Politics in a literary work are a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, a crude affair though one impossible to ignore. We are about to speak of very ugly matters.
They say the poets flatter to deceive. They're aren't kidding. I've always been fascinated by the way that music can tap straight into your emotions and your soul and change the way you feel without the need for any interpretation; and unlike any other art-form it is so hard to avoid because it permeates the ether around you, literally bathing you in in joy or melancholia or anger. Great philosophers have known the importance of music since philosophy began with Plato, and they have been intermittently aware of its political importance. My generation is the most musical there has ever been, with a staggering amount of music available for purchase or download and portable devices that mean many are almost never without it.
Politics and music make for strange bedfellows. The sign of a third-rate artist is trying to approach politics crudely and directly, like a political cartoonist; this may provide entertainment, but it is hardly timeless or even particularly convincing. But politics and art are inseparable because how we live together is not primarily about rationality, it is about feeling and interest and perogative and perception; it is about our emotions towards various concepts, like society or the state or the nation. Human living-together is much more about love and hate than it is technocracy, and believing otherwise has been the privilege of only a few brief epochs.
Rage Against the Machine were a band who may or may not have known all this; I don't know. But the music they sent out into precisely one of these epochs was so effective exactly because this was true. It doesn't matter one iota that the record industry that they distributed their work through was a part of corporate America, which they intermittently criticized in their music; this criticism was political cartoonery, certainly not the main thrust. When they strayed into the temptation to sing about specifics, they were at their weakest. And despite these third-rate diversions - which wholly characterize practically every other band that has tried to be "political" - they managed to produce three timeless and moving albums.
The first, the self-titled, had all the hits. The Matrix took 'Wake Up' as its theme tune, whereas 'Killing In the Name', 'Know Your Enemy' and 'Bullet in the Head' became the band's signature tunes. This album was heavy on the long guitar-riffs and the direct message; it contains the only direct references to the United States of America in all of their albums. The second, Evil Empire, was radically different. Musically, the songs are more jumpy, more incoherent, and the politics has shifted south of the Rio Grande, where it belongs. This album has a heavily Latin feeling to it and it makes the themes of blood and oppression and revolution much more plausible. Then finally, The Battle of Los Angeles listens like a fusion of the previous two albums, combining the best features of both.
Enough description. You can go and listen. What is much more worthwhile to discuss is precisely what it was about this music that appealed so widely to western youth at the End of History. Rage's music was fundamentally libertarian and bespoke a generation of revolution and politics-as-movement which had all but vanished from the western world by the 1990s; it was the '60s repackaged, glorified and resold. Just as the spirit of the student revolutions in 1968 was largely given its impetus by the struggles against Nazism and Stalinism (and the not-unconnected desire to get high) of the previous generation, Rage tried to reignite the spirit of revolution from the only source available to it: the Cold War struggles in Latin America.
I am, let it be known, no great fan of Fidel Castro or Che Guevara; nor Hugo Chavez or Régis Debray, the latter being one of those French intellectuals who was up to his eyeballs in the most extreme left-wing activity - not to mention Bolivian prisons, for his trouble - and managed to emerge into the French establishment reformed and unscathed. But this is music, not rationality, remember. What Rage did was package the feeling of the oppressed and those who thought they could help the oppressed through anarchism and revolutionary communism and turn it into something that can actually teach you about the emotions that lay behind this, whatever your rational thoughts about the merits of their case may be. And that, in my opinion, was not bad going.
Revolution and oppressive landlords and politics-as-war have no real resonance with western youth, only an imaginary one. And in the final analysis, Rage's songs did not help the oppressed one jot - and when they broke up, announcing they were mystified by this fact, I could not help but laugh. As a political force, they were indeed a joke. But they managed to crystallize the yearning for freedom and autonomy that characterizes so many people who are the victim of God's cruel games and those of their fellow men; and they articulated the desire to violently seek control of one's own destiny that lays at the heart of revolution. "One thing you can't understand, is how I could just kill a man," sang Zack de la Rocha. And he was right, his bourgeois listeners could not - and nor could he. But he did a good job of pretending.
We should never forget that this yearning for change and even violence lies on one level in our societies, especially among the young; we are, in politics if nothing else, fundamentally conservative places that have - we think at least - banished violence and revolution for good. That's why it's called The End of History. But what music and art teaches us is that these sides of our character exist, however we suppress them; the fascination with the criminal and the malign that characterizes contemporary popular culture is a sign of this, and directly mirrors developments during western civilization's last golden age of prosperity in Victorian times.
We - we ungrateful bastards? - especially the young, can still be captivated by the thought that the battle against oppression and that which is static is one of the things that makes life worth living. Without it we resemble a dog, someone once said, happy and content sitting in the sun but hardly possessing our full human dignity. Young, western listeners of Rage were prone to direct their anger in the wrong direction, not towards those who commit genocide and the most terrible crimes abroad, but instead inside their own peaceful borders, where the worries of these youth pale into insignificance compared to the trials of most of the world's population. But never forget that tens of millions of our young listened to these albums and temporarily felt a rush of blood to the head, an urge to fight what is wrong with this world. Shed your pretensions and listen for yourself and see if you don't feel the same. The feeling may be important one day.