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The United Kingdom decides to Rage against the Cowell machine

December 22, 2009

What a concluding chapter to our current arbitrarily-delineated time period! Fresh after the most calculating athlete of our generation became the decade’s unlikely tale of extracurricular carnal knowledge, our former colonial masters provided the Oughts’ most heartwarming musical story. In addition to boiling damn near everything they eat and utilizing terms such as “Maths”, “drugs problem” and “cheeky bum”, the Limeys have a tradition of vaulting American-Idolesque choons to the Top of the Pops during the week of Christmas.[i]

This alone is no grand crime, for even we self-styled music geeks will openly enjoy a modern pop song. While once dismissive of the pop-music machine, listeners spanning the entire indie spectrum, from Pitchfork to PopDose to (Maura Johnston-era) Idolator, have embraced a sizable contingency of tunes from the marketing-driven world of Music as Product. In 1999, when Scottish rockers Travis (“Radiohead but nice“) covered “Hit Me Baby One More Time”, it was quickly dismissed as ironic legerdemain. Ten years later, we are amidst a golden age of genre gumbo, where a Girl Talk mash-up of Clipse’s “Grindin'” with Fall Out Boy’s “Sugar” and Nirvana’s “Scentless Apprentice” coexists in playlists with Solange Knowles’ cover of “Stillness is the Move”. The culmination of this erosion of stylistic boundaries can be hoisted upon several forward-looking records – notable examples include MIA’s Kala and Asian Dub Foundation’s criminally-underrated Enemy of the Enemy (which made a larger impact in the UK).[ii] Since my completion of the curriculum within the Paul the Geek and Scotty Hartmann School of Owning Your Preferences, I’ve tried to avoid citing my faves as “guilty pleasures”, openly recognizing why a song like “Love at First Sight”, “Toxic”, or “Rock Your Body” can mean so much to so many (I should also use this occasion to throw some appreciation to Stefani Germanotta, aka Lady Gaga, perhaps the first true Meta pop-star – sorry, Chris Gaines).[iii] By acknowledging the machinations behind these songs, one can feel guilt-free when cranking “Since U Been Gone” or “Umbrella” on That Popular Music Player while riding the bus, running from the police or waiting in line at the unemployment office. A remotely-educated person knows that an autobiography by an entertainer, whether they be rock star, matinee idol or ex-governor, was primarily written by someone other than the name on the cover (Lynn Vincent, ghostwriter to the stars, has her own fanbase). Due to the increased accessibility of artist information, sizable constituencies celebrate the work of similar minds behind the transcendent pop hits, including producers like Max Martin (Robyn, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, P!nk), the Neptunes/N*E*R*D (Clipse, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Kelis, Justin Timberlake), Jellybean Benitez[iv] (Madonna’s first few singles, plus much of the Latin Freestyle genre) and John Cale (Snoop Dogg).[v] Chicago critics-extraordinaire Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot both gave a fairly-positive review to Spears’ Circus (2008), crediting the collection of high-profile producers for creating a solid dance record. Britney’s sliced ‘n diced vocals merely served as another instrument at their disposal.

Unfortunately for those seeking agency within their cultural consumption, the general public does not crave such transparency. We understand that the assembly-line pop factory is as old as the industry itself – scroll through a list of the Top Ten from the 1950s or 1960s, and count the number of acts not dependent upon a pleasing face, a finely-crafted image, and several professional songwriters. However, these teen-idols often matched spectacular ability and a painstaking work ethic with their dreamboat visages, entertaining the masses with only their powerful voices and the obligatory orchestral accompaniment. We fell in love with Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and Patsy Cline, not caring that these legends did not pen the songs. In addition, the industry expressed far more patience with these performers, knowing that the occasional flop did not merit excommunication. Today’s machine-created puppets are lauded similarly to stars of previous generations, despite the once-challenging demands of a performer – the necessity for multiple “takes” in the studio, the accurate reproduction of recorded material in a live setting – no longer being a concern today. The vertically-integrated machine of Simon Cowell, the Sam Waltonesque impresario behind the behemoth of rigged televised music “competitions”, has de-facto ownership of the performers, from initial televised auditions to the product-placement at the CD release parties. You have issues with his direction for your career? Tough shite – each singer is a disposable resource, with your replacement being groomed at this very moment. At the risk of sounding like a Haight-Ashbury refugee, the art-form we call music has an inordinate significance to so damn many of us. It frustrates any remotely-aware cultural consumer to witness Cowell smugly attempt to transform our passion into mere Product, solely to expand his media empire. Recently, an opportunity arose to express these frustrations.

According to Scott Tobias of The Onion AV Club, the English pop audience was prepared for business-as-usual[vi] this Christmas. Cowell briefly stopped counting his money to flip through his stash of malleable pin-ups. After matching Producer Team A and Focus-Group Tested Song B with Attractive Karaoke Star C, he awaited the The X-Factor’s fifth consecutive Christmas #1. Or so he thought…

The X Factor, Cowell’s biggest reality-television intestine-cleanser, recently finished the blister-packaging for Joe McElderry, his latest assembly-line PopStar(TM). McElderry, a fitting portmanteau for a performer with the narcotizing properties of Joey “NKOTB” McIntyre and Elderberry wine, was assigned “The Climb”, a ditty from the Electra Complex Subsidiary of the Cyrus Corporation.[vii] “The Climb” was written for audiences that saw pap like Chicago’s “You’re the Inspiration” or Michael W. Smith’s “Friends” as far too heavy – yet, whatever rough edges once existed in the version prepared for Miley Cyrus (if they could be called “rough edges”), they are all Boyled away for McElderry’s reading of the song. Faced with the potential holiday ubiquity of this maudlin ballad, let alone a permanent reappearance during retrospectives of past Christmas hits, a couple of renegades decided that enough was enough.

