BLOG: Why the X Factor Xmas must be challenged

At the risk of sounding like Nigel Farage, the British public have certain expectations for what constitutes a traditional Christmas – turkey, sprouts and roast spuds, the Queen’s Speech and the Royle Family, alcohol and arguments, gluttony and flatulence. Upon such bedrocks, an Empire was shored. One seasonal tradition which is overdue an overhaul however is the X Factor’s dominance of the Christmas pop charts, and Simon Cowell’s perennial stranglehold on the UK’s Xmas Number 1 single.

Over the past decade, X Factor contestants have claimed the coveted Christmas No. 1 spot on no fewer than six occasions, with such seminal pop moments as When You Believe (er…), That’s My Goal (um…) and last year’s unforgettable Skyscraper (no, us neither…). It was not always like this. Once upon a time, and we’re going back a bit here, admittedly, you could find The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Queen (twice!) on top of the pile on Christmas Day, and even in the age of boy/girl band dominance there’d be occasional bursts of ridiculousness (Mr Blobby! Bob The Builder!) to piss off the pop purists and confuse sherry-addled grandparents on the Xmas edition of Top Of The Pops. Innocent times. These days, from the moment that Dermot O’Leary holds up a freshly-minted copy of the debut single from whichever dead-eyed Cowell stooge has wailed, caterwauled and blubbed most effectively on their primetime TV ‘journey’ for the previous three months, the next Xmas number one is effectively set in stone.

There have, however, been challenges to this cultural hegemony, most memorably in 2009, when an online campaign successfully galvanised anti-X Factor sentiment to such a degree it secured the festive chart top slot for Rage Against The Machine’s incendiary protest anthem Killing In The Name, which racked up the most downloads in UK chart history to deny the Cowell corporation a fifth successive Christmas No. 1. This year, the man behind that record-breaking campaign, Jon Morter, is serving as an adviser to no fewer than four singles taking a tilt at Cowell’s latest pop puppet: John Otway’s OK Father Christmas, former East Ender John ‘Nasty Nick’ Altman’s cover of Real Wild Child (recorded with St. Albans rockers JoanOvArc), The Peace Collective’s All Together Now and, perhaps of most relevance to Classic Rock readers, Iron Maiden’s The Number Of The Beast, a campaign which at the time of writing has some 40,140 ‘Likes’ on its Facebook page. Can any of these four defy the odds to deny Ben Haenow his anticipated chart-topping success at the weekend? Why not?, says Morter.

“I was just some idiot from Essex with a computer and an internet connection and with Rage we managed to break the Guinness Record for downloads, so if I can do it anyone can,” Jon says. “With Rage, I’d just thought ‘This is getting silly, the Christmas Number 1 is a great little tradition in the UK, and Cowell’s ruining it’ and I decided to do something about it. Of course the X Factor is still going, and still so dominant with their homogenised, sugary nothingness, but the anger and frustration that propelled Rage to Number 1 is still out there too.”

There are, of course, those who’ll say, ‘Who cares? Rock music has never relied on the charts for validation, so why bother now? We have our world, they have theirs, and we don’t need to play their games.’ A fair point, certainly, but there’s a bigger picture here. This isn’t a childish ‘us’ or ‘them’ conflict, but for those of us who grew up with Top Of The Pops as the only substantive music show on television, there was always an undeniable thrill to be had from seeing one of ‘our’ bands – whether Maiden, Priest or AC/DC, Nirvana, Rage or Faith No More, System Of A Down, Green Day or Marilyn Manson – delivering a short, sharp shock to the pop mainstream. Lives were changed when those bands erupted into the mainstream, and from such moments whole new generations of rock fans were birthed. In these small victories, musical history is written. Wouldn’t it be nice to create another such moment?

Beyond that, the contest for the Christmas Number 1 offers music fans a rare opportunity for collectivised protest. So often rock fans complain about being marginalised, overlooked and ignored, but movements such as Jon Morter’s RATM campaign and the current Iron Maiden campaign (organised by another Essex rock fan, Tony Carmichael) offer a simple, effective medium for alternative voices to be heard, to remind the music industry that we’re not all living in a catatonic consumerist stupor. Whether you’re a fan or Rage or Iron Maiden isn’t really the point: as with the campaign to drive Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead to the summit of the charts in April 2013 following sycophantic media coverage of the passing of Baroness Thatcher (or indeed the support for the Pistols’ God Save The Queen in Jubilee year), the idea is to raise two metaphorical fingers to those who would seek to control the airwaves and mediate the cultural conversation, to deliver a unified ‘Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me!’ protest to an industry – and a wider world - which too often still regards rock fans as beneath consideration. One 99p download isn’t going to send shockwaves through the Syco boardrooms, obviously, but where would rock ‘n’ roll be without a little fly-in-the-ointment subversion?

“I can understand why rock fans generally aren’t interested in the charts, but how often do we get a chance to publically protest together and create something of our own?” says Jon Morter. “It’d be lovely to see Maiden have another Number One single – and anyone who says that the charts don’t matter should try to recall their feelings when Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter went to Number One – but beyond that, isn’t it nice to feel like you can still make some kind of a difference and have some kind of voice? On one level, it’s just a bit of fun, but on another level, rock fans in particular should understand the attraction of joining together to make a noise. To quote Rage again, sometimes it’s nice to take the power back.”

Visit the Maiden for Xmas Facebook page.

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.