Matt Smith's End of the Spectrum

Melbourne-based writer and journalist. Purveyor of finally crafted radio plays. A Muppet of a man.

Christmas number ones hit a sour note

First published in The National Times on 16th December, 2010

For the past few years, a once proud Christmas tradition has been dying in the UK.

Not so long ago, having the number one music single at Christmas used to be a good thing. Winning it was seen as a significant achievement in the British music industry, and something that made the rest of the world sit up and take notice.

These days though, it’s become a bit of a joke. 

The number one chart position has long been treasured by the music industry, if not for artistic merits then purely on a commercial level. Since the charts focused on music single sales in 1952 (before which success was measured by sheet music sales) much of the music industry has been aimed at ensuring victory during that one peak period.

Success during this time have been interesting indicators of taste in music. The Beatles hold the distinction of winning four times during the ’60s (including three in a row with I want to Hold Your Hand, I Feel Fine, and We Can Work it out/Day Tripper. Two years later they reclaimed the position with Hello, Goodbye). At other points it’s been held by Elvis Presley (Return to Sender), Pink Floyd (Another Brick in the Wall), Queen (Bohemian Rhapsody), West Life (I Have a Dream/Seasons in the Sun) and (no matter what you think of them artistically) The Spice Girls. Three times. Rather prophetically their hits were titled 2 Becomes 1, Too Much, and Goodbye.

Yet from 2005, things have been different, which perhaps can be partly blamed on the media doing its part in attempting to change, and maybe ruin, Christmas. That year saw the rise of TV talent show The X-Factor, and for the four years until 2009 the Christmas number one was held by the show’s winner: Shayne Ward (That’s my goal), Leona Lewis (A Moment Like This), Leon Jackson (When You Believe) and Alexandra Burke (Hallelujah). All the eventual winners went into the deciding week with the highest odds of success despite the fact that the winner had yet to be announced, which indicates a remarkable disregard for the music itself, and a reliance on show popularity and marketing power. In an interview last year, X-Factor mogul Simon Cowell proudly stated that he’d done the world a favour killing the Christmas number one race.

This year, the dulcet tones of a young singer named Matt Cardle are likely to top the charts after he was announced the 2010 X-Factor winner last week. Cardle has been given the favourable odds of 2/7 to top the festive charts.

The only notable competition for the number one spot comes from another phenomenon that began last year. In an effort to defeat the X-Factor streak, a ground roots campaign began and succeeded in getting Rage Against the Machine’s 1993 song Killing in the Name to number one. Through a combination of Facebook fanpages, word of mouth, and promotion by a bemused media industry, no one was perhaps more surprised when it succeeded than Rage Against the Machine itself – their song finally reaching number one 18 years after it was released.

This year, two competing songs seek to follow in its footsteps. The 1964 novelty song Surfin’ Bird by Trashmen (which attempts to convey the fact that the bird, is indeed, the word) is Matt Cardle’s main competition with odds of 3/1. Slightly trailing them with odds of 6/1 is 4’33” a “song” comprised of nothing but silence released in 1952 by American experimental composer John Cage. In some ways I’d love for this one to win, simply so BBC1 has to play it in its entirety.

No matter how much money the winning single takes, there’s no doubt that the title of the number one single at Christmas is little more than that – a title. It’s no indication of which song was popular, the music of its time, or even what people are listening to – it’s now been corrupted to nothing but a gimmick.

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This entry was posted on December 24, 2010 by in music and tagged , , , , , , .
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