Thursday, February 14, 2008

No. 368: Rage Against The Machine

Band: Rage Against the Machine
Album: Rage Against the Machine
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Both political activists and musicians, Rage Against the Machine were a force of nature during the 1990s. Tom Morello's heavy riffs combined with Zach de la Rocha's inspired -- if sometimes crazed -- political screeds made for some heavy, heavy stuff.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I get a little tired of de la Rocha's vocal style. The rap/rock hybrid is hard to swallow and Faith No More
Best song: "Bombtrack" is pretty good, "Freedom" is cool and "Wake Up" is decent.
Worst song: "Settle For Nothing" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: That guitar... That guitar...

If nothing else on this project could get me fired, this would be the entry. I've joked (well, half-joked) about my religion -- or lack thereof -- by saying that I worship the sun. I've said that anti-semitism isn't really racism, but just jealousy. I've not taken any political stances, but I am voicing support for a band that, uh, is a little nutty.

I'll say this about Rage Against the Machine, though: While they may seem to simply be gutter punks misreading smart revolutionaries, a lot of what they say makes sense on a smaller level.

First, the stuff with which I don't agree. Sendero Luminoso is not worthy of the band's support. Nor is Che Guevara. The guerrilla video shoot for "Sleep Now in the Fire" was stupid and bum rushing the stock exchange is dumb (not surprisingly, Michael Moore was involved). I can't speak of the EZLN, because my knowledge of Mexican politics is minimal.

Certainly, the band does and says a lot of stupid things that, while intriguing, are mostly just gutter punk philosophy. Tom Morello, a Harvard honors grad, for example said this to Guitar World:

America touts itself as the land of the free, but the number one freedom that you and I have is the freedom to enter into a subservient role in the workplace. Once you exercise this freedom you've lost all control over what you do, what is produced, and how it is produced. And in the end, the product doesn't belong to you. The only way you can avoid bosses and jobs is if you don't care about making a living. Which leads to the second freedom: the freedom to starve.

It's a reflection of the inherent problem with Morello. He's a socialist and socialism doesn't really work well.

Nevertheless, the band mostly has good intentions and does a ton of work for issues that really exist. For example, the band often protests the two-party system. Is there anyone with a brain who really thinks the two-party system is great? Isn't choice the backbone of the marketplace of ideas?

A great example is the band's aversion to big business running the American political system. The band's 1996 appearance on SNL is a great example of several of their issues coming together. The band burns flags (free speech, like it or not) and wanted to protest Steve Forbes' appearance on the same episode. You'd be hard-pressed to find people who think STeve Forbes is a great political candidate and even harder pressed to find people who think big business is great for the political system. I think Barack Obama's current status as presidential front runner speaks to that.

(Now, one could aruge that SNL is a private TV show and shouldn't have censored the band. I understand that argument but would suggest that the airwaves are a public space, so NBC should not be censoring free speech while using public space.)

Similarly, the band often is in front of Amnesty International and other human rights' groups in support of political prisoners. Are there a lot of people out there who think it's OK to imprison people wrongly? It's pretty clear that Leonard Peltier at least deserves a retrial.

Even if you find that particular cause to be objectionable (which is fine, Peltier makes for a badmartyr and most Americans do not care about Native Americans, being that they were victims of a genocide, basically), RATM has played the Tibetan Freedom Concert, a cause no one outside of China's government objects to. The band did billboards for UNITE, railing against sweatshop conditions in Asia. Again, who's pro-sweatshop (though, I could make an argument for comparative advantage)? RATM are ardent supporters of the Anti-Nazi League, which again leads me to ask, who is pro-Nazi? I don't want to meet the pro-Nazi people.

