Christmas Showdown In Britain Pits Cage Vs. Cowell Since 1952, millions of people in Britain sit by their radios to hear which song will become the Christmas number one single. For the past few years Simon Cowell's talent show 'The X Factor' has influenced who wins, but no more. Billy Bragg explains why John Cage's '4'33"' should win.
NPR logo

Christmas Showdown In Britain Pits Cage Vs. Cowell

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/131910188/131914528" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Christmas Showdown In Britain Pits Cage Vs. Cowell

Christmas Showdown In Britain Pits Cage Vs. Cowell

Christmas Showdown In Britain Pits Cage Vs. Cowell

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/131910188/131914528" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Billy Bragg performs in 2008. Gareth Cattermole /Getty Images Entertainment hide caption

toggle caption
Gareth Cattermole /Getty Images Entertainment

Billy Bragg performs in 2008.

Gareth Cattermole /Getty Images Entertainment

Since Christmas Day 1952, millions of people in Britain have sat by their radios to hear which song will become the Christmas Day number one single, and in recent years, that song has effectively been decided by one man: Simon Cowell. In Britain, his televised talent show "The X Factor" strategically announces a winner just days before the public votes on the Christmas number one, and so for three years running, the winning songs have been pop ballads.

But last Christmas, the British public staged a revolt against Cowell's hit machine.  And they voted to make "Killing in the Name," a 1992 song by Rage Against the Machine, the Christmas Day number one single. With that, British pop fans sent Cowell an unequivocal message.

This year, another group is trying to do the same thing, only this song is silence. That's right, some of Britain's biggest pop stars are releasing a new version of John Cage's composition 4'33" -- which is completely silent.

Billy Bragg is one of those musicians, and he tells All Things Considered guest host Guy Raz what inspired the artists to do this.

"Its a continuation from last year's campaign," Bragg says, "which was so successful in getting Rage Against The Machine to number one, it seemed if only in terms of punnery it would be great to try and get John Cage to number one. His 4 Minutes 33 Seconds is a moment of contemplation to stand back from not just the buying of Simon Cowell's appointed record, but the whole consumer fest that Christmas has become.

"A moment to reflect on the message of Christmas is not a bad thing."

Bragg explains that the new version is in the spirit of Cage's original work.

"Cage's composition was a protest initially against inane jingles," Bragg says, "and themes that he heard on the radio. So were staying true the original protest."