This week there has been a bit of a ding-dong, and not just from Santa's sleigh bells. Forget Copenhagen, the nation has been gripped by whether X-Factor winner Joe Schmo will get his Tiny Tim dream of a Christmas number one, or whether a spoiler campaign will propel another group to the top of the seasonal chart, in the form of a Rage Against The Machine song from 1993, "Killing in the name of". Simon Cowell has been harrumphing like a bad loser in tones of such unwitting irony that my head almost turned inside out with the mental gymnastics it took to realise he wasn't joking.
For me the most interesting thing is the passion aroused on both sides (or as near as Simon Cowell can come to it) about what is really a curate's egg. I mean, why does anyone give a toss what happens to be the best-selling song at the time of a public holiday? It's not as if there is a religious dimension to the rivalry, reclaiming the feast from the heathen hoards, a la Cliff Richard. The papers will not be filled with speculation as to what is the best-selling book, or the most popular movie on release. Is the Christmas single meant to say something about us as a nation, the aural equivalent of the Queen's Speech? If so, it may explain the sense of national decline.
Once upon a time, of course, it mattered financially. When singles came in vinyl format and you had to shift three quarters of a million units to hit the top, it was the biggest week for sales, thanks to their popularity as gifts. This habit has always puzzled me - you want to buy a record as a Christmas present for someone, but you know so little about them that you have to guess at a song. And if you had used the number one single as some sort of quality benchmark, more often than not the recipient would have been disappointed, as this accolade is won, as often as not, by the likes of Bob the Builder and Westlife - and going back further Shakin' Stevens and Benny Hill. You may as well select number 18 every year and hope for the best.
These digital days, when more people own soft copies than hard copies, actual singles sales are a tiny proportion of revenue for an artist, and given there is not even a Christmas Day Top of the Pops anymore, the question remains as to why people actually care. No-one strives to achieve an Easter Number One or August Bank Holiday hit. Have we let the nation down if the X Factor machine secures its fifth consecutive Christmas number one? What about if it's number one for New Year, not to say a new decade, as it almost certainly will be?
Where do we go from here? Is this the sign of Cowell's waning influence after four consecutive hits? Are the charts of the future going to represent the results of random social media campaigns rather than the current favourite tunes? I'd like to think it marks the end of the idea of a singles chart, which smacks of the bad old days of no commercial radio, three TV stations, and a waiting list at the GPO to get a phone installed. In the multi-channelled world we live in today, a monopoly system that claims to signify something of importance to everyone is an anachronism, and irrelevant to most people. Let's hope Simon Cowell goes the same way.
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