Love the Machine You're With
You say you want a revolution? Rage Against the Machine's "Testify" sounds like "Crosstown Traffic" trying to make it through the Watts Riots, a martial snare and a wondrous Hendrix-as-Sonic Youth guitar squall and a walloping stick-it-in-your-yeah! rap-rock rant from Zack de la Rocha that links bombs over Baghdad with oil dependency with wage slavery with fear with corruption with opiate media with opiate religion with shame with hate. Guitarist Tom Morello sounds like he's reinventing punk, metal, and funk one instinct at a time; bassist Tim Rob and drummer Brad Wilk machine-gun the bang-bang boogie. My walls start rattlin'. Paint chips keep fallin' on my head. And then the punch line: "It's right outside your door/Now, testify! Testify!"
Yes, I think for a fleeting moment. Yes, I will testify. I will reach for my flannel fatigues, download a copy of Molotov Cocktails: The Bartender's Guide, take to the street, and unleash my rage on...anything, anything corporate: the nearest, er, uh, well...I dunno. Post office? Arby's? SuperAmerica? Tell me, my dreadlocked commando, which one's goin' first? Where will the battle of Minneapolis, my guerrilla heroics begin?
Here we hit the much-discussed rub in the Rage equation. If I really look right outside my Pleasant Avenue door right now, at 3:00 p.m. on a Thursday, I can see, well, a few third-graders getting off the school bus, some guy raking his yard, and this other guy walking home from the Red Dragon with only one shoe on. Well, that last one might be a place to start. Yet if I were to run down to the corner and start yelling at this unorganized cadre about the Zapatistas, I fear my entreaties would fall upon unprepared ears.
Now, if your average Rage fan--young, white, and very probably overentitled whippersnapper that he is--looks right outside his door, he can see any of a number of equally perplexing tableaux. His glassy-eyed parents slouching home from a day of Dilbertian drudgery, for example. Or, if he's of voting age, his frat-house buddies snarfing ten-foot bong hits while they log frequent-flyer miles on animalpornbonanza.com. But he isn't all that likely to sense the consumerist ennui "Testify" attacks, even if, duh, said ennui is already all around him, blurring his vision and shrouding his every motion in a veil of living death. This is the most obvious contradiction in Rage's music, and any facile detractor can spot this flailing, thrashing, ranting barracuda in a barrel from a mile away.
But to hell with them: After seven years Rage have smoothed out the molten slug 'n' chug funk-metal of their first two boring, flatulent records into the ferocious rap-rock flame-throwing that is The Battle of Los Angeles. "Guerrilla Radio" propels shrapnel like no other single of the Nineties, and cuts such as "Calm Like a Bomb" and "Sleep Now in the Fire" squash extant indie-rock irony, Fred Durst's Method Man duet, and the new Celine Dion like so many boycotted grapes of wrath. It took 'em long enough, but Rage's music has caught up with their concept, and more power to 'em--or us, or La Raza, or whoever's supposed to get the power.
Still, even by the forgiving standards of Public Enemy or the Clash, de la Rocha remains a decidedly undialectical Marxist thinker. His missives makes Flavor Flav sound like Herbert Marcuse, and if Rage unveiled a triple album called Zapatista!, Zack probably wouldn't feel the need to expand or nuance his ideology beyond namedropping a few instructive Web sites, just as Morello would likely stick with his combustible blend of Eddie Hazel and My Bloody Valentine.
Long before Rage were the rage, political Cali-core forebears the Minutemen made anti-instinctual skronk to reflect singer D. Boon's running auto-critique, and, as Eric Weisbard recently pointed out in the Village Voice, the Gang of Four similarly made angular funk that worked your body like the capitalist system busts your chops. Both bands savored the paradoxes implicit in making leftist pop, but such hemming and hawing kept their authors, in the finest leftist tradition, well off the cultural map. Rage, by contrast, wanna get in the game, mass-culturally speaking. They hardly have time for gumming up the works with intellectual waffling. (There are lives hanging in the balance, damn it.)
Neither do they risk alienating fans by pulling a Fugazi and turning a critical lens outward into the pit. Battle spends plenty of time in death-row cells and on picket lines, but the closest Zack ever comes to speaking to the middle-class experience of his listeners is, "Everything can change on New Year's Day." That's not much to work with, even when the power grid freezes. And female fans might hope for something more than "Maria," which depicts illegal immigration from the perspective of a young woman. Considering the band's demographics, de la Rocha's inability to incorporate a real discussion of sexual politics into his saber rattling seems downright shameful. In a sense, the way Korn multitrack Jonathon Davis's vocals to evoke the fear, loathing, misogyny, and general bipolarity of the proto-Columbine psychopath feels more urgent, if only because the subject matter hits closer to home.
The Tom Frank in you, perhaps unfamiliar with de la Rocha's activist tours of duty in Chiapas, might take his images from "La Raza Livin' in La La" as little more than pyrotechnically enhanced Gap ads for the UNITE cap Morello wears in promo shots. And salvos like "We're calm like a bomb/Ignite!" can float menacingly above an arena-size floor-war, especially in the post-Gropestock slugfests that are likely to meet Rage as they take their Battle on the road (no Twin Cities dates at press time). This Machine thrills fascists at the same moment they might start converting them, and that often leaves me cold.
I wish I could get excited about Rage Against the Machine, the same way I wish I'd been old enough to get excited about the Clash two decades ago. Sure, the latter had their skinhead contingent, but there was no claiming the band without squaring off with the dumb jock within. Now the discourse of dissent is too fluid, and I'm afraid Rage can slip too easily into enemy hands.
In other words, if I wanna get lifted by Rage, there's the Guitar, but when I wanna have my pleasure grounded, I go to the Web site, where the Kids argue about Mumia and religion and complain about the fact that ratm.com has links to MTV and drop lines like "I'm very disappointed that Rage will not be in the Northwest during the WTO demonstrations, a.k.a. 'The Battle of Seattle.'" Maybe it's just noise--for every smart posting there's a "Dude, the new GNR song rocks!" But read about 50 of them and you can imagine you're privy to the platform-making dialogue of a kind of mainstream-rock fan we haven't seen in close to a decade. She's a sensitive, angry, and self-critical kid who believes rock 'n' roll should reinvest itself in the Sixties/Clash/PE radical spirit it has as much right to as Pat Buchanan, Sprite, or the Baffler ever did, even if it hasn't acted accordingly of late. Or maybe she just wants to burn stuff; it's too soon to know.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.