Seventeen years after Kurt Cobain’s tragic death ended the musical output of Nirvana, the beloved grunge band looks set for a potential number one single in the United Kingdom. Surprising as it may seem, British gambling website Ladbrokes.com currently has “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as the third-favorite to win the coveted “Christmas Number One” spot on the U.K. charts. While it may not sound significant to most American fans, for our brethren across the Atlantic Ocean, earning the number one single in the country the week before Christmas is actually a highly prestigious honor. There is a long history of successful charity singles in the holiday season, such as the multiple versions of “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” sort of a British equivalent of “We Are The World,” that have topped the Christmas charts throughout the years. Additionally, as most people would expect, religious and holiday-themed songs also tend to do quite well, giving us wonderfully cheesy treats like “Mary’s Boy Child/Oh My Lord” from the inimitable Boney M.
Harry Belafone topped the charts with a considerably less danceable version in 1957
While it is tempting to scoff at this quaint British tradition, a quick look at the list of highest-selling singles in U.K. history reveals an incredible four Christmas Number Ones in the all-time top ten (including three of the top five). In other words, it’s a pretty big deal over there, and topping the holiday charts is a historically significant achievement for any artist. However, in the last decade, stars from reality shows have dominated the field, with contestants from the incredibly popular X-Factor earning the top spot nearly every year. This has caused a fascinating backlash, leading to the interesting circumstances which have given Nirvana a chance at number one this Christmas.
It began in 2009 with a unique Facebook campaign started by a music-loving couple, Jon and Tracy Morter. They encouraged British music-buyers to download Rage Against the Machine’s 1992 single “Killing In The Name” en masse in an effort to outsell X-Factor’s Joe McElderry in the charts. Amazingly, the campaign succeeded, and “Killing in the Name” sold 500,000 downloads on its way to the number one slot on the Christmas charts, an event the BBC called “simply one of the biggest shocks in chart history.” Unfortunately, the following year’s efforts were less focused and, accordingly, much less successful, allowing X-Factor to take back the top spot. However, it’s worth noting that one of the campaigns managed to take avant-garde icon John Cage’s infamous composition 4’33”, which consists only of complete silence, all the way to number twenty-one, a fairly mind-blowing achievment in its own right.
RATM’s thoughts on the significance of their Xmas success, followed by a performance
For the 2011 holiday season, the stage is set for another great showdown, this time with Nirvana’s breakthrough 1991 single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as the Internet-approved anthem facing off against the X-Factor behemoth. Already, the Facebook group entitled Nirvana For Christmas No.1 has amassed over 100,000 followers. Adding intrigue to the situation, Nirvana has decided to play along, announcing an official, limited-edition U.K. re-release of the 7” “Teen Spirit” single on their own Facebook page. If they manage to topple all challengers this Christmas, it will be the band’s biggest chart success in either the U.K. or their native U.S. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” peaked just below the top five in both countries during its initial chart run. Whether a similar Web-driven revival is remotely possible in the United States, given our huge population, is another question entirely. However, each X-Factor defeat is a victory for the modern, Internet-savvy music consumer, and this era of corporate-versus-grassroots chart battles adds another interesting chapter to the important history of the Christmas Number One in the United Kingdom.
“Heart-Shaped Box,” Nirvana’s most successful single in the U.K.