Resistance was futile. The X Factor winner Matt Cardle’s sickly debut single, ‘When We Collide’, made Christmas No. 1. The two favourite outside chances – Billy Bragg et al’s version of John Cage’s 4’33”, and Captain SKA’s ‘Liar Liar’ – didn’t even make the Top 40. If it seems obvious now that the nation would choose the most popular participant in the nation’s most popular game show over four and a half minutes of near-silence, or a slice of ebullient agit-pop, it didn’t seem that way a few weeks ago. Both tracks had well-run campaigns behind them, Facebook groups with masses of members, whips on Twitter; ‘Liar Liar’ disgusted George Osborne on Newsnight while the Guardian thought 4’33” likely to be the ‘most serious competition the forthcoming X Factor winner will have to face’. Sadly it wasn’t.
Still, there was resistance. Both ‘Liar Liar’ and 4’33” are essentially protest songs, though in very different styles. The former is in the classic mould: the singer is pissed off at the government, telling them they should ‘cut the rich, not the poor’. She accuses Clegg, Osborne and Cameron of going back on their pre-election promise to cut fairly, denouncing them in the chorus as liars over an electro-reggae skank and jazz-hand horns. 4’33” is more passive: it can be read as a gesture of resignation, accepting whatever sounds happen to be made while it’s being performed. Yet the piece – certainly at one point during its long gestation period – was intended as a political statement. In a lecture at Columbia University in the 1940s Cage declared his disgust for the muzak piped into factories in order to ‘motivate’ workers, and talked about releasing a silent record that could be slipped into the factory playlist to give workers an occasional break.
4’33” by these lights is a more general protest than ‘Liar Liar’. It takes issue with the wider problem of the manipulation of the people by the ruling class, which makes it more fitting, conceptually, as an anthem for people who see the recent demonstrations as being about more than the cuts; who see them as an end to the ‘consensus of indifference’, as a reawakening of popular leftism. Though 4’33” could never be an anthem proper, because you can’t sing along to it. And it’s no surprise that a song without a tune, or beat, or bassline, failed to capture the imagination of the public at large and stalled way short of the Christmas hit parade.
The campaigns surrounding ‘Liar Liar’ and 4’33”, along with the calls from students, journalists and others for new protest songs, testify to a widespread desire to repoliticise pop music. Patronising trash like ‘When We Collide’ is the muzak of our time, drawn up by cynical suits anxious to keep the public doting and serene – it would be fantastic if a politically charged, dissenting voice could overrule it. But to do so it needs more hooks than 4’33” and more punch, and depth, than ‘Liar Liar’ – something more along the lines of Public Enemy c. Nation of Millions?