Sharps & Flats

Why listening to Rage Against the Machine is bad for lefty idealism.

By Gavin McNett
Published November 22, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

I once knew a guy, a leftist in his 20s, fresh from grad school, who had a certain missionary zeal for his new job as a high-school history teacher. In between chapters of the standard textbook, he'd assign the class short readings from Howard Zinn's "People's History of the United States," or play excerpts from Noam Chomsky lectures. He was always exhorting his students to question what they were taught in school, and offering to lend out books from his own shelves.

He was a great teacher. And because of that, everyone in his circle knew that sooner or later -- probably sooner -- he was going to get crushed. He hadn't yet, the circle agreed, completed the proper life cycle of Pedagogicus sinistrus, our native species of lefty educator, during which the immature specimen has his wings bitten off, retreats into a cocoon and emerges as sort of a thick-skinned, bitter-tasting worker ant. Which is just what happened to him. Only it wasn't the school bureaucracy that finally started him spinning his fatal cocoon (he put up a gallant fight). And it wasn't the system. It was Rage Against the Machine.

There's no other major rock band in the world with such a bold contrast of good and bad tendencies. Rage Against the Machine has pretty cool politics: Singer/lyricist Zack de la Rocha was involved in the '80s hardcore scene, and when he left the underground to sign with Sony, he carried with him a certain street-fighting leftist aesthetic that traces back, in unbroken succession, to the militant labor and anti-Fascist movements of the 1920s and '30s. Imagine a woodblock print of a people's army of Dust Bowl farmers (or mohawked urban guerillas) cresting a hill with bolt-action carbines (or Uzis) at the ready. Imagine a John Heartfield collage redrawn onto the back of a leather jacket with Liquid Paper. This is the sort of tradition that de la Rocha tapped into, and as a teenage vernacular style, it's a hell of a lot higher-minded than the gangsta-consuma gats 'n' Nikes stuff that currently rules the schools.

On the other hand, for all the high-minded traditions that Rage might be upholding, it's mostly just an aesthetic. The world of fascist clampdowns, Southern lynch mobs and rampant state censorship that you find on the three Rage Against the Machine albums hasn't existed for over 50 years -- and never existed at all in quite the way they describe it. The issues they address might be contemporary, such as the corporatization of American democracy and the various swindles and extortion rackets that constitute our dealings with the Third World. But like a lot of the popular (especially campus) left wing, Rage have taken up the ideals of the activist '60s (self-expression, personal freedom, justice for the underdog) and gone jousting with them against the bones of McCarthy, Comstock, the KKK and Hitler.

The enemies that Rage are fighting are atavistic bogeymen like censorship, conformity and White Men in Suits. Trouble is, modern capitalism is a virtual carnival of personal freedom and self-expression -- of "breaking the rules" and "thinking different." That's what Marx was getting at when he wrote that under capitalism, "All that is solid melts into air." Capitalism doesn't especially care if you're a white man in a suit, or a peg-legged lesbian in a dashiki, as long as it can find something to sell you.

De la Rocha must know that quote, since he seems to read a lot. But he generally has a problem with context -- as though the past were a vague, singular sort of place where all that history stuff happened kind of all at once. He sings in "Calm Like a Bomb," the third track of "The Battle of Los Angeles": "My word war returns to burn/Like Baldwin home from Paris/... It's tha native son/Born of Zapata's guns." Well, sure -- but if Superman teamed up with Hercules, could Batman beat up Muhammad Ali?

Listening to Rage's records is like being attacked by a mad chow while a team of circus clowns whacks you in the head with leaded whiffle bats. De la Rocha, the mad chow, he be rappin' inna yippy-yappy monotone/His voice be squeakin' like da boy-ee ain't quite fully grown ... And he has uh aksent dat makes it tound like tomeone bid his tongue off 'r tumting. His vocal mannerisms have always been cartoony -- something like Tweety mixed with one of the "Fat Albert" kids -- but "The Battle Of Los Angeles" shows them becoming rote and gimmicky as well. Yap, yip, yap!

And while you're trying to shake de la Rocha off your leg, Tom Morello, the lead clown, keeps honking his happy horn and blowing his whiz-whistle into your ear. Morello, who's sometimes called a guitar genius, is really just a genius at buying hi-tech guitar equipment and making funny noises with it. During each of the album's otherwise barely distinguishable cock-rocky, hip-hoppy metal songs, he'll come out with some different masterpiece of effects-knob settings -- a short little snippet of sound that goes woo-woo or yeeble-yeeble or something (on "Guerrilla Radio" he was bold enough to swipe the intro from the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now"). The best songs are the ones in which he manages to weave his noises into what the rest of the band is doing. In the others, he'll just toss it into the solo section and repeat it four times in a row. A musical experience this album is not. In small enough doses, it rocks -- but a sufficient reason not to buy it is that the more money the band makes, the more new noisemakers Morello gets to buy. He doesn't need more; he needs fewer.

Then again, Rage Against the Machine seems to mean well. And they sort of deserve success for that -- except for the thing that finally broke that teacher of my acquaintance. He was doing it all for the kids, he told himself, and at a certain point late in the year, when the topic of imperialism came up in the text, he realized that kids had been showing up to class wearing Rage shirts. "Perfect!" he thought. "I can use something from my students' own experience as a supplementary text!" What, he asked the class, did Rage Against the Machine think of gunboat diplomacy? Of United States interference in the Third World? What do you see in their warlike imagery? What are they trying to say about Latin America? "Why," he asked the class, "is Zack de la Rocha so mad at America?"

A hand shot up. It was one of the guys with the shirts. "Yes?" he queried. "Why is Zack so mad at America?"

"Uh," the kid deadpanned, "I think he, like, wants a war with Latin America because he's, like, mad at their imperialism with sending immigrants here."

And like autumn leaves, as the lyrics go on the new album's "Born of a Broken Man," his sense fell from him. An empty glass of himself shattered somewhere within. He quit his teaching job at the end of the year and went back to grad school, and nobody ever saw him again.

Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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