By the end of the Cold War, the varying strains of explicitly political music developed during the ’60s and ’70s (soul, funk, and rap in black music, punk and metal in white rock) had come to a point where uniting them in a single major band seemed very difficult, if not impossible. Yet the improbable did occur then, and more than once. First there was New York’s Public Enemy, a rap unit whose explosive sound fed on a diet not only of soul and funk but metal as well; soon after, there emerged Rage Against the Machine, a Los Angeles rap-rock band whose inaugural self-titled album, released 24 years ago on Election Day of 1992, introduced an element of raw political ideology into a rock music that had long contented itself (even in punk and metal) with intransigent posturing. Like Public Enemy, by whom they were directly influenced, Rage Against the Machine was explicitly devoted to a revolutionary cause, and if the revolution was nowhere to be seen, they aimed to bring it into being through the power of their sound.
The racial duality of rock’s rebellious heritage was mirrored in the family backgrounds of Rage’s two most prominent members. Both vocalist Zack de la Rocha and guitarist Tom Morello were the sons of interracial couples who divorced not long after their birth, and both were raised by their white mothers in conservative white suburbs during the Reagan years. De la Rocha was struck by the disparity between the prosperity of white Orange County and the poverty of Hispanic East Los Angeles, where his father, a Chicano artist, lived and worked; meanwhile Morello, whose Kenyan ambassador father disappeared from his life before he could walk, was raised in the Chicago suburb of Libertyville before attending Harvard and moving to Los Angeles, where he worked, for a time, as a male stripper. Both young men were, through their fathers, related to actual revolutionaries: De la Rocha’s grandfather fought in the Mexican Revolution while Morello’s great-uncle was Jomo Kenyatta, the leader of the Kenyan independence movement.
Their politics were forged in the unforgiving atmosphere of Reagan’s ’80s, a decade convulsed by a full-scale cultural counterrevolution conducted by religious and social conservatives seeking to reverse the transformations of the ’60s, and their musical interests coincided with their heritage of defiance. De la Rocha screamed for hardcore punk bands before discovering hip-hop; Morello absorbed, along with hip-hop, the radical elements of metal and classic rock. Following the breakup of Morello’s metal band Lock Up and de la Rocha’s hardcore group Inside Out, the two crossed paths and bonded through their common politics and mutual musical admiration. Joined by de la Rocha’s childhood friend Tim Commerford on bass and Brad Wilk, who had auditioned to play drums for Lock Up, they formed a quartet that took its name from an Inside Out track de la Rocha had written. The speed with which Rage created songs, played shows, released a demo, and were signed to a major label testified to the depth of the chemistry between its four members. Barely a year separated the band’s formation from the release of Rage Against the Machine.
The political intensity of that period (which witnessed an economic recession, the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, the first post–Cold War American presidential election season, the endgame of apartheid in South Africa, and the Rodney King riots) resounded in the lyrics of Rage Against the Machine: Delivered with solid conviction by de la Rocha, they set forth a radically leftist worldview. “From Johannesburg to South Central,” the globe was dominated by a system of white capitalist imperialism that imposed its will on colored bodies through armies and police, pacified colored minds through a conformist education system that denied them any sense of history or historical agency, and sapped colored wills with the frivolous enticements of consumption-centered entertainment. The manifest injustice of this system demanded that it be overthrown: Its armies and police needed to be broken by violent popular insurrection, and the falsehood of its teachings and commercial art needed to be countered by truth—precisely the kind of truth that was being delivered right there, in the music.
Whether economic, social, or cultural, systemic oppression could only be solved by mass action—“If we don’t take action now, we’ll settle for nothing later”—a mass action as immediate as the tracks of Rage. Between the unyielding certainty of de la Rocha’s agitprop raps, Morello’s versatile guitar work balancing hammer-simple riffs with inventive dissonances and distortion, the deep funk of Commerford’s rubbery bass lines, and Wilk’s classically crisp time-keeping, the album’s audio quality remains a gold standard for sound-system technicians up to the present day. The message of the music and the music itself could only be received as intended, meaning loud and clear. And in its harmonious musical activity, the band of four could be imagined as a microcosm of a much larger collective movement.
