or the rest of 2005, Stylus will be presenting a series of two to three essays each month in the Pop Playground section centered around an idea or theme related to music. These questions will be open-ended, allowing each writer to make of the subject what they will and to explore it more fully than they might do in a normal review or feature. This month: Selling Out.
“People will read a book or pamphlet only once, but a song they can sing again and again in their heads.” – Tom Morello, Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave
Mr. Morello is absolutely correct.
Thousands of pages could be translated into simple slogans to sing and carve into the walls and minds of nations—mere verses, melodies and sensations that you don’t need a book or a teacher to understand. Sing along to the truth or the lie it is, take it to your heart—behold the face of God, see your children in your lover’s eyes, work for a better tomorrow, squeeze the trigger; consider the enemy’s death as a verse in thy anthem. “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me,” “Why stand on a silent platform? / Fight the war, fuck the norm,” “Those who control the past, control the future / Those who control the present, control the past,” “Bam, here’s the plan, now motherfuck Uncle Sam,” “Anger is a gift”; all are slogans that caused millions of kids to chant after the Messenger, Zach de la Rocha.
Rocha’s crew, Rage Against the Machine was understandably accused of hypocrisy. They were a band of Marxists financed by one of the world’s most powerful triumphs of capitalism and mass consumerism—two of the very evils they sought to lead the masses against. They broke bread with the hard-Left cause for the overthrow of imperialist society, the epitome of cultural resistance against the corporate machine that parasitically milks the sell-outs’ souls until they cease being profitable—if RATM’s proclaimed cause is to be understood. They technically committed heresy in the post-Nirvana age of 1992 when Sony re-released their demo as their self-titled debut. As cynicism holds, drew the ignorant and adolescent into believing that they were a part of a spectacle of rebellion—a Potemkin Village of radicalism sold by MTV and Hot Topic. But no matter Rocha’s dubious lyrical stance, the band made it sound like the paving stones, bureaucrats’ tossed filing cabinets, shattered windows and Molotov cocktails were harmonizing out in the streets. Every riff in Morello’s guitarwork—equal parts Led Zep, Black Sabbath, Terminator X, Gang of Four and Fugazi—punctuated Rocha’s spat rapping, and slashed tanks in half.
Yet, the Sony-owned Epic Records phenomenally pulled the band’s ideological Trojan horse into mainstream America. Sony’s money paid for MTV images of the Sioux militant standoff against the FBI at Pine Ridge, stats of U.S. aid to Mexico’s iron fist on its indigenous, an image of Latino sweatshop workers sewing American designer wear in a room whitewashed enough for a Gap commercial, Morello wearing his baseball cap emblazoned with “Commie” on TV, T-shirt images of Guevara and Zapata sold in shopping malls, a photo of Zach de la Rocha’s library that tells little Johnnies and Janes who bought their second album, Evil Empire to check out the Anarchist Cookbook that can teach them how to concoct homemade explosives. “Let the capitalists sell us the rope we’ll hang them with,” as Lenin put it. RATM easily accomplished more in communicating hard-Left causes to the masses within five years than most “radical” bands and artists achieve in twice as long or more. The band ultimately sold more than 14 million records through Sony.
Let’s say that an idea’s quality is based on how many people buy it. Let’s agree with Morello that music is the surefire way to deliver an idea into the mass consciousness, without any formal discourse to dilute attention and interrupt the shot into the heart. As for musically translated ideas of revolutionary upheaval for entire nations, they must be distributed through the mass media to the greatest number of people to convince them that they are being cheated and repressed by the powers that be, and that they need to take action. Should it then follow to “sell-out” and have a corporation place the bullhorn to the messenger’s mouth? Might it be that to remain independent of major labels and to avoid using the corporate machinery to deliver political ideas is to marginalized oneself from reaching the masses? Should it not be that the farther an artist’s idea travels and is accepted through a song, the more it transcends the issue of artistic compromise and monetary corruption? It does not matter that the Rolling Stones’ “My Sweet NeoCon” finds little airplay, millions already heard of the song through the publicized controversy. It does not matter that the Dixie Chicks were blacklisted by many radio stations for expressing their shame of being Texan when Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, millions still got to know where they stood. And then there is Michael Moore getting a kick out of telling everyone that no matter that he calls Bush a disgrace to America or depicts corporations as bloodsuckers, media corporations still fund him as his rants make them a killing in profits.
