Rage Against the Machine self-titled

Rage, Rage, Against the Dying of Rage Against the Machine

How were Rage Against the Machine so far ahead of their time, not just as political bellwethers but with a sound reaching past genres to create something entirely new?

Rage Against the Machine
Rage Against the Machine
3 November 1992

“Fuck you; I won’t do what you tell me!” On 3 November 1992, Zach de la Rocha—one of the great frontman stage names, except it’s real—screamed out his heart, lungs, and throat on “Killing in the Name” with Rage Against the Machine, the album and the band.

Has there ever been, will there ever be, another lyric as naked an embodiment of uncut rebellion? Marvin Gaye‘s 1970s wistful rebellion gave us “What’s Going On”: “Brother, brother, brother / There’s far too many of you dying.” Twisted Sister‘s 1980s rock rebellion birthed “We’re not gonna take it / No, we ain’t gonna take it.” It took Rage Against the Machine, and the 1990s, to merge the sentiments, repeating “And now you do what they told ya” 25 times as the buildup and segue to “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” repeated 16 times.

Rage Against the Machine would have to wait almost 20 years, well after they broke up in 2000, for the masses to join “the movement” alluded to in “Freedom”, with the advent of Occupy Wall Street in 2011, and then a few more for Black Lives Matter, in 2013. They’d have to wait even longer for the rest of the nation to catch up after George Floyd’s murder by police spurred mass protests in 2020, perhaps the largest in American history.

How did Rage Against the Machine know so much in 1992? How were they so far ahead of their time, not just as political bellwethers but with a sound that reached into genres of the past to create something entirely new? A rhythm section pulled from Led Zeppelin‘s heavy midtempo plods, a guitarist who could channel Hendrix via hair metal but thought he was a DJ, and a vocalist who didn’t sing a single note, whose delivery more closely resembled angry Beat poetry than even actual rap?   

The answer is: they didn’t.

When artists are ahead of their time—from Big Mamma Thornton to the Beatles to David Bowie—they’re often astute close readers of the times they live in. On the one hand, Millennials wax nostalgic for the 1990s, for Nickelodeon, for Furbys, for plastic neon phones. In the same vein, a New York Times editorial declared, “The Best Decade Ever? The 1990s, Obviously“: “It was simply the happiest decade of our American lifetimes. This isn’t (mainly) fogeyishness on my part. No. It is empirically, objectively, broadly true.”

On the other hand, that’s not what Rage Against the Machine—and many others—understood then. 1992, at the time, felt bleak. At the risk of sounding like “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (released just three years earlier), in 1992, four police officers were acquitted in the videotaped beating of Rodney King. Mass violence erupted in Los Angeles. We had Iran-Contra. Unemployment. A recession. The Gulf War (the first one). George Bush (the first one), President of the United States, unloved and unliked, running for reelection. Bill Clinton would beat him on the very same day that the Rage Against the Machine album came out.

It’s easy to see prescience, then, 30 years later. At the time, Rage Against the Machine were precisely of their time, both in their anger and their rap-rock fusion. And their finger on the pulse only picked up so much. Clinton’s victory didn’t matter one bit to Rage Against the Machine. At the end of Clinton’s term, Rage Against the Machine’s video for “Testify” (1999) suggested that George Bush (the second one) and Al Gore, running against each other for President, as well as Clinton, were essentially the same, interchangeable puppets of corporate cash. In 1999, many Americans didn’t see much difference between Democrats and Republicans. They do now.  

Besides, what if Rage Against the Machine held a ’90s protest, and, yes, people came, but they didn’t get it? In 2014, Republican Congressman and Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan revealed that he had once been a Rage Against the Machine fan, enjoying the riffs without realizing that the lyrics were antithetical to everything he stood for. The feeling was mutual. Guitarist Tom Morello shot back, in a Rolling Stone editorial, that Ryan “is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades.”

Ryan was not alone, though. Even as late as 2020, as Rage Against the Machine planned a reunion tour that, like all tours, would be thwarted by Covid-19, former fans were still somehow discovering Rage Against the Machine’s politics: “Music is my sanctuary,” one wrote, “and the last thing I want to hear is political BS when I’m listening to music.”  

This sentiment—that music should be apolitical, escapist, that politics in music is bullshit—prevails in most online group rules. Right next to prohibitions on nudity or bullying, one finds “No discussions on controversial topics, e.g., politics.” Rage Against the Machine foresaw the politicization of nearly every aspect of everyday life, with one ironic exception: the mainstream de-politicization of music.

It’s tempting—almost—to forgive these fans, or even Paul Ryan, at least for this misunderstanding. Without the advent of Twitter, Instagram, or podcasts to hear Zach de la Rocha’s or Tom Morello‘s latest pronouncements or to access lyrics or fan group discussions, how different is Rage Against the Machine’s “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me”? from Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff”: “Your best bet is to stay away motherfucker / You better watch your back / Cause I’m fucking up your program”?

Yes, the repetition of “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses” and “Those who died are justified, for wearing the badge, they’re the chosen whites” in “Killing in the Name” call out and condemn racist police officers who represent racist institutions. In his response to Paul Ryan, Tom Morello mentioned many more examples:

I wonder what Ryan’s favorite Rage song is? Is it the one where we condemn the genocide of Native Americans? The one lambasting American imperialism? Our cover of “Fuck the Police”? Or is it the one where we call on the people to seize the means of production? So many excellent choices to jam out to at Young Republican meetings!

– Tom Morello

But we already know that people don’t often pay attention to most of a song’s lyrics or even consider a song’s meaning. Consider every politician, from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, who thoughtlessly appropriated Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” based on the title alone. Why should we expect better from teenagers? Or even Paul Ryan? When Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit shared the bill at the disastrous, now notorious Woodstock ’99, fans-turned-rioters, as Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst instructed, they did break stuff. They indeed fucked up your program. Fuck you; they didn’t do what you told them.     

Woodstock ’99’s rioters are now middle-aged. Meanwhile, in 2022, Rage Against the Machine’s canceled 2020 reunion tour, now rescheduled, was canceled again after only one and a half shows when Zach de la Rocha injured his leg. Instead of the concerts, and despite an editorial where Rage Against the Machine bassist Tim Commerford said that Donald Trump “is Adolf Hitler. He’s fucking Adolf Hitler,” Generation X seemed to turn its back on Rage Against the Machine and become “the Trumpiest Generation“. Or maybe Trump convinced them that he was the heir apparent to “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” In a sense, of course, that’s true.

But it’s still even more true that some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses.