Ruminate Against The Machine

A strong argument against the notion that Rage Against the Machine making Christmas No.1 in the UK is a positive development might include the following points:

What appears as some sort of popular rebellion is in fact a profit-making exercise for one transnational corporation, since both Joe McElderry and Rage Against The Machine are signed by Sony.

If it is a popular rebellion, it is one entirely in keeping by the X-Factor mode of participation, in which phone-ins, downloads and other expressions of consumer choice function as a stand-in for properly democratic activity. It is therefore popular rebellion as a free market ideologue might design it, in which voting takes the form of an exercise of consumer choice.

Rather than undermining this mode of participation, buying a Rage Against The Machine single as part of a campaign merely reinforces it, by presenting the possibility of a radical alternative available within this mode. It involves the same logic used by many people who openly express a preference for music falling under the category of ‘indie’ or ‘alternative’: what is intended as an expression of individual autonomy as opposed to mainstream ‘commercial’ music produced for mass consumption is merely a vanguard expression of the type of consumer disposition aspired to by mass producers.

Mass-produced pop music, by which I mean articles that can be massively produced and distributed, as opposed to music designed for the undifferentiated ‘masses’, has always incorporated the language of profit and commercialism in its presentation and marketing: witness the very idea of a ‘smash hit’, with its connotations of military targeting transposed to commerce. If you watch the X-Factor, as I do, you will be familiar with the introductory sequences for guest artists, in which the scene is set for the guest artist performance with a brief executive summary of that artist’s stratospheric sales performance – 500 Billion Records Sold Last Week Alone!

One thing that distinguishes the spectacle of the X-Factor from that of Top of the Pops is the explicit significance given to commerce. With Top of the Pops, the fact of a record making the top of the charts was celebrated as the felicitous and spontaneous triumph of a particular song in the nation’s hearts. With the former, making the top of the charts is an expected outcome, in which the choice of song, performance, and appearance of the singer(s) are relentlessly analysed as necessary elements in a defined business project. In one sense then, the X-Factor is more ‘honest’, in that it scarcely seeks to deny the cash exchange that determines ‘X’, whereas in Top of The Pops, the chart appears as simply part of the natural order. (Although, on X-Factor, the charts are presented as external territory to be colonised by the singer(s), whilst in reality the domain of the charts is largely defined and controlled by the same interests that define and control the programme itself.)

The upshot of this being that if the RATM campaign is merely a matter of restoring respectability to the Christmas Number One, of restoring ‘real’ music in a way that one might campaign for real ale, it is missing the point: the X-Factor is about maintaining the Christmas Number One, and whatever form the sales charts might take, as mechanisms for selling music in keeping long-established commercial rhythms.

Against all this, however, I would make the following points:

It’s true that you are boosting the profits of a major corporation by downloading the track. However, you are contributing to the profits of major corporations whenever you download almost any track: you pay for the computer, the broadband, the equipment used to play the track, you visit the site or application for downloading, the site owner uses the information for data mining and customer segmentation purposes, and so on. Even when music appears as ‘free’, it involves a series of transactions, often in terms of getting paid in music to subject yourself to advertisements. Half a million downloads is a drop in the ocean for the corporate profits that accrue to the music, music technology and related industries every year.

Now if you want to get economistic, you might argue that it is better to do nothing than give your money to the corporation, since you are simply transferring power to the corporation. But that rests on the assumption that profits simply translate directly into more power, regardless of the conditions in which the corporation exists and generates its profit. It does not account for any of the other effects generated by the purchase of the particular product, nor does it account for the fact that the accumulation of capital by one corporation in particular is not necessarily a positive development for corporate power in toto.

Looking at what the other effects might be requires us to look at what the particular product is, and what meanings its purchase produces. In this light I would briefly note the following.

First, regardless of the content of the track itself, there is the brute disruptive effect to business as usual. The X-Factor business model was subjected, at the very least, to a momentary loss of power and lustre. A space is opened up in which this power is contested. People start to discuss and question the basis of the X-Factor’s power, something they would not have otherwise done.