But as the election of 1992 displayed, there was no such movement, and as the conduct of the victors of that election demonstrated over the next eight years, it became clear that no movement could emerge. Politically speaking, the ’90s marked the death of leftist (as opposed to liberal) policy on a national level, and the party responsible was none other than the party that claimed to represent the interests of the working class and the poor. It was a Democratic president that pushed through free-trade agreements facilitating the export of manufacturing jobs and bills mandating the mass incarceration of poor minorities and massive cuts in social-welfare programs. The police remained as brutal as ever, and the armed forces failed to shrink significantly. The gains of a boom sustained by internet speculation, easy credit, and unorganized Third World labor were siphoned off by what would only much later come to be known as the 1 percent. Only minor reforms took place within the confines of the middle class: Educated women and minorities increased their numbers within the higher professions but still remained marginal and disposable. Economic inequality deepened, and social inequality persisted. The only place any meaningful progress could be made, it seemed, was in culture: As white rock musicians gradually slid into various modes of muddled introversion, black rappers focused on money, power, and respect replaced them on the nation’s center stage.
Though they observed all of these conditions and addressed some of them in subsequent songs, Rage, to de la Rocha’s chagrin, was helpless to change them. What did change were their personal fortunes. As colossal album and concert-ticket sales transformed them into millionaires while prolonged and frivolous media coverage from MTV (truly the defining network of the decade) transformed them into celebrities, they exposed themselves to charges of hypocrisy and selling out. Though Rage never softened their lyrical content, the divergence of politics and art typical of the decade impacted them nonetheless. As with rap, their gospel of colored uprising was mostly consumed by an audience of white suburban youth whose politics, on the whole, were inert and thus conservative. And their example had helped, inadvertently, to give birth to nü-metal, a genre whose sullen self-absorption and empty anarchy left little room for political theory. Sawed off and co-opted, a language intended to inspire people of color against a racist system and domineering culture turned into verbal ammunition for a civil war fought between white parents and white kids (“Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!”); the band’s gestures toward a mass movement dissolved in the savage stasis of the mosh pits at Woodstock ’99. Rage refused to compromise, yet their position was compromised nonetheless. Owing to culture-industry dynamics beyond their control, they found themselves incorporated into the entertainment matrix in spite of themselves. Though popular music had once complemented revolutionary politics, it was, it seemed obvious, helpless to create a revolution on its own.
De la Rocha’s awareness of this state of affairs was acute and aggravating; combined with the tensions endemic to any musical collective, it strained his commitment to the band to the point of breaking. The last straw came at the Video Music Aawards in the fall of 2000 when Commerford, protesting Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff” winning the Best Rock Video award, scaled the scaffolding of the set and refused to come down. The act seemed to serve no other purpose than the band’s self-aggrandizement. It was true that the “Break Stuff” video wasn’t better than the video for Rage’s “Sleep Now in the Fire” that it had bested to win the award, but all the same Commerford’s stunt didn’t shatter the empty corporate spectacle of the VMAs so much as amplify it. Whether aesthetic or political, the dissent of Rage was being commodified, and the band was unable to arrest the process. De la Rocha left the band soon after. Three weeks after that, Al Gore, lacking Clinton’s charisma and wounded by reduced turnout from voters (especially left and working-class voters) whose concerns neither he nor Clinton had credibly addressed, narrowly lost to a Republican candidate whose disastrous policies set the tone for a new age. The birth of Rage had taken place in concert with that of the Clinton administration, and the life of the band illustrated the difficulties of propagating radically oriented mass-market art during it; it seemed fitting that the band’s termination should foreshadow the era’s demise.
The members of Rage drifted into limbo. An album of cover songs and a live album, both recorded prior to their dissolution, were released to brisk sales. Occasional reunion concerts and even a reunion tour would stir hopes of a complete reunion. Both de la Rocha and his erstwhile bandmates pursued various projects that, lacking anything approaching Rage’s original chemistry (and branding), were more or less abortive. If Rage hadn’t quite burned out, it had certainly abated to a dismaying degree.