Finally, the band is ardently pro-free speech, a cause that I care deeply about. Freedom of speech is first step in any cultural, social or political change in this nation. RATM often acts in favor of free speech (burning flags being the big example) I'll let out good friend Wikpedia describe this incident:

At a 1993 Lollapalooza appearance in Philadelphia, the band stood onstage naked for 15 minutes with duct tape on their mouths and the letters PMRC painted on their chests in protest against censorship by the Parents Music Resource Center. Refusing to play, they stood in silence with the sound emitted being only audio feedback from Morello and Commerford's guitars; the band later played a free show for disappointed fans

The image is here. It is, of course, not safe for work.


RATM operates on the assertion that their message will be heard through their music. This assumes that the listeners are avid and voracious music fans who will read the records' liners, understand what's going on when the band protests and know what Morello is referencing when he writes on his guitar.

Because, really, what a lot of angry teenage boys hear is simply "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!" While that's an anti-authoritarian cry against bad governmental actors, it mostly taps into teenage angst, especially when played over that riff. They don't always check out

Think of it this way: How many suburban kids (who eventually end up getting business degrees, ironically) had RATM posters in their dorm rooms? RATM posters featuring the staring visage of Che Guevara? Or wore Che Guevara shirts? How many of those kids grew up to be business people? A lot, I'd say.

Music has the chance to shed light on social ills only when expanded upon. The market RATM tapped into -- teenage boys -- isn't exactly known for its awesome power to force social change. It's a market known for its awesome power to try and get blow jobs in the bathroom of its collective high school.

Certainly, some of the short lyrical lines like "When ignorance reigns, life is lost" or "Now freedom must be fundamental" (both from "Township Rebellion") are great for kids to remember and sing. But, really, do you think they know that song as well as "fuck you, I won't do what you tell me?" I'd say no.

I respect the band's passionate viewpoints and ability to express said viewpoints in song. That is awesome. But one has to remember that most of the message is lost on a fanbase that just wants some awesome riffs.


Which brings us to the actual record. I find the musicians in RATM, minus de la Rocha, to be immensely talented and interested. I loved Audioslave, as it took an awesome metal band and added one of my favorite singers. It'd be like Fleetwood Mac, but instead of Lindsey Buckingham, Steve Perry was singing.

De la Rocha's hip hop is interesting, no doubt. His voice works for the band better than it should, mostly because of his clear passion for his words. But, overall, this rap-vocal thing doesn't work well over most of the record. You'll notice that the best guitar work -- on songs like "Freedom" and "Bullet in the Head" -- is done while de la Rocha is silent.

And, oh, man, that guitar. Tom Morello (a North Shore guy, by the way) is Albini-esque in his ability to get a distinct, strange sound out of his guitar without using keyboards or studio effects. Between scratching on the strings, using multiple pedals and differing techniques, Morello's sound is one of the most distinct in hard rock's history. You hear it in the slight twang of "Bombtrack," the reverb and harmonies on "Bullet in the Head" and the flanging of "Killing in the Name."

Morello, more importantly, was able to craft simple riffs better than anyone since Tony Iommi. Like the Sabbath guitarist, Morello's ear for melody is nearly unparalleled. His riffs hang in your ear the same way the ones form "Iron Man," "Paranoid" and "Sweet Leaf" do.


I would love to slam the record because of de la Rocha's gutter punk style lyrics, but I can't. This is a hugely flawed album, but still a great one.


padraig said...

I first saw RATM when I was 11 or 12 in Chicago, at the Aragon Ballroom - the Bulls were on the verge of beating the Kemp/Payton Sonics for the NBA title and there were cops in riot gear at random intervals on the streets in anticipation - of course, Zach de la Rocha didn't miss the opportunity to incite a "fuck the pigs" chant before the encore. then about 90% of the audience went back to the suburbs. not that RATM were the first band to have that problem - Public Enemy comes to mind as the shining example of clueless white kids missing the point. not to mention frat boys with Bob Marley posters.

on the other hand, what were they supposed to do? it's nearly impossible to convey any kind of complicated message in the course of a 3 minute song over the radio or MTV. granted, de la Rocha isn't the most eloquent dude but at least he was trying, you know? "rolling down rodeo with a shotgun/these people ain't seen a brown-skinned man since they grandparents bought one", for example, is kinda stupid but dude's also trying to use shock value to make a point - subtle? no. but there are nuggets of intelligence sprinkled through their work.

