The strange rehabilitation of Rage Against The Machine

The strange rehabilitation of Rage Against The Machine

Change was in the air on Election Day, November 3, 1992. Before the night was out, the nation elevated to its highest office former Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, a populist and activist who would transform the presidency, the Democratic Party, and the country over the next eight years. Earlier that day, accompanied by far less fanfare, something similarly transformative happened: The self-titled debut by a relatively unknown band called Rage Against The Machine hit the shelves.

Rage Against The Machine should have flopped. Although some of its members had seen success in the hardcore underground—most notably singer Zack de la Rocha, whose previous band Inside Out released a vastly promising EP, No Spiritual Surrender, in 1990—Rage Against The Machine’s introduction to the world at large was far from friendly. At the time, grunge and alternative rock were exploding; Nirvana, R.E.M., and their offspring doled out various combinations of navel-gazing angst and cryptic quirk. Rage Against The Machine had patience for neither. There’s nothing ambiguous, self-deprecating, or artfully obscure about Rage Against The Machine. With a name like that, how could there be? The album came roaring out of the gate with the single “Killing In The Name,” complete with de la Rocha’s chanted refrain, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!”

Instead of flopping, Rage Against The Machine was huge. Not just a hit, but a phenomenon, a barometer, a catalyst. And, in hindsight, a cultural touchstone. The 1992 election was the first time much of Generation X had been able to vote, and that newfound surge of political purpose—part of a landslide that swept Clinton into office after 12 years of Republican rule—made RATM not only the right sound at the right time, but emblematic of an awakening.

It didn’t last. Thanks to fame, oversaturation, and the fact that fans seemed to focus more on the rage than on the machine, RATM soon became shorthand for the kind of rabid, oversimplified polemics favored by undergrads flush with their first taste of Noam Chomksy and Howard Zinn. Even worse, the band’s music became associated with—and heavily influenced—the douche-iest margins of ’90s rock. By decade’s end, nü-metal had cemented itself as a force to be sickened by, and the genre treated RATM like a godfather. Just as Clinton’s final term was clouded by dalliances with a White House intern and the ignominy of impeachment, so was RATM lumped in with zit-faced kids in Target-bought Che shirts and throngs of moshing bros—many of whom either ignored or misinterpreted the significance of RATM’s burning of an American flag onstage during Woodstock ’99. Although ostensibly a protest against the ills and evils the band sang about, it may as well have been a petulant “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” to the more reactionary faction of its fans.

RATM’s meteoric rise to fame didn’t help. While one of the group’s main inspirations, Fugazi, managed to sell hundreds of thousands of records while staying entrenched in the DIY hardcore scene, RATM railed against the military-industrial complex while being wholly beholden to its musical counterpart. The messaging itself became numbly monotonous. As the ’90s progressed, Fugazi grew more metaphorical and poetic in its political screeds; RATM never evolved far beyond sloganeering.

In honor of its 20th anniversary, Rage Against The Machine has just been reissued in a deluxe, expanded, remastered edition. The remaster is almost moot: RATM remains one of the best-produced albums of its era, a thunderous yet tightly controlled barrage of funk, hardcore, and metal that still has the power to liquefy bone. The songs are equally timeless. In spite of its shameless melding of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Fugazi, and Led Zeppelin, there’s a stark, single-minded tenacity to the disc’s rapped/sung vocal onslaught, rousingly doctrinaire lyrics, and militaristic funk. “Fistful Of Steel”—which uses squealing, post-hardcore guitar harmonics to mimic Public Enemy’s siren-like wail—simply stomps. “Killing In The Name” sears as hotly as it ever did, and its post-Desert Storm frame of reference adds resonance to its excoriation of the blind following the strong—a sentiment that can’t help but hold up. And when Zack de la Rocha opens bonus track “Clear The Lane,” his “Hey yo, let me be blunt!” intro drops a hint of something far more subversive in the singer’s voice: a self-mocking sense of humor.

Curiously, the only grunge group that seems to have influenced RATM even remotely is the Zeppelin-esque, groove-heavy Soundgarden—which makes it all the more fitting that RATM, minus de la Rocha, wound up founding Audioslave with Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell in 2001, following the breakups of both bands. If ’90s music had a death rattle, it was Audioslave’s self-titled debut—a monument to half-measures, hollow bombast, and mediocrity that was released in November of 2002, almost 10 years to the day after RATM had been unleashed. To his credit, guitarist Tom Morello tried to offset Audioslave’s bad name—figuratively and literally—with his lackluster solo-acoustic project, The Nightwatchman. But as de la Rocha faded into the background post-RATM, making only tentative stabs at a solo career, it became clear that Morello didn’t have the voice or charisma to pull off some neo-Woody Guthrie shtick—nor did the vast majority of RATM fans particularly want one.

The new reissue of RATM doesn’t signal the band’s comeback—that already happened. After re-forming to headline Coachella in 2007, de la Rocha and crew have toured the world, been coy about the possibility of a new album, and played benefits for many of their pet causes. Rage’s most publicized cause since reforming, though, couldn’t be less RATM-like: In 2009, the group adopted an online campaign launched by two fans to make “Killing In The Name” the Christmas No. 1 song in the U.K.—a spot that had been held for four straight years by winners of The X Factor. In a jarring pageant of self-promotion (which, granted, helped benefit charity), this vote-with-your-download crusade wound up succeeding, leading de la Rocha to give a victory speech to BBC News as if he’d just led the overthrow of a totalitarian regime: 

We’re very, very ecstatic and excited about the song reaching the No. 1 spot. We want to thank everyone that participated in this incredible, organic, grassroots campaign. It says more about the spontaneous action taken by young people throughout the U.K. to topple this very sterile pop monopoly. When young people decide to take action they can make what’s seemingly impossible possible.

Rage Against The Machine, at long last, had discovered irony. In August of 2012, following Mitt Romney’s announcement of Congressman Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate, The New York Times reported that Ryan was a fan of the band. Ryan isn’t any old Republican; he’s one of the nation’s foremost fiscal hawks, and someone who stands far to the right on many social issues. The Times pointed out the glaring disconnect, and Morello took to Rolling Stone to put a sharper edge on it, telling the magazine, “Paul Ryan’s love of Rage Against The Machine is amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades.” Lurking beneath Morello’s comeback, though, there’s a bit of subtext: Paul Ryan is also the embodiment of every clueless, chest-beating, testosterone-pumped fan whom RATM takes money from while holding its nose. 

The election of 2012 turned out differently than the election of 1992. Rather than choosing a new, transformative, Democratic president, America reelected its current one. Barack Obama’s ballyhooed notion of change—much like the leftist revolution RATM preaches—is not a one-time event, but an ongoing and often grueling process. The two elections had at least one thing in common, though: Bill Clinton. Fit, trim, and looking younger than he did when he left office a decade ago, the former president stumped, and stumped hard, for Obama in 2012. Despite the pitfalls and pratfalls of his presidency, he’s emerged as a world statesman—and, according to some polls, one of the most beloved figures across the spectrum of American politics. Clinton’s rehabilitation may have been a little more conspicuous than Rage Against The Machine’s. But as the reissue of RATM reminds, sometimes change is all the change we need.

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