Yet one of the most pressing themes in Rage’s lyrics is the notion of the inevitable return. Revolution, in Rage, is phrased in both senses of the word, as uprising and as a coming full circle: “How long? Not long. ‘Cause what you reap is what you sow”; “It’s coming back around again”; “Like the sun that disappears, only to reappear.” If new music from Rage was nowhere to be found, Rage’s message continued to resonate and often in the most unlikely eardrums. It was strange indeed to hear, in 2012, Paul Ryan, then Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential nominee and soon-to-be House speaker, confess in a campaign interview with the New York Post that Rage Against the Machine was one of his favorite bands.
Though Morello would denounce Ryan as the embodiment of everything that Rage opposed, Ryan’s fondness for the band was nonetheless more than accidental. Rage’s lyrics assailed the state from the far left as the chief enforcer of a racist society and capitalist economy, but anti-statist ideology is central to American far-right ideology, which views the state as an enabler of nonwhite minorities and/or a threat to capitalist accumulation. America is an odd place. Most citizens rage in the name of their own individual goodness; few believe themselves to be a part of the evil, faceless machine raged against. Like many Rage fans sharing his race, Ryan had applied his talent for tuning out anything that contradicted his idea of what “race relations” really were. If this pathological gift enables one to bleach out Rage’s verses and invert (as Ryan’s idol Ayn Rand did) Rage’s idea that labor creates and capital steals, the band sounds like a call to arms for reactionaries.
Something similar took place with The Matrix, a film series that shares nearly of all Rage’s themes (and whose soundtracks prominently feature Rage’s “Wake Up” and “Calm Like a Bomb”): Torn out of context, the lingo of “red pills” and “blue pills” figures prominently in the online discourse supporting white fascism and/or “men’s rights.” Gender, in many ways, is the revolutionary dog that doesn’t bark in both Rage’s music and The Matrix films: For all their vehement and frequent attacks on conservative concepts of race and class, the centrality of masculinity typical in rock music and action films is questioned only briefly and without consistency. When a band so loud about so many injustices goes all but silent regarding injustices specific to women, it can’t help but hearken back to a long legacy on the left of dickish firebrands who scorn women’s issues as being too soft and unserious to learn about or address. (Not to mention a long legacy among humanity of not caring about injustices that don’t immediately hurt oneself.) There’s a reason “Killing in the Name” is far better known than, say, Sleater-Kinney’s “The Last Song,” and it doesn’t have anything to do with quality—they’re equally powerful and excellent—or with themes, which are pretty much the same.
Still, all quibbles aside, it’s clear Rage’s music has hardly lost its relevance. If, in a depoliticized decade, their career once illustrated music’s inability to call a political movement into being, now that politics is obviously inevitable, their straightforward rhetoric offers the left a much-needed model for a political language that addresses race and class together while punching through the shibboleths that divide the college-educated left from the working class whose advocates it claims to be. No matter how well-intentioned, a politics that aims to free the working class is doomed if it can only express itself in phrases that require a public-policy degree to decipher.
Meanwhile, the white, inverted anger of the reactionary right has succeeded in no small part because it made itself, like Rage, directly legible. It was strange to listen to an album released on the day that created President Clinton on the night when the prospect of another Clinton presidency was snuffed out forever. Things really do come back around again: Lacking Barack Obama’s charisma and wounded by reduced turnout from voters (especially left and working-class voters) whose concerns neither she nor Obama had credibly addressed, Hillary Clinton narrowly lost to a Republican candidate whose policies will set the tone for a new age. One candidate ran on a platform of rage and won; one ran promising to polish the machine and failed.
So the election results flooded in accompanied by Rage: Rage telling you that the police were riddled with white supremacists, Rage telling you it was time to “take the power back.” (Think of the Brexit slogan “Take Back Control”; think “Make America Great Again.”) Woke or slept, red pill or gray wolf, SJW or KKK, it was time to wake up; it was time to know your enemy, whomever they happened to be. Near the end, there was a cry for “freedom” followed by an ever-cresting wave of dissonance, distortion, and screaming. The meaning of Rage was hopelessly divided against itself: This made it the ideal soundtrack for a civil war.