I mean, tom morello went to harvard - not that that makes his ideas infallible - but at least dude, unlike a lot of musicians (and activists, for that matter) nows what the hell he's talking about. also, without getting into politics a blanket statement that "socialism doesn't work" is a gross oversimplification - the same as if I said that everything about capitalism was unequivocally terible. and they put their money where their mouth is - in addition to what you mentioned I've been to Chiapas twice (to work with some dudes I know building potable water systems in rural villages) and I remember having a conversation with activists who told me about Zach de la Rocha personally buying them computers and such, so he's not just about giving away money, whatever that's worth. the EZLN, btw, is a very worthy cause - much better than Sendero Luminoso, certainly, though I'll admit I don't enough about Peru to really comment on the Shining Path.

taotechuck said...

I've never been able to get past one fact about RATM: they made an enormous amount of money for a company whose day-to-day actions do very little (and I'm being generous) to complement RATM's message.

Sure, fans can argue that RATM used Sony to spread its message. To that, I say bullshit. When you use someone, you don't pay them millions and millions and millions of dollars for the right to use them. RATM and Sony had a mutually satisfying relationship, and for me, that relationship irreparably cheapens the band.

padraig said...

taotechuck - I more or less agree with you. and the "they rage against all the parts of the machine except the ones Sony had a hand in" argument is a valid one. the only distinction I'd make is that unlike most bands or artists that espouse political views (I'm talking mainstream here - obviously there are tons and tons of underground punk bands, indie rappers, producers of various forms of electronic music, etc. who are committed to their ideals) they backed up what they said with actions and, more importantly, funding, which is generally lacking when you're talking about things like Leonard Peltier.

look at it like this -it's not about the "message" really, at that level - no matter what you say there's always going to be way more people who care about the riffs/beats and those who do listen are mainly the choir you're preaching to.

to be clear I'm not a fan of RATM -I haven't liked their music since I was 12 or so, but on the whole I'm indifferent. their politics were garbled and full of contradictions. still, they were more intelligent than 9/10 of what makes it onto MTV - a backhanded compliment to be sure but a compliment nonetheless.

Roger said...

Well, now you've got me wanting to talk about two completely different things: RATM and RATM's activism.

1. I find Zach de la Rocha's voice annoying almost all of the time. There are exceptions, of course. He's really good at saying "fuck you I won't do what you tell me," and he's good at sounding angry, but most of the time I wish he'd stop trying to make me listen--no come on, *really listen*--to what he's trying to say. That's why I'm more partial to their second record than the others: yeah, he sounds more passionately angry on the first record, but there's also too much words and not enough rawking out. And the Henry Rollins spoken-word thing? ick. Zach's voice is more of an instrument on Evil Empire, and correspondingly awesomer.

2. OK, I think I agree with padraig about the intelligence of RATM's causes (not lyrics, mind you) and about the hypocrisy of signing with Sony, but I have to say something about activists. I don't want to point fingers--I don't know padraig, after all--but I consider myself an activist (for animals, not socialism, though I'm a big lefty), so I have to say something when I read the all-too-familiar off-the-cuff dismissal of activists as not knowing what they're talking about.

Look, I'm sure this stuff varies from cause to cause, and every cause attracts some dumb fucking people, but they don't tend to stick around. The dumb activists are also the flaky activists, and they tend to show up just for a few demos, or just for big demos, and usually just so they can pat themselves on the back. When you see small demos, or regular demos, those are committed people, who've probably been thinking about this stuff for a while. You have to, if you're going to be out in public about it all the time talking to people.

