Friday, August 29, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

Squawk Against the Machine

I was looking through some cassette tapes the other day. Specifically, I was looking for a tape called Rap: Straight From the Streets (a 1989 sampler of bad Christian rap music and interviews with said bad Christian rappers), because I wanted to play a clip from a Toby McKeehan interview in my sermon that week. If this has awakened some morbid curiosity on your part, you can find the sermon here.

But, of course, the process of going through my many tapes turned into an aural trip down memory lane. I enjoyed re-visiting many memories of the '80s and '90s via their soundtracks. There was a good number of "cassingles" involved, including Ponderous ("...and my shoes started to squeak"), I Wanna Be Rich, and Another Night ("I tawk, tawk, I tawwk to youuu").

It was funny.

Then I happened upon a bunch of mix tapes I had made for my first car, the Spacious. Lots of MxPx, Value Pac, Rancid, Greenday, Ghoti Hook. Man, there was a lot of good music in the mid/late '90s; what happened?


It was on the B-side of one of my mix tapes that I found a dub of Rage Against the Machine's self-titled 1992 album. Why would a white middle class student at a Christian college be listening to Rage Against the Machine, you ask? Why, indeed. If you discounted all the albums purchased by white suburbanites, Rage has probably sold fewer albums than Gus Polinski and the Kenosha Kickers (they sold about 620 copies of Domavougi Polka, a.k.a. Kiss Me Polka; very big in Cheboygan.)


The Rage album in question was decorated with a picture of a Buddhist monk burning himself to death by way of protesting attacks on his religion and filled with music unequivocally calling for the destruction of the current order and the adoption of a new ultra-Leftist agenda. Might just lead you to believe that Rage Against the Machine stood for something and that they were willing to make enormous sacrifices to realize their lofty goals. Right?

I assumed so. You see, in the mid-'90s, like many just heading off to college, I went through a phase of wanting to be a radical. A student radical. Sure, most student radicals are strident Leftists, but that didn't stop me and my group of comrades. We might have been right of Jerry Falwell at the time, but we were just as angry at our culture and (so we thought) our country as your average weekend member of the New Weathermen Underground (Miami of Ohio chapter).We made flyers and tracts. We tried to crash forums at the liberal Fountain Street Church. We duct taped little manifestos to church doors. We wrote angry songs.

It was pathetic.

And, since there was not any angry pro-Christian-right punk music out there (sure, there were two or three anti-patriotic songs by MxPx, but they just served to whet my appetite), I grabbed on to Rage Against the Machine, heaped on a liberal (?!) dose of reader hermeneutic, and somehow sang along to most of it, redirecting its rage toward the secular humanism of the age and the guy in the White House who couldn't keep his story straight. That makes about as much sense as John Shelby Sponge selectively quoting Paul's epistles. When I taped the album for play in my car, I carefully left out the sophomoric tag at the end of Township Rebellion, which proclaims, "Shackle your minds when they're bent on the cross. When ignorance reigns, life is lost."

My affair with Rage Against the Machine was short-lived if intense. I even had a couple of posters on my wall. What prompted me to take them down was the fine print at the bottom, which read,"© 1995 Mega Merchandising." That's right, the anarchists who wanted to burn the flag, violently overthrow the government, and somehow give the land back to its Native inhabitants (not quite sure if they ever thought through the logistics involved in that last plank)--or at least claimed to want all that--were recording and selling their music on a major corporate record label and were in league with a giant corporation so large and faceless that it was named "Mega Merchandising." And their music, T-shirts, and posters were copyrighted so that you couldn't join "the movement" without the band, their agents, and their lawyers getting a piece of the pie.

So anyway, back to my basement a few weeks ago. I popped my Rage cassette into the tape deck (heh..."tape deck") and pushed play, expecting to be Marty McFlyed off my feet by the wall of incredibly powerful rock sound that I remembered. Instead, I heard an intro composed of a keyboard-demo-style generic drumbeat, followed by a ridiculously simple guitar melody that any Mel Bay Level 1 student with a Fender and forty-five minutes could have dreamed up. It did sound "big," but only because of the three dozen effects through which the yawn-inducing riff was routed. (Piping music through the $200,000 Fuzzmaster 2000? Hmmm... Doesn't seem very grass roots anarchist to me).

