Nick Richardson

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?


  • 31 December 2010 at 1:16pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Is there a score for 4'33"?

    • 31 December 2010 at 4:52pm
      klhoughton says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Absolutely. There are three movements.

      One must close the lid and open it at precise moments, so that the audience's voluntary reactions are both managed well enough to not distract and not so well managed that the piece loses its vitality.

  • 31 December 2010 at 5:11pm
    kazbel says:
    4' 33" did make the top 40. It reached number 21. Unfortunately I missed the broadcast when the BBC (I presume) played it but I would like to think it is now included regularly on playlists of pop channels throughout the country. I think many shop workers would appreciate its inclusion on the tracks of festive muzak they are compelled to endure all day in December.

    • 1 January 2011 at 12:48pm
      Nick Richardson says: @ kazbel
      Strange. It's not listed on Radio 1's Top 40 website, which puts Jessie J's strident 'Do It Like a Dude' at 21.

  • 1 January 2011 at 3:35pm
    kazbel says:

    • 4 January 2011 at 10:28am
      Nick Richardson says: @ kazbel
      I'm still a little confused, but let's say for 'Top 40' read 'Top 20'!

    • 4 January 2011 at 12:37pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Nick Richardson
      There are no end of charts now as there are so many different ways of calculating them; but until there is one that includes all the copying and 'theft' of music that goes on (mainly) by the young, we will not have a true picture of what is popular.

    • 4 January 2011 at 1:30pm
      Nick Richardson says: @ Joe Morison
      That's a chart I'd love to see: 'Top 10 most stolen records 2010'. Does it exist? The filesharing blog TorrentFreak published one for movies; Avatar came top.

    • 4 January 2011 at 1:48pm
      semitone says: @ Nick Richardson
      In Australia a novel called Looking for Alibrandi was spruiked by its publishers as the book most stolen from school libraries.

    • 5 January 2011 at 3:46pm
      Phil Edwards says: @ kazbel
      I read somewhere that Radio 1 only played an excerpt from 4'33" on the relevant chart programme, ostensibly on the grounds that it wasn't in the top 20. I suspect they would have found a reason not to play it anyway - the thought of running four and a half minutes of dead air must have given the controllers kittens.

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