Ignoring the Politics of Music Isn't Just a Blind Spot—It's a Privilege

A fan's public revelation about Rage Against the Machine's activist stance reveals the puzzling ways people tune out the obvious.
June 11, 2020, 9:09pm

In 1999, Washington Post music writer Richard Harrington asked Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello whether he thought any of the band's fans could be "oblivious" to the political content of their music. "It's not very well hidden," Morello said. "It's on every Rage T-shirt, on every backdrop, in every song and every video, on the front of the amplifiers. I don't think you can get with Rage Against the Machine without at least being aware of what it's about."

It seemed preposterous that anyone could have overlooked the band's message(s) then, or that they could've even ignored the cover of their debut album, which featured Malcolm Browne's still-shocking photograph of Thích Quảng Đức, the Buddhist monk who sat cross-legged on a cushion in a Saigon intersection and lit himself on fire to protest the government's treatment of Buddhists.

It's equally hard to imagine someone listening to literally any song on the three records that Rage had released at the time and missing the lyrics about racial inequality and class warfare ("Now I'm rolling down Rodeo with a shotgun / These people ain’t seen a brown skin man since their grandparents bought one") about political hypocrisy ("They rally round the family with a pocketful of shells") or about white supremacy's prevalence in law enforcement (every word of "Killing in the Name.")

And more than 28 years after Rage laced their boots, clenched their fists, and released their first 52 minutes of righteous fury, it's bonkers to imagine that a dude like Scott Castaneda exists. Earlier this week, the Michigan man logged into his Twitter account and sent 260 unfortunate characters to Morello. "I use [sic] to be a fan until your political opinions come out," he wrote. "Music is my sanctuary and the last thing I want to hear is political bs when I’m listening to music. As far as I’m concerned you and Pink are completely done. Keep running your mouth and ruining your fan base."

First, Scott, we're sorry to hear that you've been cryogenically frozen for the better part of the 21st century, but congrats on finally being defrosted. But the larger question here is how can anyone become a so-called Rage fan without noticing the "political opinions"? That's like writing a letter to Count Dracula to tell him that you appreciate the architecture of his castle, but have recently discovered a few problems with his dietary habits. And finally, having a go at Tom Morello has been a bad idea since about 1968. "Scott!!! What music of mine were you a fan of that DIDN’T contain ‘political BS’? I need to know so I can delete it from the catalogue," Morello responded.

Other Twitter users enthusiastically ratio-ed Castaneda to the earth's core and back. (He has since deleted his account.) "I do miss RATM music when it was all about partying, highschool crushes and candies," one person wrote. "I liked Sesame Street until they started introducing so many 'numbers' and 'letters' into their music," another added.

"It's one of those things where, can we just listen to music and just enjoy life? EDM, techno, rock, I get all kinds of different stuff, and that's my safe haven," Castaneda told the Detroit Metro Times. "I don't want to listen to political stuff. And once someone taints that for me, it just kills the mood." (He added that he knew the band had "always been political," but "it's getting worse and worse." Never mind that lately, _everythin_g feels like it's getting worse and worse.)

A willingness to uncompromisingly challenge the establishment is right there in RATM's band name, and it's been a part of the band's ethos since before there even was a band. After the members of Morello's early-90s band Lock Up went their assorted ways, he took out an ad in a SoCal music weekly to try to find a "politically radical front-man" for his "hip-hop, hard rock, punk rock" band. ("I didn't get too many calls," he told the Hartford Courant in 1997—but he did eventually connect with rapper and lyricist Zack de la Rocha, who ticked all of those boxes, and more.)

Ignoring Rage's unyielding activism and the political causes they've championed isn't even reading Playboy for the articles; it's peeling the address label from the magazine's front page, tearing out a DirecTV ad, and throwing the rest into the bin. There's even an entire Wikipedia page called "Political views and activism of Rage Against the Machine," which covers everything from their support of Mexico's Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) to their feedback-soaked, all-nude anti-censorship demonstration, with brief stops to mention how they were asked to leave the Saturday Night Live set after hanging upside-down American flags from their amps.

