In HateSong, we ask our favorite musicians, writers, comedians, actors, and so forth to expound on the one song they hate most in the world.
The hater: Max Silvestri is an ace stand-up comic who just released his first album, the very funny King Piglet. He’s also opened for Aziz Ansari and hosted the popular Big Terrific show in New York. He’s co-starring in a new food show with chef Marcus Samuelsson and food-world personality Gail Simmons called The Feed. It debuts later this summer on FYI.
The hated: Rage Against The Machine, “Bulls On Parade” (1996)
The A.V. Club: You’re going to get some shit for picking this song.
Max Silvestri: I knew when I picked it that this was not an easy choice. This is not like “a comedian finally dismantles a universally hated song in a funny way.” This is not Smash Mouth’s “Walkin’ On The Sun.” I wanted to pick something very personal that still kind of disgusts me, and “Bulls On Parade” is that song. And I want to start by saying that I have nothing against Rage Against The Machine’s members or mission to—I don’t know—overturn the Zionist conspiracy or capitalism or whatever it is they’re trying to do. I respect it, and popular music seems as good a way as any to get it done. [Laughs.] I’m sure they struggle with getting older and having children and paying someone to clean their pool while also having the message they have. But this song… It came out in 1996, so I was 13. I was in eighth grade, and I feel like this song represents the exact time in my life where everything went badly. It represented the end of innocence. And I don’t mean the message opened my eyes—that’s not what I mean at all.
When you’re young, everybody likes the same thing, and it’s very easy to fit in with your sixth- and seventh-grade guy friends. You’re all like, “I like Weezer and Dookie!” Everyone in middle school was nervous about being different. It was easy to just go with the flow and like whatever’s on the Buzz Bin on MTV. And eighth grade was right when kids started to smoke and drink in my class, and I was like, “But we used to just skip rocks by the quarry, and one kid had a Playboy hidden in the woods that we all knew how to get to if we needed it!” I think it was the Vanna White one, so it was already kind of an old one. It was a Vanna White Playboy buried in the woods that we all had a map to.
Some kids started getting a little darker, and I started to not like the same music as people. Then this song came out and my group of guy friends became obsessed with it so intensely. I really didn’t get it, and I didn’t understand why they were so angry. I guess if you’re 13 and girls won’t touch your crotch and you’re filled with semen or whatever, you have a lot of rage that you want to get out. And there is something in the song that’s rage-filled. But these were all suburban, upper-middle-class kids. They lived in McMansions and had nice clothes. And they’re singing along to lyrics about the Pentagon and the military-industrial machine. What are you talking about? You have George Bush stickers all over your car, and you don’t know what any of these words mean. There was something so incongruous about the anger and the message and the intelligence behind the song and what it brings out in young people. This song, though very popular, did not turn anyone into a revolutionary.
AVC: So your hate for this song is less about what it actually sounds like…
MS: It’s also that. Garbage rap-rock… It’s a better version of that, but there were a lot of terrible bands around then that were sort of metal and sort of rap. I will concede that Rage Against The Machine is smarter than most of them, but it’s such a disgusting sound that’s never gotten any less gross. Rage Against The Machine may have more passion and express more of a message than 311, but it’s still the same clubhouse. Sorry, Rage Against The Machine. But that’s not enough to make me angry. It’s very easy to ignore music I don’t like, and luckily I don’t have to hear “Bulls On Parade” at the waiting room at the dentist. It’s not like it’s frustrating elevator music.
I can also remember myself being really dishonest about it. I just had to be like, “Yeah! The microphone explodes!” I had to get on board with how cool Zack De La Rocha was. My friends were like, “Apparently this is about the ’80s, and how like, they took advantage of the stock market.” You don’t know what you’re talking about. And Rage Against The Machine only half-knows what it’s talking about, so let’s not all learn about it this way. But I just had to suck it up.
