The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame announced the induction of Rage Against the Machine, a band known as much for its politics as its music, on Wednesday.
The group affirmed that description in its statement embracing its induction. It mentioned none of the band’s songs or albums but instead touted “our fierce opposition to the US war machine, white supremacy and exploitation” and claimed that “right wing media companies tried to purge every song we ever wrote from the airwaves.” Eventually, Rage Against the Machine tried to silence Rage Against the Machine, too, as their statement acknowledges in calling itself “[a] band who sued the US State Department for their fascist practice of using our music to torture innocent men in Guantanamo Bay.”
The group showed corporate America how to make millions by posing as anti-corporate.
Do you really want to highlight during your moment of glory that a government regarded your music, like waterboarding and the wheel of Catherine, as an instrument of torture?
Certainly “Bulls on Parade” and “Guerrilla Radio” sound interesting and not agonizing. Their other songs come across as formulaic, which worked for AC/DC but for RATM instilled in the listener the notion that to hear one of their numbers amounted to hearing them all.
Perhaps understanding the Groundhog Day monotony — but I repeat myself — of their music, they stopped creating original albums after their third LP in 1999. Rage Against the Machine now operates as a nostalgia act at concert sheds, arenas, and festivals (a JetBlue of its industry, it canceled its 2023 tour after canceling its 2022 European tour). If you really enjoyed the show, you may buy a T-shirt, for $35, to remember it by.
While they do not yet license “People of the Sun” to Coppertone, RATM acts more as a brand than a band these days. Then again, they always operated as more of something other than a pure musical entity.
They hired Michael Moore to direct a video. When invited as musical guests on Saturday Night Live, they hung inverted American flags on their amps to protest the program’s host, Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes. In 1999, they headlined a benefit arena concert at the Meadowlands for Mumia Abu-Jamal, who, in front of numerous witnesses, murdered Philadelphia policeman Daniel Faulkner in 1981.
From their lyrics — e.g., “For wearing a badge, they’re the chosen whites” — one did not know if they supported Abu-Jamal because they think he didn’t do it or because they think he did.
One album cover consisted of the famous photograph of a Buddhist monk immolating himself. Another release featured a picture of various books, including Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, and Huey Newton’s Revolutionary Suicide.
One surmised from all this that the members of the band had never read Tom Wolfe on “radical chic.”
The red stars on T-shirts, the video of expressionless Hispanics making clothing that parodied the Gap’s advertising campaign, and the phony stunt in which they shut down the New York Stock Exchange — only they didn’t — was all integral to the band’s marketing. Tom Morello plays guitar well, and the rhythm section sounds, in a good way, exactly how Beavis and Butt-head would want it. But Rage Against the Machine’s real legacy transcends music into marketing. The group showed corporate America how to make millions by posing as anti-corporate.
Starbucks, Apple, and other massive corporations tried to work this con for many years. But they did not succeed in duping the market as thoroughly as RATM did their audience. Bombas — “Everyday Goods That Do Good” — donating an item for every item purchased disguised capitalism as charity to great bottom-line success. Silicon Valley Bank’s bankruptcy shows the downside of a business buying in internally to the external propaganda that it represents something more noble than a crass, moneymaking venture.
As individuals became more politicized, they wanted their consumerism to reflect their ideology. Anti-capitalists participating in the capitalist system wanted Karl Marx’s imprimatur for their sins. The musical marketing geniuses of Rage Against the Machine understood all this before Corporate America did.
Charles Baudelaire informed that “the devil’s best ruse is to persuade that he does not exist.” Corporations, whether disguised as rock bands or social causes, play this trick, too.
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