David Lister: Rage against being told what to do

Saturday 19 December 2009 01:00

For the first time in years I am interested in what will be the Christmas number One.

Tomorrow we will know whether it is The X Factor winner Joe McElderry or the Nineties political rock band Rage Against the Machine singing "Killing in the Name". It's a pretty bizarre contest instigated by a husband-and-wife team of X Factor haters on Facebook. The Facebook campaign to download the song has attracted the support of over 150,000 fellow X Factor haters, and probably a handful of Rage Against the Machine anoraks who are rubbing their eyes that their day has come round again.

Well, we know who we should support don't we. Master McElderry, through no fault of his own, will be crooning his way through a song, "Climb", a hit for teen telly star Miley Cyrus, to help to fill Simon Cowell's pockets. And even those of us who have found The X Factor diverting stuff over the past few weeks baulk at the fact that Cowell can't even find an original song for his winning protégé. (Couldn't a songwriting contest have been run alongside the singing contest?)

Yes, I feel manipulated, cajoled and taken for granted. But not, as it happens, by Cowell. Endearing as the thought of giving Cowell a black eye may be, it's the Facebook Rage Against the Machine mafia that frightens me. Rage Against the Machine were a pretty good band in their day, if you went for those "We Hate George Bush in the verse and we despise him in the chorus" songs. But there are other bands. Manipulating a 1992 song, lacking in any current musical or political context, to the top of the charts seems to me no more cutting edge or culturally relevant than an anodyne, second-hand Miley Cyrus song. You do, though, have to admire the irony of 150,000 people signing up as requested to campaign for a song with a lyric about refusing to do what anyone tells you.

At first sight, a Facebook campaign seems a most democratic way of making a hit. But on second sight, it seems anything but. For a start you have to be on Facebook, then you have to be guided by the choice of a particular fan plugging the band of his or her youth. It's not exactly a genuine word-of-mouth buzz for a new act. It worries me if this is the future. Will this pair of Facebook bright sparks turn next to theatre or film, suggest boycotting Keira Knightley in the West End perhaps in favour of some Fringe production? The power of the Facebook culture police could become worrying.

And funnily enough, the Facebook culture police are as irrelevant as The X Factor to what's really going on. As the many reviews of the year have shown in recent days, this has been a fantastic year for music. From the zeitgeist pop of Lily Allen and Florence and the Machine to the hip-hop of Speech Debelle and Jay-Z, and much, much else, it has been as vibrant and exciting a year as any in the Noughties. If one does want to make a point about the irrelevance of The X Factor to the current state of music, then the best way to make it is with an artist of today, and preferably through an organic, unprompted surge of interest.

Those who think that the best way to challenge Simon Cowell's dominance of one part of the pop market is to resurrect Rage Against the Machine need to get out more.

Gavin and Stacey's secret weapons

When one talks about Gavin & Stacey one tends to talk about the principal characters, all of whom are now pretty much household names. But, one of the many delights of the programme is that, unusually among television sitcoms, it has an array of minor characters which are marvellous comic creations, even if they appear only rarely. One example is Doris, the septuagenarian Welsh neighbour, sexually predatory and foul-mouthed, and speaking in teenage slang. A feat of the imagination.

But my favourite is builder's mate Deano. Over the whole three series he can't have had more than a dozen lines. But each cameo by this young, wide-eyed, innocent labourer is a joy. Last week he was at a friend's house, and his friend's mum asked him if he would like tea or coffee. "Can I have half and half?" he asked politely. For me, something about that line borders on comic greatness.

At last the Arts Council drops the sex question

Back in April I wrote on this page how impertinent it was of the Arts Council to ask anyone applying for a grant for details of their sexuality. Why one's sexual preference should have a bearing on whether one could run a good arts centre or mount a film festival was beyond me. I suggested that running the Arts Council was even more important than applying for a grant, and therefore its chair Dame Liz Forgan and chief executive Alan Davie should tell us all about their sexual preferences.

I now understand that, not before time, the Arts Council has seen sense and from January will stop asking this annoying and intrusive question on application forms. Of course, there's nothing to stop Mr Davie and Dame Liz from musing publicly about their own sexual preferences if they still believe that it has a bearing on good arts management.

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