Cage the Songbird

We’ve written here before about the phenomenon of the Christmas Number One, a very big deal in the UK—so big, in fact, that British punters place bets on their favorites.  Singles charts have been published in Britain since 1952, but the hype surrounding the Christmas Number One is more recent.  It’s unclear to me precisely how or when the tradition began, but no matter: the “battle” for the Number One spot takes up a great deal of media oxygen in Britain every December. The Christmas Number One is always an enormous seller, going back to the days when the hot new 45 made a great stocking stuffer, and it frequently ends up the top song of the year.

From 2005 through 2008, the winner of The X Factor, the Simon Cowell-produced TV talent show, snagged the Christmas Number One spot. It was such a sure thing that in 2007, bookies began taking bets on the Number-Two song. But last year, a Facebook-driven campaign succeeded in breaking the streak, pushing a 1992 single by Rage Against the Machine, “Killing in the Name,” to the top, nosing out Joe McElderry’s “The Climb” (which, for what it’s worth, was covered in the states by Miley Cyrus). The choice of Rage Against the Machine was deliberate, a protest against Cowell’s media juggernaut and the singers it manufactures. This year, protesters are going even further. Cage Against the Machine is an effort, again driven by Facebook, to make a celebrity-studded recording of John Cage’s 4’33” the Christmas Number One.

You might be familiar with 4’33”: it’s a piece for piano in which the artist remains silent for four minutes and 33 seconds. At first blush, it seems ridiculous, and indeed, 4’33” has been sometimes been disparaged as precious post-modern nonsense since Cage “wrote” it in 1952. But Cage intended to make the point that there’s no such thing as silence. In an essay about 4’33” at his site Classical Notes, Peter Guttman writes:

Although often described as a silent piece, 4’33” isn’t silent at all. While the performer makes as little sound as possible, Cage breaks traditional boundaries by shifting attention from the stage to the audience and even beyond the concert hall. You soon become aware of a huge amount of sound, ranging from the mundane to the profound, from the expected to the surprising, from the intimate to the cosmic—shifting in seats, riffling programs to see what in the world is going on, breathing, the air conditioning, a creaking door, passing traffic, an airplane, ringing in your ears, a recaptured memory. This is a deeply personal music, which each witness creates to his/her own reactions to life. Concerts and records standardize our responses, but no two people will ever hear 4’33” the same way. It’s the ultimate sing-along: the audience (and the world) becomes the performer.

The choice of 4’33” is inspired. What better way to protest the glittery emptiness of TV pop than by giving people the opportunity to hear the world without it? The Cage Against the Machine recording features breathing, creaking, the shuffling of feet, and even the occasional buzz of a vibrating cell phone. Among its 40-or-so performers are members of Heaven 17, Orbital, the Kooks, and the Guillemots, as well as Billy Bragg (who told a reporter he wasn’t present for the session but phoned in his part). It goes on sale in the UK today; sales of the single will benefit a number of charities. The single might also get some radio play: prominent British DJ Eddy Temple-Morris is one of the campaign organizers.

It’s not the only anti-X Factor campaign taking place in the social media world this Christmas, though. Another group is pushing the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird,” using a clip from Family Guy that never fails to crack me up. It’s the only minute of Family Guy I’ve ever seen, but it’s gold.


2 responses

  1. I liked the part where a few of the Cage Against The Machine musicians began to sway back and forth when it *finally* got to the hook. For the single version, that part needs to be brought much more upfront in the mix, along with the coughs. Cut the intro in half, add an extra paper shuffle overdub or two, and “2’59” ” could be the ultimate multi-format radio hit.

    For 2011, bring on “The Bird.” How telling is it that, in spite of the plagiaristic origins of “Surfin’ Bird,” there’s still more originality and durability in every nanosecond of that slice of magic vinyl than in the entire ‘X Factor’ canon?

  2. I just listened to the sample of Cage Against the Machine on Amazon. It’s slightly extended to 4’51. And there are remixes, including one called the Japanese Popstars Watch Family Guy on Mute Mix, thus bringing this discussion full circle.

    Either CATM or the Trashmen capturing the UK Xmas flag would be a triumph. I’ll never forget hearing “Surfin’ Bird” on the radio early/late one summer morning/night in 1985. It’s even more bizarre when you’re half-asleep and your room is pitch black. (Incidentally, the station I heard it on that day is one I’d recently discovered…and one I’ve now been an on-air part of for 14 years.)

    Offhand, this would have to be my favorite Christmas Number one to date:

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