Let me introduce an example of disruption internal to a corporation, where the normal elaboration of corporate power leads to its own disruption. The context is the role of ‘charismatic leadership’, which bears some relation to the figure of Simon Cowell on the X-Factor.

Organizations may confer power, status, wealth; may meet needs for affiliation and belonging; may bolster self-esteem—yet, at a fundamental level, the issue of control, of order and ordering, it not resolved. The play of power is intrinsic to this process of order and giving orders. The relationship is characterized by a latency which holds within it the ‘indestructible reversing of a command’, ‘a sting’ (Cooper 1983 : 214). Cooper cites Canetti (1962) as saying, ‘What spurs men on to achievement is the deep urge to be rid of the commands once laid on them’.

Hence, the rewards a company can offer, while they undoubtedly attach meaning to behaviour and experience, are in themselves insufficient to sustain individual coherence, particularly when considered in temporal terms. Here the necessary ambivalence of performance, the immediate and the prospective, bound in the moment of participation, acknowledges the discontinuity which is, in the day-to-day, concealed by acceptance.

At a recent management development course for middle management where the theme was ‘Your Future with the Company’ two of the three senior managers who were due to speak on the first day were, in effect, fired the day before the course. Apart from the problem it gave the course organizers, the contradictory messages it sent to the participants produced some remarkable effects. Many managers present found it difficult to sustain a coherent view of the company’s attitude to them or theirs to the company. The fact that the men who had been dismissed were both popular and not seen to be ineffective in their work caused confusion and cynicism. The participants could not sustain their definitions of reality in the face of two conflicting versions of their corporate destinies.

-The Making of the Corporate Acolyte: Some Thoughts on Charismatic Leadership and the Reality of Organizational Commitment – Critical Management Studies: A Reader by Christopher Grey and Hugh Willmott (eds)

If I might apply the observation to the X-Factor: the definition of reality, as developed by the X-Factor judges, as structured by the Christmas Number One and the sales chart, and as expressed by the Miley Cyrus cover, cannot be sustained when there is a conflicting version: music that deals with the racist elements of authoritarian state power. To the extent that the RATM track causes confusion and cynicism, it disrupts the processes that lead people into identifying with the corporate form as exemplified by the X-Factor. This is a good thing. Representing corporate power as wholly unimpeachable, that regardless of what you’re doing you’re playing into the hands of corporate overlords, is simply doing the work of corporations for free. This is not to say that corporate power can be dismantled through the purchase of consumer products, of course, but it bears remembering that to envision corporations as embodiments of pure power is to issue guarantees for their continued prosperity.

Second, there is the overturning of the linear time that underpins the mechanisms -the Christmas Number One, the weekly sales chart- according to which the X-Factor delivers its final product. Barbara Ellen, in the centre-right Observer, defending the ‘taste of the people’ against the ‘laziness’ and ‘snobbery’ of Rage Against The Machine, made the following complaint:

Wow, man, deep. Or it would have been if Rage’s song hadn’t first been released in 1992. Note to Mr Morello: if you’re trying to make a point about “the cutting edge”, instead of using a song that is nearly 20 years old, perhaps you should get off your backside and produce something that is – what’s the word again – oh, yes, new.

Leaving aside the fact that Tom Morello released a record this year with The Coup’s Boots Riley which (in my view, anyway) far surpasses anything produced by Rage Against The Machine, Ellen’s comment reveals precisely why, if your intent is to throw a spanner in the works, it is a very good idea to dredge up a song from 1992, because it questions the notion that there is something intrinsically good about putting your nose to the grindstone and producing ‘new’ stuff for the purposes of ‘family entertainment’. One notes in passing that most of the performances on the X-Factor TV programme, including the single that went to number 2 are covers of old songs. Therefore using an old song in its original form perfects the logic of the X-Factor as it subverts it: why bother making a new cover version when you can come up with a perfect version of the original?

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