Enter our two heroes – Jon and Tracy Morter, two unknown Facebookers with a brilliant idea. Instead of raging against the Pop machine with offensive remarks at family gatherings[viii], how’s about campaigning for a real Rage Against the Machine to corral the coveted #1 spot in the land of Royally-obnoxious haberdashery?[ix] Like Tyler Durden’s pugilist dalliances under Lou’s Tavern[x], the Morters discovered that they were not alone. Within the week, the Facebook campaign for RATM’s “Killing in the Name” exploded like a five-sided fistagon: hundreds of thousands of users pledged to download the song during the year’s penultimate week, with proceeds aiding Shelter, a nonprofit seeking an end to homelessness. Music aficionados were aching to stand against a pop landscape where interchangeable catalogue-models with interchangeable producer-composed “songs” were forced down the collective throat. (And as for the album titles of My Name Is… or I Am… or Her Name Is… or Just Me… or whatever self-referential marketing term was chosen for you: we get it – you can stop now).  As the week concluded, the final download tally rained a pocketful of shells on the proprietors of airbrushed album-cover photos worldwide: “Killing in the Name” reached 502,000, triumphantly Climbing past McCowelderry’s 450,000. Congratulations to the newest #1 Artist, Rage Against The Machine! Allow me, Mr. Morello, De la Rocha and Co, to introduce you to the rest of your fellow decade chart-toppers: To the right, between the criminal enterprise masquerading as an animated frog and the campaign-slogan inspirations of another cartoon entity, you’ll find a treacly father-daughter cover of a cover, and some guy who tried to get “It’s Chico Time!” to become a national catch-phrase sensation (and they wonder why we find Britain so weird).

In most cases, I welcome our new overlords of music unity. As Hall & Oates said, “Do what you want, be who you are.” We face a future where the McElderry fans of today will be the Glastonbury attendees of tomorrow, singing along with her best mates during Grizzly Bear’s set. Yet outside of electoral politics, the fun of cultural forks-in-the-road like Cowell v. Rage Against The Machine are rarely encountered anymore. It is not humanitarian to reduce a person to whether they are simply With Us or Against Us, sure. However, like Walter Sobchak, I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand – yes, I am asserting that much of a person’s soul is revealed by whether they support Cowell’s pop machine or choose to Rage against it.[xi] It is refreshing to see another chance to battle the forces of banality, and for one moment, at least, the Side of Good has emerged victorious. Bravo, old Isle, bravo!


[i] While serving as a substitute teacher, I informed a class that “American Idol” began in England, but the Brits called it “Pop Idol”. One student asked “Why don’t they call it ‘American Idol’ there, too?”

[ii] A great topic for a best-of list, with Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz, Cibo Matto, Panjabi MC, Rjd2, Bonde do Role, Los Amigos Invisibles, Los Mox!…

[iii] Gaga is basically a self-contained version of a pop factory, crafting her music, art, stage, etc, openly seeking to sneak philosophy and art into the pop game (which means she’s not far off from Green Gartside of Scritti Politti). If she’s the future of the pop star, count me in.

[iv] Benitez deserves his own book, let alone an entry.

[v] OK, this is an outright lie. However, Cale said he’d love to produce D-O-Double-G if the opportunity presented itself.

[vi] Unfortunately, I am not referring to Aussie pop stylists Men at Work’s enjoyable breakthrough record.

[vii] Radiohead’s cover does not legitimize it – unless the performance featured Phil Selway donning a mullet wig, and Jonny Greenwood crafting an Ondes Martenot out of a stripper pole.

[viii] Which, might I add, will always remain awesome. I call it “Drive-By Schooling”

[ix] I kid! I kid! Considering the UK is responsible for my two favorite podcasts, the best film reviews, and a shite-load of great music, books, TV programs, films and comedians, let alone the courtesy to provide easily-referenced names for its youth subcultures, I ‘ave noffin’ but love fer ye, Great Britain. Plus, the Missus is obsessed with historical fiction from your salad days, so keep cranking out Cranford, The Royals, The Other Boleyn Girl, etc.

[x] Am I the only one to find it ironic how, on three different occasions, Brad Pitt’s character in Inglourious Basterds stated that he had no interest in fighting while in a basement?

[xi] My dream is to be asked said question at my next job interview.

4 Comments
  1. December 22, 2009 7:24 pm

    Count me among those surprised (and reluctant to say in public) that I kinda like her too. I didn’t realize this until she was a musical guest on SNL and I sat through and unconsciously enjoyed both performances before realizing “Wow, I just sat and watched two performances by Lady Gaga and was strangely impressed by her stage presence.” There’s something interesting about her. “Meta” is a good label for it. But don’t tell anyone what I just told you about liking her. It’s our secret.

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