Raging irritants

Knowing Rage Against the Machine are political doesn’t overcome my determination to enjoy them anyway

On Pop

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Should I go and see Rage Against the Machine when they tour next year? On the one hand, they will be brilliant. On the other, there’s zero chance of me getting through the concert without the band making at least one statement that leaves me in a state of high irritation.

Probably, I decided, a slogan denouncing Israel for “colonialism”. Then I thought maybe it was unfair to pin my purchasing decision on something I’d only imagined them doing, so I checked their tweets and there was the post about Israel, exactly as expected.

Rage are political, in the radical leftist sense. One of their big influences is Detroit proto-punk band MC5, who matched ferocious guitar attacks with a dedication to Marxism and the Black Panthers (in 2000, Rage covered MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams” on the album Renegades).

Going to a Rage gig means submitting to stand in the vicinity of a higher concentration of men who are liable to tell me to read Chomsky than at any time since I went on a Stop the War march in 2002.

The real point of the music is its exquisite purity of aggression

The most annoying thing about being told to read Chomsky is that I already have. When I first got into Rage in the early noughties, the politics were part of the appeal: I wanted to immerse myself in them. Listening to Rage is an experience in absolute, pummelling clarity. They’re the ones who’ve seen through the charade of America. They know the invisible strings that bind the military-industrial complex together, and they know who shot Martin Luther King too — according to their song “Wake Up”, it was the FBI, in retaliation for anti-Vietnam activism.

As documentarian Phil Tinline points out in his Radio 4 series Conspiracies: The Secret Knowledge, it makes perfect sense that “Wake Up” found its way onto the end credits of The Matrix in 1999. Both song and film deal in the same paranoid pleasure: that everyone else is living in a fiction, but you are one of the elect to see through the simulation. Rage pull you along the slender trail from America’s obvious corruption and racism to the more tenuous — and exciting — possibility of a malicious system behind it all.

And if there’s an enemy, then there’s something to attack. The real point of the music is its exquisite purity of aggression. Even the song “Revolver”, which sketches an abusive relationship within a thumbnail feminist critique of marriage (“he bought rings and he owns kin”), feels in thrall to the violence. “Her body numbs as he approaches the door,” spits vocalist Zack de la Rocha as the song builds around him until it explodes into — well, presumably into the moment this imagined man lays into the woman. In Rage’s incessant urgings to revolt, it’s always about the confrontation, never what the peaceful post-uprising world might look like.

In truth, the most rebellious thing I ever did under the influence of Rage was in absolutely no way a threat to the establishment. When I worked in a discount CD store in the Moor quarter of Sheffield about 20 years ago, the manager would sometimes put Rage’s “Killing in the Name” on at full volume and close the shop ten minutes early, ushering out customers to the refrain: “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” In the circumstances, a more accurate version would have gone: “Fuck you, I will do what you tell me, just very slightly ahead of schedule.”

The insurrectionary aesthetic is received as nihilistic kitsch, basically

However much the politics are a serious part of Rage’s music (and the band is deeply serious about its politics), I suspect that for a large chunk of their audience, the insurrectionary aesthetic is taken in roughly the same way as other metal bands’ forays into satanism. It’s received as nihilistic kitsch, basically. And some listeners just don’t care at all: over the last few years, the band’s guitarist Tom Morello has issued repeated tellings-off to right-wing groups for using the band’s music.

The problem for me is, I do take it seriously. I read Chomsky. I just thought he was rubbish. At 40, I know my politics are that most contemptible thing to the left: liberal tending to small-c conservative. You couldn’t get me to sign a petition against first-past-the-post now, let alone convince me we should “destroy all nations” as per Rage’s cover of “Renegades of Funk”. But nobody’s making rap-rock songs about Chesterton’s fence, and I can’t, in all honesty, imagine anything much worse.

There’s a pang for me here, because part of being a fan is the desire to feel like part of something — or at a minimum, not an emblem of everything the band you’re watching hates. When I imagine myself at a Rage concert, I think of journalist Jeffrey Goldberg’s extraordinary profile of Chris Christie, Republican politician and superfan of avowed Democrat Bruce Springsteen. At one point, Goldberg asks Christie how he’d react if Springsteen ever told him: “You absolutely don’t understand me.” Christie’s reply in this imagined dialogue with the Boss is both touchingly vulnerable and hilariously pompous.

“Just because we disagree doesn’t mean I don’t get him,” says Christie. “I get what he’s trying to express and advocate for, I just don’t agree that those are the most effective policies for our government.” I like to think I’d have a cooler response if Rage decided to excommunicate me. Maybe a blunt declaration of my determination to go on enjoying them anyway. Something like: “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.”

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