Sunday, 3 January 2010

WeMedia: the perfect case study!

If Wemedia is about democracy and the media, what better than the story of the Christmas number one single as a case study for the exam?

Programmes like The X-Factor have been offering audiences the appearance of participating in the democratic process in recent years, with some suggestions that more people have been voting in Tv programme personality contests than in political elections. Of course, unlike real elections, you get the chance to vote once a week for the duration of the series, or, if you like, more than once a week, provided you don't mind paying for the calls.

Many people would argue that such voting is just about surface appearance and popularity rather than creative talent and skill; there has long been an obvious opposition in music taste between what have been broadly termed 'rock' and 'pop'- the former tending to be seen in terms of 'authenticity'- the live band, playing their own instruments, singing about something meaningful- and the latter in terms of 'manufacturedness'- created for the image, often manipulated in terms of their appearance and even by technology to enable them to sing, usually covering songs written by other people. Sometimes acts do succeed in crossing the divide- people like Robbie Williams, keen to establish his authentic credentials, has been a regular guest over the years on 'Later with Jools Holland', rubbing shoulders with all manner of 'authentic' acts.

In years gone by, the pop charts really mattered, especially at christmas, when there was enormous interest in which song would get to number one. Since the charts stopped being calculated by sales of physical records/cds sold in shops and moved to a combination of downloads and 'real' sales, they have seemed a lot less important; in the last few years, christmas songs have rarely hit the top of the charts and the placing of the X-Factor final in the run-up to the festive period has been a clever ploy to ensure that the winner's single would inevitably fill the no.1 slot.

So democracy takes its course- a programme whose format is sold around the world, owned by a company belonging to the leading record industry figure who effectively chairs the judging panel, gets viewers to text and phone their votes each week till they have whittled down the contestants to a winner, then releases product for the same viewers to go out and buy or pay to download, which gets another prize of the Christmas number 1 and extra profits. Until this year, when the inevitable challenge of web democracy fought back.

It was a bizarre choice but it gained momentum incredibly quickly; when Jon and Tracy Morter announced the facebook campaign to stop the X-Factor getting to number 1 by asking people to buy Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the name" instead, it gained a lot of publicity fast; and what better place to do this than on facebook? By the time they had succeeded in snatching the number 1 slot after a close fought race, the facebook group had picked up 1 million members. The campaign was initially denounced by simon Cowell, but he later congratulated both the band and the Morters- it had generated more sales for his act, Joe McElderry as well.

The campaign had the added bonus that some of the proceeds would go to shelter, a charity well known for its work at christmas, and that the band took part in a number of interviews with the British media, notably a live appearance on radio 5 breakfast, where they ignore requests to tone down the lyrics of the song and sang the f- word at 9am several times before being faded down.

Could this happen again? Yes and it probably will, but like so much media democracy, it is unlikely to change very much other than for such gestural moments. Rather like the Sex Pistols getting to no.1 (which the BBC refused to acknowledge in 1977) with the banned 'God Save the Queen', it is a memorable moment in popular culture when the hardcore politically conscious edge topples the bland, but it probably won't change the structure of the record industry, television, or the power of Simon Cowell.

Interesting links: the facebook group

BBC coverage

the fundraising site
X-Factor official site

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