Music mogul Simon Cowell makes a hell of a villain. Criticism from his poison-laced tongue shattered many dreams during his tenure on the original American Idol seasons, a tradition the host carried through to the X-Factor and Got Talent franchises.
Rock group Rage Against The Machine make appealing heroes. The band is well known for their kinetic music being a vehicle for their activism. The whole purpose of Rage Against The Machine’s existence is altruistic social justice and institutional change.
Now, it might sound petty but if there is one institution that British people were fed up with, it was Simon Cowell’s hand-picked lackey topping the charts at Christmas. Nobody really knows when and why the peak position at Christmas became such a coveted prize, but it did, and for four years straight in the mid-’00s, the winner of Cowell’s X-Factor contest sailed to number one during the holiday season with ease.
By 2009, many Brits had had enough. Looking like X-Factor winner Joel McElderry would again take the prize, a Facebook campaign called “Rage Against the Machine for Christmas No 1” was started by couple Tracy and Jon Morter. The group launched with the words: “Fed up of Simon Cowell’s latest karaoke act being Christmas No 1? Me too … So who’s up for a mass-purchase of the track ‘KILLING IN THE NAME’ from December 13th (DON’T BUY IT YET!) as a protest to the X Factor monotony?”
For the uninitiated, “Killing In The Name” is a single from Rage Against The Machine’s debut album. It’s overt message about resisting institutional authority is capped off by vocalist Zack de la Rocha repeatedly screaming the phrase “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!”
Seeing an opportunity to raise money for charity, Rage Against The Machine embraced the campaign. In a tweet, guitarist Tom Morello said: “Rage’s Killing in the Name & the X-Factor’s goofy Christmas single are neck and neck for num one spot on UK chart. England! Now is your time.”
Unsurprisingly, the campaign made Cowell livid, who called it “stupid” and “cynical.”
The movement blossomed, and in the end “Killing In The Name” sold over 500,000 copies, beating out Cowell acolyte McElderry, who sold 450,000. Upon their victory, Rage Against The Machine posted the following to their website:
“We’ve shown that we can make a difference and that you don’t have a right to Number One just because Simon Cowell says so, especially with a bad cover!
Finally I would like to say thank you to all of you, we’ve raised 64,726.00 pounds for [the charity] Shelter at the time of writing this, the difference that this will make to people’s lives is truly amazing.
We gotta take the power back – Rage Against The Machine – Merry Christmas.”
As stated by NME at the time: “In taking the title for 2009, ‘Killing in the Name’ also set two new landmarks, becoming the U.K.’s first download-only Christmas Number One and notching up the biggest one-week download sales total in British chart history, according to the Official Charts Company.”
In a 2019 interview with Maryanne Hobbs, Tom Morello fondly recalled Rage’s Christmas victory:
“I would say the people of the UK took down Simon Cowell. It was an extraordinary event. We were just going on about our lives in Los Angeles and some friends of mine in the UK texted me, saying, ‘You know what’s going on?’
“I said, ‘I have no idea.’ We knew who Simon Cowell was, we knew what X-Factor was. And we learned that it was this rigged system where they had this TV show and then someone wins the stupid TV show and they sing the song and everyone buys it the next day.
“It’s the Christmas No. 1, they all pat themselves on the back, right? But a suburban London couple made a Facebook campaign to dethrone ‘The X Factor’ and it is in the Guinness Book of World Records, it’s a song most downloaded in one week in history, ‘Killing in the Name.’
“And it stands as quite a high watermark, despite the fact that our record company did everything to make us lose because they also represented Simon Cowell, and they knew which side their bread was buttered. They didn’t return the band’s phone calls or e-mails.
“Despite the fact that we had no physical copies of it in stores – you could not buy it in a store, you had to download it – it was almost 600,000 downloads in one week, of the song, and we crushed him. It was awesome.”