, 20 December 2009

Rage Against The Machine at Christmas no. 1 2009

Rage Against The Machine taking the Christmas no. 1 spot with their track Killing In The Name this year is one of the greatest news stories ever written. A cover of a Disney-approved slow ballad, sung by the winner of a TV talent show vs. a profanity-ridden manifesto on anti-authoritarianism written by a political rap metal band in the slums of LA. I've been watching this campaign and the buzz surrounding it intently since first hearing about it, and I jumped out of my chair and air guitar-ed around the room this evening when we found out that the band had reached number 1.

I'm a big fan of RATM and I got to see them perform last year at Leeds Festival. RATM's drummer, Brad Wilk, has been quite an influence on my personal drumming style, and the band's self-titled album, which contains Killing In The Name is one of my all-time favourite albums (so I already own the track in question on CD, but I bought the track through iTunes to participate and contribute to this great campaign). I wouldn't call myself political, but listening to RATM definitely made me more aware of the social and political issues our generation has grown up with and is still facing now. And musically, the band were, at their peak, highly original and innovative.

I think there are three levels of positives we can take from RATM's chart success. First of all, it's highly novel and quite hilarious that 1992's Killing In The Name, possibly one of the most offensive and un-mainstream songs every recorded, has reached the top of the charts in the UK at Christmas. And that the band who recorded this song is Rage Against The Machine, an openly anti-establishment band who sound nothing like the other 39 songs in the top 40 right now. This is a song that all fans of rock music know, due to its use of the F-word 17 times and its strong anti-authoritarian message. It embodies RATM's message in 5 minutes of rap, metal and funk.

One of the most interesting aspects of this whole campaign has been RATM being covered by the media over the past week. For most UK citizens these four guys are just some rock band who have spoilt the party this week by preventing X Factor winner, Joe McElderry from reaching the top spot at Christmas. But I've been getting quite a kick out of seeing one of my favourite bands covered and handled by the British media, as their success has become the main talking point of the week throughout the nation. One of the highlights of my week was RATM's appearance on BBC Radio 5 Live on Thursday morning when they were invited to perform via live link on the breakfast show. I would have never expected 5 Live to allow the band on their show - for one, 5 Live isn't a music radio station, and they should have known better than to ask a band as rebellious and unpredictable as RATM to perform for their listeners. The band had been asked to perform a censored version of their track, but went ahead with the album version, repeating the infamous F-word line four times before the transmission was cut. I've been pleased though that the BBC haven't avoided the band because of their political nature, as some big corporations might (although some might say the BBC were glad that RATM displaced a product of a very successful ITV show).

The second level of positives I'm taking from this relates to the musical nature of RATM. I'm a big fan of rock music, but pop music not so much. I mean, some pop music is musically OK, but the issues here run a bit deeper than that. Rock music has typically always been a rebellious, explosive form of music and has never been truly mainstream during recent times. Pop music represents the music of the mainstream and so there's a big dichotomy between the two. I don't listen to the charts or watch X Factor, or even take an interest in such things because they are so far removed from what I feel music is, and how it's a part of my life. So this is the first time I and many others all over the UK will have taken an interest in the charts in years, because, usually, it just doesn't represent us. And so it feels great to "take over" something as mainstream as the pop charts with a rebellious rock song and triumph over expectations, even if it's just for one week. In fact, I wouldn't want bands like RATM to become mainstream, because that would take away the alternative and subversive aesthetic attached to rock music.

(RATM broke two records with this week's success (first single ever to reach the top of the charts on download sales alone, and biggest download sales total in a first week ever), and it's interesting to note that these records were broken by a rock band, rather than the usual acts who make up the top 40 every Sunday)

The third, and possibly most important, set of positives to take from this experience relates to the way that this whole effort was so grassroots and anti-authority, but gathered a group of music fans together to topple the product of a TV show which had attracted close to 20 million viewers. This campaign really embodied the spirit of RATM, and I wonder if it would have been possible had it been any other band. This whole affair could be the most important legacy the band leaves, and is a concrete example of the power of the people, as it has really stirred a rebel passion within the UK, and the belief that large groups of people can make a difference. If our generation can do something as trivial as get RATM to the Christmas no. 1, what power do we have to make other kinds of political and social changes in our society?

Rage Against The Machine aren't a perfect band. I do have my own questions about some of their choices in the past, such as their decision to sign to the major label Sony, but I think they have helped create one of the most interesting news stories of recent times, and certainly something I'll never forget. I'm looking forward to hearing about details of the band fulfilling their promise of coming to play a show in the UK, now that they've reached number 1. A whole tour would be better, as I imagine it would be extremely hard to get tickets for just one show, now that the band have had a resurgence in popularity, and gained many new fans no doubt. I found it interesting though when Tom Morello said in an interview that the UK was the first place that RATM really started to "gain friction" as a band. Maybe the British people do have a natural rebellious nature - I can't imagine too many other nations where an upset like this might happen. The widespread popularity of punk in the 1970s also springs to mind, and this whole campaign has given me positivity and hope in some way for the future of the UK.

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