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.