X Factor

Rage Against The Machine, Finsbury Park, London 6-6-10

It’s hard to get people to pay for anything in these internet-saturated times. It’s got to be free music, often downloaded illegally, rationalising that you’ll buy a gig ticket later on. It’s got to be advert-sodden free-to-watch TV; balanced with rightful resistance of political lobbies telling us the licence fee is outdated. If not succumbing to cheap bootleg copies of films, we avoid the cinema altogether and head toward DVD swayed by promises of worthwhile ‘extras’. We’re looking for discounts on everything, from meals to drinks to entry into clubs. As a nation, there seem to be so many of us in thrall to the endless marketing bombardments of reality-based TV shows and their spin-off products that we don’t question that music is now sold to us as if it were a car or a digital TV. Not that musical commerce beating creativity to a pulp is new; it just feels different somehow, more calculating.

So, when Jon and Tracy Morter started a Facebook campaign to get a Rage Against The Machine song to challenge the X Factor/Pop Idol dominance of the Christmas number 1 slot the prevailing feeling was that it wouldn’t work, how could it? How could a country that expects something for nothing, whether it’s in the pursuit of these X Factor golden tickets or the reluctance to pay for media, be motivated into dropping their apathy?

The campaign was grass roots; rationally, it had no chance against the multi-million pound ITV-powered exposure of the X Factor. But a funny thing happened. It turned out that as many people as there are lapping up paparazzi-fuelled, reality TV drivel and endless celebrity magazine coverage, there are just as many who not only exist completely outside that world but also were looking for a way to protest against it. There are those of us, even if we’re unable to avoid the cultural proliferation of it all, who don’t watch these shows nor buy into the voting/buying follow-up aspect, and we felt strangely compelled to support this Facebook campaign. By our thousands we downloaded, and no doubt some people were doing so for the first time, the anti-corporate anthem Killing In The Name.

To be part of something that for just one moment defeated the Cowell machine, all cynicism aside, felt undeniably good. The Christmas number 1 race, whether it ended with a cheesy pop hit or a novelty record, had at least always been interesting, a laugh. Now with X Factor et al the race had been destroyed for five years on the run. No longer. More than half a million souls bought that RATM song and proved their point. The promised gig, last night in Finsbury Park, brought 40,000 together for a victory party. It had a Reading Festival feel, with its stalls of endless no quality fast food and poor facilities. It was no Glastonbury, with its veggie burgers and Hare Krishna tent. This was a booze-sodden public space, overtaken by metalheads, current and former, and kids likely born after the 1992 release of the band’s first album.

The conquering heroes from Los Angeles took the stage as evening became night, powering through a flawlessly chosen 75-minute set – Bulls on Parade, Bullet in the Head, Freedom, Bombtrack, Testify – and those monstrous bass-driven riffs felt as powerful as they did 18 years ago. For me, and I suspect many others, there was a sense of youth reliving, having found that first album to be an unwavering accompaniment to my teens. Each member of this muscular and powerful band connected every sinew and thought to each other and the audience. I’ve never heard an outdoor gig sound as good.

I’m sure record labels, themselves raging against the dying light, and PR companies will try to harness the lightning in a bottle campaign and copy it, in a futile attempt to con the public into doing this every year. But they won’t pull it off. The internet has been harnessed many times into creating a buzz about films or flash mobs but it never felt like this before. A band most people in our culturally deprived and tabloid-fed nation had never heard of were made into household names almost overnight. It was a campaign free of guile and agenda, which won’t be repeated in quite the same way again.

As the main show ended and the crowd roared their approval, a short film, accompanied by the losing song, appeared on the screens, telling the David and Goliath tale, complete with quotes from the poor lad who won the X Factor and lost the bigger battle. Who will remember him another 18 years from now? He’ll be a footnote, along with the other ‘winners’ of these shows. The encore performance of Killing in the Name was utterly triumphant, the perfect end to a brilliant show. RATM have always prospered as outspoken advocates for the power of the individual. They had their victory, and we had ours.