Monday, November 23, 2009

A Dirge

Let's start out with this for context. It should be clear to anyone reading this (you have an internet connection and the wherewithal to use it) that the world has some problems. Cable news networks prefer to focus on the DC echo chamber because a constant struggle between two political parties is easier to understand and present than...well, just about anything else. Sports are a little easier to deal with because you can represent any conflict with a pair of integers: this team scored X and that team scored Y. Y > X, so Y is winning/has won. This is the fundamental appeal of the polling numbers you see everywhere--it is the ultimate distillation of a Complicated Thing to a Simple Thing. One just works better on TV.

As an unreasonably reasonable person, this doesn't bother me that much. There are a lot of problems and injustices in the world that need correcting, but I'm of the opinion that things tend to work themselves out. Change will proceed, slower than it ought to but faster than many people are comfortable with. I can live with that. To stay with the Iranian example, what the Islamic Republic's goons have done is reprehensible and unforgivable. But every political prisoner killed, every protester arrested/beaten/raped brings the day of reckoning closer. Iran's ruling clerics, Myanmar's junta leaders and America's "pro-marriage" propagandists aren't just losing--look at the numbers, the polls and the beliefs of the young. They've already lost. While that's encouraging, I'm discouraged by this: I don't think young Americans possess the sense of urgency their forbears had.

In a recent GQ issue, Clint Eastwood criticized "teenaged twits" for establishing a culture of superficiality. This declaration was practically an Onion headline unto itself, as old people have been telling young people they're ruining the world since...well, "forever" doesn't seem like a strong enough word. 400 million years ago, an old fish was grousing about all these young fish and their nascent air-breathing gills ruining fish society. But I have to agree with Clint here. Because you may have forgotten, this band used to exist:

I know, they re-united and still play shows. But they don't write or record new music, so for artistic purposes they may as well not exist. They present a packaged, processed commercial product (4X ALLITERATION COMBO). I respect that because the original product was so excellent, but I don't feel the need to support it. What I'm really trying to say is this: Rage Against the Machine was a really unique force in American culture. They quit at the top of their game, at the time when we needed them the most, and we've really suffered as a society for it.

The Music
I will boldly assert here that Rage belongs in the pantheon of aurally ground-breaking acts like Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones. No band sounded like them at the time, and while the rap-rock fad came and went it never captured the same sound. Even bands like One Minute Silence and Reveille were at best pale approximations of the idea--they were the Safeway brand. Tasty, but never to be confused with the original. Zach de la Rocha had a raw, aggressive vocal style that lacked production but made up for its lack of sonic subtlety (2x combo) with lyrical subtlety. He was talking about crazy things, the sort of issues American youth was never exposed to outside of your local American Communist Party bookstore. The Shining Path? Mumia Abu-Jamal? Leonard Peltier? There was an entire language of subversion in de la Rocha's lyrics.

And who could forget Tom Morello's guitar work? The man made sounds nobody had ever heard, and he did it without sampling. This was not an extremely proficient musician from a technical standpoint (maybe a tech standpoint), but he could make that thing talk. I can't remember which song on The Battle of Los Angeles had the record-scratch solo, but it needs to be heard to be believed.

This is to say nothing of Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford. The rhythm section of the band was never adequately appreciated, but in retrospect it's easy to see why the band was so good. These guys were a perfect match for each other. They played their roles flawlessly every single night, even though those roles weren't flashy. God bless 'em.

The Politics
This is a little tricky. Rage's politics cannot be separated from their music. There's a natural inclination to try and affect the separation, because many of their views were (to put it mildly) pretty fringe and in America we don't trust the fringe. Unless we're conservatives who sold out all our principles in the name of political expedience and would now like to forget those compromises.

Anyway, the desire to separate the politics from the music is why the most popular Rage songs tend to be the most abstract. "Bulls on Parade" rocks so hard that it's over before you can start thinking about the central image of the song. But here's the thing: the message itself was never that important. The energy was important, and that's what we've lost. Rage was a great band, it was an important band. Rage was, more than anything else, a dangerous band. There was an element of raw rebellion in their music I haven't seen anywhere else in my (short) lifetime. You never knew what was going to happen at a Rage show. The crowd was at all times on the razor's edge of rioting. I went to a couple Rage shows before the end, and if they'd asked the crowd to set fire to the theater we would have. It is difficult to explain in retrospect and with only recordings for evidence, but believe me when I say there was fear in your gut when those lights went down.

But they were HUGE. They played Saturday Night Live. They were all over TV and radio. One of the most dangerous and political and radical and raw rock bands ever to exist was a part of the mainstream, just because they were so fucking good. This was a time in American culture where performers of substance were actually allowed to appear on TV. Rage famously walked out on SNL when their censorship demands weren't met, and terrified NBC pages had to be sent out into the Gotham night to try and find Rage and get them to come back. They played Letterman:

Again, I assert: this show could not happen today. It's Taylor Swift, it's John Mayer, it's acts that are easy to watch and music that's easy to listen to. It won't ruffle feathers. It's safe. Rage pushed the envelope at every opportunity.

And then they left us. They broke up at the height of their powers, after their musically most accomplished album and right before the start (people forget this) of the Bush presidency. These guys were the angriest, most politically radical band in mainstream American history, but consider this: RATM never existed for even an instant in post-9/11 America. Never the twain did meet. The last decade passed and one of the most important collective voices in America was silent all the while. And honestly, I don't even blame them. They were four human beings wrapped up in this band and given millions of dollars. It wasn't their responsibility to continue playing while we ran our country into the ground. It's our responsibility to fill the void.

So at long last, that's the point of all this. That's what I want. I see the things that have happened in the last decade, that continue to happen now, both at home and abroad. And I see a youth culture that's had its energy re-purposed. The energy didn't go anywhere. But it's bottled up in over-wrought emotionality (see: Twilight) and celebrity culture. We direct our ambitions towards purchases and consumption, when maybe we need to just turn it loose and break a few things.

I'd guess that a grand total of zero substantial policy changes were enacted as a result of Rage's music. They didn't change the world. But they didn't have to. Their ferocity and sincerity were their contributions. And to play us off, here is the official video for "Sleep Now in the Fire," a single off The Battle of Los Angeles. Embedding is disabled, hence the link. Brief story behind the video: Rage wants to shoot a video on Wall Street, Mayor Giuliani refuses the permits. They show up anyway, drop their gear on the front steps of the New York Stock Exchange and tear it up. A riot ensues, people are arrested (including a no-younger and no-skinnier Michael Moore), trading is shut down on the Exchange floor for a while. Nobody would do such a thing today, and as a country we are weaker for it.

Thanks for reading.

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