For our eighth-grade dances, there was an active campaign by the kids to get “Bulls On Parade” to be the second-to-last song at the dance. The last song was always “Stairway To Heaven,” to let slow-dancing happen. But this song took over from The Offspring’s “Keep ’Em Separated” as the second-to-last song, which was when all the kids who weren’t going to be slow-dancing with girls could mosh and be crazy. I was like, “Is it nine o’clock yet?” I just had to lie. When do I get to admit that “Bulls On Parade” is stupid, and there’s something really obnoxious about 13-year-olds singing about arms warehouses? White kids listen to a lot of music that lives in a world that they can’t directly connect with, and there’s nothing wrong with that—use your imagination, fly to another place. But there’s something so pretentious about the loftiness of this. “Line up to the mind cemetery?” Come on.
To refresh myself on the lyrics, I went to Rap Genius. It’s even more on-the-nose than I remember it being. “I walk from corner to the rubble that used to be a library.” Ugh. The Rap Genius explanation is, “The pile of rubble that used to be a place of learning and enlightenment is now a place where intelligent thought goes to die.” Wow. Open up your mind, sheeple. I’m not saying that irony is better than sincerity. I do feel like we’ve moved toward detachment and irony, and that’s too bad in all sorts of ways. But fuck how sincere these guys were. It’s so tone-deaf. It kind of makes me want to build wealth and vote Republican and invest in an arms company. I’m still mad at all those kids.
AVC: So part of it is that it’s pointless and tone-deaf, but the other part is this eighth-grade shame.
MS: It’s both, it really is. Those things compound one another to make this song turn my skin so intensely. The audio itself is not terrible. It doesn’t cause that reaction. But the thought of the song brings back all sorts of sad, shameful places. This song represents the end of innocence for me, but it’s the message as well. It’s dumber than I remember, and it’s only gotten dumber with time. But truly my hate is so much more about 11 kids I went to middle school with than it is about the four members of Rage Against The Machine.
AVC: Did you re-listen to it for this?
MS: Yeah. I can probably get away with listening to it once a year. Not that I go listen to it; it just comes on. It’s a song that if you look up a gym playlist on Spotify, this is every third song. There are still a lot of faces crushing reps at the gym to “Bulls On Parade,” using the message of crushing the corporate machine in America to gain muscle mass, which is a very appropriate extension of my connection to the song. If I’m at the gym, that’s when I’d hear it.
AVC: Another reason to not go to the gym.
MS: I usually leave an audiobook in, and do the elliptical to James Ellroy novels, so I’m not normal. I was listening to The Black Dahlia on audiobook at the gym a week ago, and people are walking around in gym clothes, and I’m on the step machine listening to, like, “He cut out her vagina.” Just the worst. It’s such a brutal book. And it’s described again and again. Maybe “Bulls On Parade” is better than that. But we all have our own thing.
So you think people are going to get mad, though? Are there still a lot of Rage-heads out there who are gonna defend this song hard?
AVC: They’ve moved into a respectable elder-statesmen place, so yes. The first album is regarded as a classic. And you might also get shit for hating something that’s trying to do the right thing.
MS: Yeah. And how old do you think these guys were when they made this music? 24? 25? They swung for the fences. I did not keep up with Rage Against The Machine. Perhaps they fixed everything, and the reason the world is a better place—and why my coffee is not made with slave labor—is because of their third album. So I thank them for that. I hope they make records forever. But fuck “Bulls On Parade” in 1996.
AVC: They made four records before they broke up. And they’ve since reunited.
MS: But different members ended up in different bands, right?
AVC: Audioslave was the most notable.
MS: Right! One time in college I was trying to remember the name Audioslave, and I was really high, and I thought it was Indentured Sounditude. I knew in the moment that it was wrong, but I thought, “This is literally the funniest thing I’m ever going to say.” Indentured Sounditude. But unfortunately Audioslave jokes don’t have a lot of legs, so I’m glad that you reminded me of that now.