Monday, January 25, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 43 - Rage Against The Machine

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

I already wrote about artistic sincerity once this week, but listening to Rage Against the Machine (henceforth referred to as "RATM") compels me to continue the discussion. After all, this is a band known as much for its crazy acts of political spectacle as it is for its actual music.

I knew kids in high school who listened to RATM, but these were the same kids who listened to Korn and Limp Bizkit. So it surprised me to learn that RATM actually stood for something. In the past, they've dressed up like Guantanamo prisoners, performed a cappella through megaphones when police shut down their concert, and gone on stage with duct tape over their mouths, refusing to perform out of protest for music censorship. They've protested Saturday Night Live and support something called the Zapatista Army of National Liberation and generally seem to make a fuss wherever they go.

Are these sincere political statements, or simply a cheap way to attract media attention? I'm inclined to believe they actually mean it. For one thing, the bandmembers seem pretty well-informed, name-dropping activists like Noam Chomsky. In addition to the standard celebrity causes, like freeing Tibet, RATM also stands up for less popular issues like sweatshops, women's rights in Central America, and Peruvian liberation (?). Like every other celebrity in the past decade, yes, they bitched about the Bush administration. But they complain about the Democrats just as much, which makes me think they actually mean what they say, as opposed to just jumping on the bandwagon. And many of their antics, like refusing to perform in the aforementioned duct tape incident, serve to isolate fans rather than sell records. Hell, vocalist Zach de la Rocha quit the band when they started recording less politically abrasive cover songs.

But other times the band seems like a whiny little kid - like when bassist Tim Commerford, in a proto-Kanye moment, climbed on to the scaffolding to protest a VMA award going to Limp Bizkit. And then there is the thorny question as to the responsibilities of artists who write such explosive songs. While the lyrics to "Killing in the Name" address racist officers within government organizations, it's very easy to appropriate the "Fuck you! I won't do what you tell me!" chorus for whatever one setting fire to port-a-potties at Woodstock '99.

I suppose the issue is that the band is a collection of four musicians, each with somewhat different political ideals. If I had to sum up the members of RATM, I'd say that de la Rocha is the true radical, the one who works the words "imperialist" and "fascist" into every sentence that comes out of his mouth. Guitarist Tom Morello seems slightly more pragmatic, and perhaps a little more mature in his political expression. Commerford is like the rebellious teenager who gets a tattoo for the sole reason of pissing off his parents.

The drummer, as always, remains a mystery.


ARTIST OF THE WEEK: Rage Against the Machine

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Like I stated above, I had always associated RATM with the other rap-rock groups of the nineties . However, the fact that "Killing in the Name" recently became the top selling single in the United Kingdom (as part of a grassroots effort to fight Simon Cowell) prompted me to check out the band, and helped me discover there was actually quite a bit of political substance behind the angry lyrics.

MY LISTENING: I listened to their debut, Rage Against the Machine (1992) every day this week. I also listened to Evil Empire (1996) and The Battle of Los Angeles (1999) two times each.


Every track is riff heavy, but the riffs are all brilliant. Listen to the bass line that begins "Bombtrack" or the pulsating rhythm of "Bulls on Parade" or even the steadily crescendoing guitar interruptions in "Killing in the Name". These riffs are all heavy, all well-played, and all awesome. If you didn't feel compelled to go out and fight the military-industrial complex before listening to RATM, the opening few seconds of "Guerilla Radio" will inspire you into action. One could complain that each song amounts to merely repeating an instrumental line over and over. But, despite this repetition, RATM manages to make sure that these lines are exciting, at the very least.

I was worried that Zach de la Rocha's vocals would be grating white-boy rap. They still sort of are. But, again, with the energy and sincerity, it somehow works, and his nasally voice works to accentuate just the right syllables ("Those who died / Are jus-ta-fied").

Finally, if RATM's political acts weren't enough to establish their sincerity, one could easily reach that conclusion through the sheer energy they put into their songs. Especially on their debut album, from the very beginning it's obvious that this is a band that means what they say, and they've managed to convert their anger at the world into some damn good music. If it's preachy or too radical, I suppose that's the point - to compel the listener into action.


The original Rage Against the Machine album is an impassioned, frenzied, exciting record. But it's all you need; RATM doesn't really do anything on their next two albums that's incredibly different. This type of songwriting - de la Rocha's rapping over the same riff over and over, works for an hour, but I wish that the group had attempted songs with some sort of structure, or at least a different kind of format. They're certainly a talented group, and I'm curious what they would have come up with if they had gone beyond their initial schtick.

Finally, (and this speaks more to the limitations of this particular project more than anything), RATM is not an everyday kind of band. They were fine to listen to on Tuesday, for example - I was tired, it was raining, and I was pissed Scott Brown had just won Massachusetts. But come Friday, it was sunny and warm, and I was drinking wine, enjoying the weekend and celebrating a friend's birthday. RATM just doesn't apply to that kind of day.

WHAT I LEARNED: Actually, quite a lot. During the course of the week, as I researched RATM's political stances, I found myself drawn into an endless Wikipedia link chain that led to some bizarre places. I found myself reading specific provisions in the NAFTA treaty, learning about various South American guerilla movements, and addressing problems with Steve Forbes' flat tax proposal. I don't know how many RATM fans actually delve into these political issues, but the band certainly will show you the way if you're willing to get your hands dirty and do a little research.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: After de la Rocha left the band, the other three members joined up with Chris Cornell to form Audioslave. This group that does not seem nearly as interesting, as they expressly avoided making the sort of incendiary political statements that RATM was known for.

Guitarist Tom Morello has also created an alter ego known as The Nightwatchman. The Nightwatchman sings acoustic political folk songs, drawing inspiration from Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. This seems like it would be more up my alley because, politics aside, Morello is also one hell of a guitar player.

Best Song You've Heard: "Killing in the Name"

Best Song You Haven't Heard: "Know Your Enemy"

Next Week's Artist: Vampire Weekend