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.
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Christmas Showdown In Britain Pits Cage Vs. Cowell

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Christmas Showdown In Britain Pits Cage Vs. Cowell

Christmas Showdown In Britain Pits Cage Vs. Cowell

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GUY RAZ, host:

Since Christmas Day 1952, millions of people in Britain have sat by their radios on that day to hear which song will become the Christmas number one single. And in recent years, that song has effectively been decided by one man, Simon Cowell.

In Britain, his televised talent show, "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 sounded like this.

(Soundbite of song, "When You Believe")

Mr. LEON JACKSON (Singer): (Singing) There can be miracles when you believe.

RAZ: So after enduring a few years of that, last Christmas, the British public staged a revolt against Cowell's hit machine. And they voted to make this 1992 song by Rage Against the Machine the Christmas Day number one single.

(Soundbite of song, "Killing in the Name")

Mr. ZACK DE LA ROCHA (Vocalist, Rage Against the Machine): (Singing) I won't do what you tell me. (Bleep) I won't do what you tell me. (Bleep) I won't do what you tell me.

RAZ: And with that, British pop fans sent Cowell an unequivocal message. Well, this year, another group is trying to do the same thing, only this is what their track sounds like.

Yes, silence. Some of Britain's biggest pop stars are releasing a new version of John Cage's composition "4 Minutes 33 Seconds," which of course is silent. Billy Bragg is one of those musicians, and he joins me on the line from the U.K. Welcome.

Mr. BILLY BRAGG (Singer): Hi there.

RAZ: So you have Suggs from Madness, you've got Imogen Heap, you've got The Kooks, you've got some huge names there. First of all, how much rehearsal into this?

Mr. BRAGG: Well, it was pretty spontaneous, actually. And I was stuck in a traffic jam on a freeway, in a snowstorm, and I had to literally phone my silence in.

RAZ: So you actually weren't able to go to the studio to record this. Right.

Mr. BRAGG: No, sadly, I wasn't. But Cage said that you had to have your instrument but not play it, and so I had my guitar with me.

RAZ: Okay. So you were in the car and you had the line running into the studio, so you were part of this.

Mr. BRAGG: Yeah.

RAZ: But in all seriousness, Billy Bragg, how did you guys get the idea to do this?

Mr. BRAGG: Well, really, I mean, obviously, it's a continuation on from last year's campaign. And his "4 Minutes and 33 Seconds" is a moment of contemplation to stand back from not just the buying Simon Cowell's appointed record to be number one, but the whole consumer fest that Christmas has become. And perhaps just to reflect a little bit on the actual human side of a season where, you know, the message of Christmas - peace on Earth and goodwill to all - is still, I think, you know, moments of reflection on that, it's not a bad thing.

RAZ: Now Ladbrokes, the British bookmaker, gives your song an 8-to-1 odds of winning the Christmas number one. And here, I want to play a little bit of your toughest competition. Here it is.

(Soundbite of song "Surfin' Bird")

Mr. DAL WINSLOW (Vocalist, Trashmen) A-well-a, everybody's heard about the bird. Bird, bird, bird...

RAZ: Okay. This is a song by the Trashmen, and it's from 1963. It's called "Surfin' Bird." This is also a protest candidate against the Simon Cowell pick. Can you guys beat at least this one?

Mr. BRAGG: Well, I mean, the thing about the bird song is that it was -it's just a song, whereas Cage's composition was a protest originally against inane jingles and themes that he heard on the radio in America in the '50s. And it really is a proper protest - well, I can't really call it a song, can I, but a protest piece. That's what it was originally recorded for and we're staying true to that.

RAZ: From Rage to Cage, that's musician Billy Bragg. He's part of a group that recorded a new version of John Cage's silent composition "4 Minutes 33 Seconds."

Billy Bragg, thanks.

Mr. BRAGG: Thank you.

RAZ: And you're listening to NPR News.

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