In Theory: Rage Against the Machine

Sunday, 13 May 2007

On October 18, 2000, Zack De La Rocha announced that he was leaving Rage Against The Machine. Less than a month later, in a storm of irony that not even Oscar Wilde could have dreamt up, our current president won his first presidential election. Rage had always flown in the face of the Clinton administration, and now an even less desirable political camp would take power easily and entirely un-raged against. As the din quieted from the Rage faithful, the opposition began to grow louder in their scoffing against RATM. And then, with little warning, rumors began to creep up that Rage would reunite for Coachella. It was hard to believe, since previous rumors had led some to believe that De La Rocha had moved to Peru and become some manner of shamanic revolutionary. And just as it was confirmed, those voices crept up again. Was this really a return-fire against a newer, deadlier machine? Or was this new incarnation simply a Rage for the Merchandise?

Let’s clear the air on two things. First: Protest and political songs have always been a part of popular music and they always will be. Second: The financial reapings of extreme-left artists have often been problematic to the artists in some way. The Refused, a Swedish hardcore outfit, was unable to reconcile their budding commercial success with their anarchist and Marxist beliefs and disbanded. And although he didn’t say so explicitly, it’s generally imagined that Zack saw this exact schism and it weighed on his decision. Of course, paying bills and getting radio airplay aren’t evil things to accomplish. I quote Rage guitarist Tom Morello, “When you live in a capitalistic society, the currency of the dissemination of information goes through capitalistic channels. Would Noam Chomsky object to his works being sold at Barnes & Noble? No, because that's where people buy their books. We're not interested in preaching to just the converted.”

What this discussion fails to address is the potency of using music to disseminate ideas. It’s very easy, especially for high-school age fans, to put on Viva La Revolucion T-shirts and slam into each other, but it doesn’t mean they’re getting the picture. Coachella is a great example. Legions of fans laid down over 250 dollars to go out to the desert and see Rage play for an hour and a half. Whenever Rage would start playing over the house speakers between acts over the weekend, the crowd would cheer wildly. It was practically Pavlovian.

It begs a hard question: is there any political relevance to music that inspires this kind of single-minded zealotry to a band (and maybe a message on the side)? That kind of unquestioning allegiance seems to be exactly what RATM tried to shake people out of. Long hair and a healthy appreciation of Che imagery are neither necessary nor sufficient to be a revolutionary, and anything so multiplied will become just as mindless an endeavor as anything else.

So, on a certain Sunday evening, Rage took the stage to a sold-out crowd of upwardly-mobile revolution-minded guys and girls in black jeans and Anti-Bush headbands. I parked myself towards the back with a nasty sunburn which precluded getting into any crowd so dense it would involve any touching. Someone next to me mentioned how much Rage was paid to perform, and the nearby crowd looked upon him scornfully. I shrugged. I’ve eaten enough day-old donut dozens to know the inevitable magnetism of the dollar.

But you know what? Rage rocked. No dictators may have dropped dead, and no bulldozers perched against rainforest flora may have refused to start, but the show went on. And it was fucking awesome. So if there can be any real lesson here, it’s that we should all think and speak and rock for ourselves: It’s a fine line between activism and propaganda.

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