The traditional ideals of punk and general protest music is to arise from the bottom to the surface. Romance holds that the artist writes and later performs the Anthem at a basement or a rally, releases it on CD-Rs and through college radio, a few hundred are engrossed by the song and tape their copies for play on car stereos, boomboxes and bedroom computers. The Anthem then grows online and is heard across all six winds, the Anthem’s message drives people to act; a revolution then arises without a TV camera to film any of it. Rage Against the Machine sought the quicker route. “You live in a friggin' capitalist world,” Morello said in an interview with Refuse & Resist. “If you want to sell 45s out of the back of your microbus, God bless you. And maybe that works better, I don't know. I'll see you at the finish line.”
Fair enough. But why didn’t RATM’s music “set fire to our cities”? Many of their salvos against globalization’s exploiters were shared by the activists who stormed downtown Seattle in November 1999 and made the “World Trade Organization” and “globalization” household words. Didn’t The Battle of Los Angeles, the band’s most coherent and effective record tap into the zeitgeist of that time, as even Michael Moore directed a few videos from it, namely “Sleeps Now in the Fire” in front the of the New York Stock Exchange, with Rocha wrapping his arm about George Washington’s brass leg with a smirk? True, the band did get repressed by the post-9/11 fear of dissent against Bush where Clear Channel refused to air their songs. But in those years between the 1996 hit, “Bulls on Parade” and 9/11, RATM’s call to arms should’ve been answered by those who bought their 14 million records, right?
There are many factors that could explain the band’s failure, but “selling out” to Sony is not one. As mentioned before, political ideas are useless if they are not accepted and practiced. Like many agitprop artists, RATM described why society is a hole, but rarely proscribed ways of getting out of it besides the obvious “rebel, rebel and yell, because our people still dwell in hell.” Perhaps it is the vague targets that Rocha usually fired at, like the “Them” that everyone considered to be enemies. He was at his best when specific, whether it be AIDS in Africa, the Zapatistan revolt, or right-wing radio. Or maybe the band’s music overpowered all lyrical substance, where so many apolitical youths or fans with contrary ideologies still got their testosterone fix from their sound. It’s like the way Bruce Springteen’s song about a Vietnam vet getting cheated by the government he fought for and getting brushed away by his society was all obscured by the whamming militant beat and baseball stadium organ hymn when “Born in the USA” was shouted and Reagan wanted that song to help reelect himself in ’84. Two of the most outspoken, conservative Republicans I knew who were my age loved RATM, and one of them—who went to the midnight launch of Evil Empire—once told me that their politics were “bullshit.”
“People will read a book or pamphlet only once, but a song they can sing again and again in their heads,” heh, I love that declaration, Mr. Morello. This scene still burns in my mind: I was among a few thousand who watched the stage bathed in red light as the Internationale played. Several asked what the hell was going on, while one sang in a sloppy off-key: “Oh say can you see…” A choir sang the lyrics, but the recording was a muddled antique, it seemed to be taped from a record issued by the Soviet government in Cold War’s earliest years. “Arise ye prisoners of want / For reason in revolt now thunders / And at last ends the age of cant,” as the opening lines of Eugene Pottier’s tribute to the struggle of the Paris Commune’s revolt of 1871 went. Pottier’s ode into was later appropriated by Marxists and became the global communist anthem, often rewritten to suite particular causes like “Song for Stalin.” Millions felt victorious, and were brutally exterminated as that song was sung in minds and souls. Not that many fans at Rage Against the Machine’s 1997 concert at Sacramento’s Cal Expo noticed any of that. The crowd was mainly filled with teenage boys, a few girls here and there, and oddly enough, some neo-Nazi skinheads. After the Internationale ended, a century’s worth of rage, love, tears, starvation and bloodshed that I heard in that song had disappeared. Bright lights then covered the stage as the band walked out to play their song for indigenous Latin American rights in “People of the Sun.” The curtain behind them opened to revealed blown up paintings by Barbara Kruger that mainly revises generic clip art with agitprop questions. “Who is bought and who is sold?” one of her questions rang, underneath Uncle Sam and a businessman standing shoulder-to-shoulder under the American flag.
God, I love that line: “People will read a book or pamphlet only once, but a song they can sing again and again in their heads.” Madison Ave. has known such a wisdom of propaganda. During the 1990’s, Rocha spoke loud, but could be heard clear out there in the open air: “Sometimes You Gotta Break the Rules” (Burger King); “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” “If You Don't Like The Rules, Change Them” (WXRT-FM) “Why stand on a silent platform? / Fight the war, fuck the norm”; “Think Different” (Apple); “Those who control the past, control the future / Those who control the present, control the past”; “The Line Has Been Crossed: The Revolutionary New Supra-Toyota” (Toyota); “Bam, here’s the plan, now motherfuck Uncle Sam”; “No rules, just right” (Outback Steakhouse); “Anger is a gift.”
By: Cameron Macdonald
Published on: 2005-10-05