Then came the vocals. I remembered Zack de la Rocha as sounding furious, intense, almost frightening. But he doesn't. He sounds like a pre-pubescent twelve-year-old with a stuffed-up nose yelling with a slight speech impediment and an "Aw, wait up, guys!" whine. And all with just a little higher pitch than Avril Lavigne's "rap" on Let Go.

And the lyrics... Well, here's a sample:

Ughh!
Hey yo, it's just another bombtrack...Ughh!
Hey yo, it's just another bombtrack...Yeah!
It goes one, two, three
Hey yo, it's just another bombtrack
And suckers be thinkin' that they can fade this
But I'ma drop it at a higher level
'Cause I'm inclined to stoop down
Hand out some beat-downs
Cold run a train on punk hos that think they run the game
...
It goes one, two, three
Another funky, radical bombtrack
Started as a sketch in my notebook
And now dope hooks make punks take another look
My thoughts you hear and you begin to fear
That your card will get pulled if you interfere

And who can forget the uplifting and imaginative bridge:

Burn, burn, yes you're gonna burn!
Burn, burn, yes you're gonna burn!
Burn, burn, yes you're gonna burn!
Burn, burn, yes you're gonna burn!
Burn, burn, yes you're gonna burn!
Burn, burn, yes you're gonna burn!
Burn, burn, yes you're gonna burn!

I am? I'm going to burn? Or, wait...who exactly is going to burn?

As the song came to an end and an almost identical one began, I reflected briefly on the phenomenon of Rage Against the Machine (assuming that they had long since disbanded). How hypocritical to over-produce simplistic effects-driven rock with an over-the-top anti-establishment bent and then get rich selling it to the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice crowd. How very consumerist. How very capitalist. How very ridiculous.

No one ever burned anything but CDs. Rage never really "flipped the script," whatever that means. They never actually handed out those beat-downs, nor did they "pull the card" of anyone who interfered. Really, there wasn't much to interfere with.

Rage really played on the tendency of those caught between immaturity and maturity to lash out against the world and demand that all wrongs be righted at once and all injustices be rectified (while justifying any injustice perpetrated toward that goal). Some people never outgrow this mindset.

Edward Norton makes an insightful analysis on the commentary track to Fight Club. He says that the film is really about how appealing Nihilism can be when you're young, but that, as one grows up, one has to come to terms with its weaknesses and how it folds in on itself when any weight is applied (I'm paraphrasing here).

Not surprisingly, this all reminds me of a sermon illustration I've used several times.
It's said that a city slicker was visiting a ranch. He watched for several days as the rancher tried unsuccessfully to break a wild stallion. Finally, realizing that he couldn't do it himself, he tied the stallion to a mule and opened the corral gate. The stallion went screaming out over the horizon, the poor mule in tow. They were gone for three days. The city slicker, who was going home the next day, assumed that they were gone for good. But finally, on the evening of the third day, over the horizon came trotting first the mule and then the stallion--now very calm--following along behind. Somewhere out there, on the edge of the world, the stallion got tired of spitting and fighting and flailing, and gave up. That's when the mule took charge and led him back home.

I usually use this illustration in regard to the Kingdom of God--how the heroes of the faith are not those who shouted the loudest, made the greatest claims, and whipped the people into the sweatiest frenzy; the heroes of the faith are those who persevered. Who, day by day by day, faithfully plodded along in the right direction no matter what tried to drag them away. The same thing is true of those trying to effect change in the world. It's not hard to vaguely threaten some unidentified "landlords and power whores" that they're going to burn when you "cold run a train" on them. It's easy to scream with Rage Against the Machine,"Motherf--- Uncle Sam!"; it's harder to love your country, even with its flaws, and work with a mule-like perseverance toward effecting real change. It's not as sexy. It's not as exciting. And you probably won't get a deal with Mega Merchandising in the process.

The most ironic thing is that earlier this week, I read about Rage Against the Machine performing a huge concert for a group protesting the Democratic convention. Zack de la Rocha, now pushing forty, is still scamming those stallions out of their allowance. If he gets the irony...well, then, more power to him.

But somehow, I don't think he does.

1 reader comments:

Ted Kluck said...

Hey Zach...I sheepishly admit that I had a similar fling with Rage Against the Machine myself back in the mid-1990's. I'm not sure if the band "gets" the irony, because getting the irony would probably impair their ability to sell the dream. It's not unlike professional wrestling in that way.