Northern Irish writer Garth Ennis became part of what you might call a second wave of the British Invasion of the American comics mainstream. Like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and others before him, he had contributed stories to the legendary British anthology 2000 AD before going on to American work. Unlike his predecessors, however, Ennis wrote scripts for 2000 AD’s flagship character Judge Dredd. Two of these, the pairing of music industry-based bloodbath “Muzak Killer” and its sequel “Muzak Killer: Live” were not only a great precursor to Ennis’ later style but also comprised a biting satire perhaps even more resonant now than when they were written.
“Muzak Killer” was originally published in 2000 AD progs 746 to 748 in September 1991, its sequel following in progs 837 to 839 about a year and a half later; both series were illustrated by Dermot Power, the Irishman who now, incidentally, works as a concept artist for films. In both stories, Judge Dredd was tasked with bringing to justice a killer targeting the pop stars entertaining Mega-City One. With most of its many millions of citizens unemployed and in need of placating through cheap entertainment, the “big meg” is dominated by lowest common denominator, synthetic sounds universally known as “muzak”. In the classically ultraviolent style expected of a Dredd strip, one man decides to shake up the system.
The long-dead bands the killer idolises are all familiar names from the twentieth century and the muzak superstars he stalks are thinly-veiled spoof versions of other recognisable acts. Understandably, this heavy dependence on cultural referencing dates the stories somewhat, but in other ways they are more powerful as satire now than they were then – the process of commercialisation of music was well advanced by the early ‘90s, but it has arguably accelerated in the years since. Indeed, Ennis’ assault on the music industry’s vapidity pre-empts the rise of TV shows which aim to produce pop acts on air, at least as popular now in Ennis’ native UK as anywhere else. A trio of record producers in one of the stories are as close to the likes of Simon Cowell as anyone Ennis can have had in mind in 1991. Fanatically driven by profit, their answer to everything is “more synth!”
There are even closer parallels between Ennis’ stories and Cowell’s enormously popular TV singing competition The X Factor (of which a US version is scheduled to begin in September 2011, incidentally). The winners of The X Factor have typically gone on to have their first releases become the much-coveted UK Christmas #1 single. Last year, music fans who objected to the competition’s perceived vacuous, synthetic nature started a grassroots campaign on Facebook to disrupt this process by encouraging people to buy Rage Against the Machine’s 1992 song “Killing in the Name” instead. The campaign was successful, and X Factor winner Joe McElderry was relegated to second place. The campaign followed on from a similar one in 2008 which tried but failed to have Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” beat Alexandra Burke’s to the top spot, and is followed this year by an effort to throw a recording of John Cage’s avant-garde composition 4′33″ up the charts.
Of course there’s a clear parallel between all this and the disillusioned killer Dredd confronts in Ennis’ pair of stories. Both the muzak killer in futuristic Mega-City One and a significant segment of the British public today consider themselves musical dissenters and seek to engineer a situation in which old and “real” music will win out in popularity and commercial success over the soulless output of the dominant musical mainstream. Dredd’s future-perp does all this with a machine-gun, the British public do it with an online campaign. Mercifully the latter are real and the former exists only in 2000 AD‘s pages…
2000 AD has long been fertile ground in which satire has been encouraged, and Ennis was no doubt riffing on cynicism about the increasing commercialisation of music at the time of his writing; but he couldn’t have foreseen the extent to which that process has accelerated. Shows like The X Factor now grip so strongly that now hundreds of thousands of us are finding ourselves becoming like milder versions of the muzak killer, and going back to those stories shows us how prophetic Ennis was being. It’s a good job Dredd’s not real – he’d have rounded up the 800,000 Rage Against the Machine group members by now and thrown them in for a long stretch in the iso-cubes. “Democracy”, he’d say, “it’s not for the people.”