The UK Charts can be a rum old affair. Back in 1991 Nirvana peaked at #7 with Smells Like Teen Spirit. Among the songs that outsold it that week were Ride Like The Wind – a dance cover of an old Christopher Cross song, and When You Tell Me That You Love Me – a decidedly gloopy effort from a past-her-prime Diana Ross. Even the most hardened grunge-hater would have to concede that Nirvana’s record has endured far better. But the singles rankings are no meritocracy, and the near unimpeachable status that …Teen Spirit now holds was not reflected in its mediocre six-week chart run.
The history of the hit list is full of stories like this. Whether it’s Joe Dolce keeping Ultravox’s Vienna off number one, or the fact that AC/DC never achieved a top ten single while 2 Unlimited enjoyed eight, the singles chart does have a tendency to favour the ephemeral over the enduring. Nowhere is this more clearly expressed than in the battle for Christmas number one, held for five of the past six years have been held by the incumbent winners of the X Factor. Can you remember them all? Probably not. I can, but then I am quite tragic.
To a large, vocal portion of the British public, this is not an acceptable state of affairs; hence the annual campaign to artificially push an ‘alternative’ song to the top of the festive charts. In 2009 Rage Against The Machine managed to ride a wave of X Factor antipathy to hold the hapless Joe McElderry off the all-important Christmas #1 (though he moved into pole position the following week). This year the aforementioned Nirvana hit has been anointed as the potential dragon slayer, and with the endoresement of the surviving members of the band, plus the obligatory charity angle, it has a good chance of challenging whoever emerges victorious from the ailing reality titan this weekend.
Personally, I find the whole thing dreadfully tedious, and quite hypocritical to boot. Buying a song you already own because a bunch of people on the internet told you to doesn’t exactly strike as the greatest blow for individualism. Besides, much as I respect …Teen Spirit as a song, I fail to see how a depressing, twenty-year old grunge snarlathon is any more festive than an aspirational ballad by a dead-eyed reality show winner. If the sanctity of the Christmas number one is so important, surely the best anti-X Factor campaign would be one that involved a current chart act releasing an original Christmas song that’s actually any good? The last original Christmas track to get anywhere near the top spot was the dreadful Darkness with Don’t Let The Bells End. The only (outside) challenger this year is Justin Bieber’s latest effort. Hardly inspiring.
As things stand, there’s an unpleasant undercurrent of musical snobbery to the whole campaign. Needless to say, the dread phrase ‘real music’ has been bandied about more than once – as if pre X-Factor the Christmas number one spot had been routinely fought over by the likes of Billy Bragg and Bob Dylan as opposed to Mr Blobby and Bob The Builder. (Dylan, coincidentally, released a fantastic version of ‘It Must Be Santa’ a couple of years ago which would have been a far less po-faced choice of people’s champion if we must go down that route).
Don’t get me wrong, I have no interest in whatever drippy cover version the X Factor victor releases this week either, and I certainly don’t think they ‘deserve’ a number one single – although the very concept of a number one single being deserved for any other reason than having sold the most records that week is more than a little absurd – but the fact is that their annual storm to the top spot has become a self-fulfilling prophecy; no other major event singles even try for the top spot any more. Where are the twenty-first century Spice Girls, who held three consecutive Christmas number ones with three consecutive marvellous wintery pop ballads without being fuelled by reality TV or a protest vote? I’d like to see some fun back in the Christmas charts, and having them hijacked by a bunch of pompous Q Magazine readers who don’t even care what’s at number one for the other 51 weeks of the year isn’t my idea of a good time any more than surrendering to the Syco machine is. We need a third way. Somebody get Girls Aloud back in the studio.