OK, so why does this perception of activists bother me so much? It's not just that I can't stand to be thought of as dumb. It's that "those activists are uninformed/unintelligent" tends to be used as an excuse for not talking to activists, or not listening to them. (Again, I don't want to point fingers. I don't know any of you, or what personal experiences anyone's comments are based on.) The most frustrating thing, as an activist, is when people won't bother to think. Think I'm wrong? Talk to me about it. Give me one minute to answer your problems. Everyone has a minute to spare. If you're not satisfied, you can have your money back.

[Full disclosure: there will also usually be a percentage of kooks among the committed activists. It's inevitable. The percentage varies from cause to cause. (Pro-Nazi activists, I assume, are predominantly kooky.) Regardless, you won't find out without talking to them, or at least reading their literature.]

Also!--Hey, I'm already ranting, why stop now?--yeah, RATM are hypocrites, so what? Maybe they're still right.

I said I'm an animal activist. I don't wear leather shoes. But that doesn't stop people from telling me I'm wearing leather shoes, like that's an argument that it's OK to wear fur. So what if I were wearing leather shoes? Does that mean my arguments against fur are wrong? According to most polls, the following argument is unconvincing, which is why I don't usually make it: "I'm not wearing leather shoes. Ergo, no one should buy fur garments." So it's a little hard to see why claiming my shoes are leather would be a sensible response.

OK. Thanks. Sorry.

At least we can all agree that all the Che t-shirts are fucking annoying.

padraig said...

roger - nah, I'm probably pretty sympathetic to most of your views. I've been vegan for about eight years plus I grew up on Crass, Conflict etc. and spent a long while going to demos and doing food not bombs and stuff. not as active these days, unfortunately - just too busy, which is what happens to a lot of people I think, especially if you don't choose to make an official career out of your activism via the NGO industrial complex, which I definitely wasn't interested in.

I know there are always dedicated people - but seriously, there are also a lot of people who just don't know what the hell they're talking about. Not that the milieu of lefty/radical activists have a monopoly on ignorance, I think if anything they're generally much better informed than the average American. I was referring more to stuff like Bob Geldof doing Live Aid or Bono's endless prattling, compared to which I think RATM stands up pretty favorably.

Roger said...

Ahh that kind of activist. Yes, in that case, I'm with you entirely.

Anyway, like I said, I didn't mean anything about you, padraig; it's just something that's been bugging me for a while. After all, teh intarnet is God's way of giving us all a place to spew without concern for relevance or accountability: so I guess it doesn't take much to set me off ranting.


kellydwyer said...

I quite nearly tore Tom Morello's Achilles tendon in the stairway that leads to the backstage area in the Riviera, back in 2002 or so.

It was a complete accident, Morello couldn't have been nicer (he was leading his mother back to the bowels of the backstage, that may have had something to do with it ... though most accounts see him as a sweet guy), but I felt sick about it in the seconds that it happened. I lost my footing, and came down directly on his tendon. As someone who has seen the thing torn before, it could have been nasty. Luckily, he was fine.

I bartended both of the Audioslave shows, they weren't great (though I don't exactly have both bands' repertoire memorized, I was told that no Rage and/or Soundgarden songs were included), but they were passable. That said, think of what that means:

A headlining show, tickets that cost probably 15-20 bucks, two giant tour buses outside (we rarely got that; one was for Cornell and his frosted tips alone), and a 35-40 minute set? No covers, no old stuff? Just the album -- and, I was told, not the entire album -- alone?

The writing was on the wall early on, I'd say.

This was around the time that my downstairs neighbor, who used to play drums in Jesus LIzard, would INCESSANTLY play the single off the Audioslave album (and nothing else) over and over and over.

kellydwyer said...

I should point out that my neighbor wasn't Mac, but this guy:

Anonymous said...

I was with you until you implied that Steve Perry was an awesome singer.

fft said...

I really love this album - for its overall power and for Morello's guitar.

Since, I don't need to get my political advice from the same source that I get my rock & roll, I don't really care much about their "message" (Too "Spinal Tap" for me, even if Morello is an articulate guy).