The band's politics have also been a central focus of almost every piece written about them for the past two decades-plus. For example:

"Asked what he thinks of the Russian Revolution today, Morello notes that today is the 4th of July, and ties the original hopes of the Russian Revolution to those of America's Revolutionary War. He brings it up to the present, observing 'There's a permanent culture of resistance here in Russia, and I feel pretty comfortable with that,' before cautioning Russians fleeing the authoritarian past not to adopt the moden excesses of the West. 'I would warn all your listeners to closely watch Boris Yeltsin and his masters on Wall Street,' he finishes."

–– "The World's Most Dangerous Band," Spin, October 1996

"Indeed, de la Rocha will not rock without a mission: 'That’s why I’m in this band—to give space and volume to various struggles throughout the country and the world. To me, the tension that exists in this band, and its effect on me, is a minimal sacrifice.' Without the politics, he contends, 'I would not be in this band. And that’s the honest truth.' [...] On his first trip [to Mexico] in the spring of 1995, de la Rocha joined a team of observers from Mexico City monitoring talks between the Zapatista army and Mexican government officials. At one point, de la Rocha’s group formed a protective human chain around the building where the negotiations took place—'to make sure,' he says, 'that if there was any attempt on the Zapatistas’ lives, we would be there.'"

–– "The Battle of Rage Against the Machine," Rolling Stone, November 1999

"The band's activism has many faces. In May, for instance, a conservatively dressed de la Rocha addressed the International Commission on Human Rights of the United Nations on the [Mumia] Abu-Jamal case as well as the racially disproportionate application of the death penalty in the United States. The band's album liner notes and website offer socialist and generally left-leaning reading lists, news updates and links with such organizations as Rock for Choice, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Refuse and Resist, and the defense committees for [Leonard] Peltier and Abu-Jamal. And, Morello points out, those are real Los Angeles sweatshop workers in the band's new video for "Guerrilla Radio," already one of MTV's most requested."

–– "Rage Before Beauty," Washington Post, November 1999

"Rage have entered the political fray most prominently in the U.S. with their support of Abu-Jamal, the former NPR essayist and Black Panther sentenced to death in a much-disputed 1982 conviction [...] The Fraternal Order of Police, a right-wing group based in Nashville, called for NBC to cancel Rage’s appearance on Late Night With Conan O’Brien and placed Rage on a “hit list” of celebrities it opposes (from Michael Stipe to Bishop Desmond Tutu). Says FOP National President Gilbert Gallegos: 'This is a mediocre band, at best, whose real talent is marketing an anti-everything image. We should not have to sit idly by and allow a murderer to be celebrated.'"

–– "Enemies of the State: Rage Against the Machine Strike Back," Spin, March 2000

"What we've done so far is nowhere near enough for what a band like Rage Against the Machine could be doing,'' [Morello] said. 'While Leonard Peltier is in jail, we have not done enough. While the system of wage slavery is in place, we have not done enough. I don't put any cap on what it is that we can or should be doing in the weeks and months and years to come.''

–– "A Rock Machine with Creaks," New York Times, December 2000

As entertaining as it is to dunk on one Twitter user for being casually oblivious, it's also worth noting what a privilege it is for all of those lyrics and that imagery to mean nothing to you. If you can disregard or critique the politics in Rage Against the Machine's music, then it means that these particular injustices haven't affected you in any meaningful way. It's a privilege to have a "safe haven" where you can squeeze your Airpods into your auditory canals and block out the ongoing calls for racial equality, the protests against police brutality, or the other literal cries for help from marginalized communities that have been amplified by bands like Rage.

Listening to nothing but the kind of bland pop that helps you ignore any problem bigger than, like, a clogged downspout or a dead bird in the back garden doesn't make these problems go away any more than covering your own eyes makes you invisible. And to anyone out there wringing their hands over the realities of Rage's politics, if song lyrics make you uncomfortable, that's a pretty good sign that you should turn that track up instead of skipping it.