"Killing In The Name" rages against all the machines [February 21, 1993]
Plus: Take That, Michael Jackson, and Saint Etienne
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋
It’s February 21, 1993 again
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is still “No Limit” by 2 Unlimited, but this week we’re discussing…
This week’s Number 27: “Killing In The Name”—Rage Against The Machine
A few years back, an irate Rage Against The Machine fan decided that he was sick of the band’s left-wing politics. He sent a tweet to Rage guitarist Tom Morello, saying that music was his safe haven and that he just wanted to enjoy the tunes “without all the political B.S.”
Tom Morello replied:
“Conservatives discovering their favourite artists are lefties” is usually one of the most entertaining events on social media. Every now and then, Fox News will an run outraged features about how Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA” is not actually a celebration of Reganite aspiration, but a very anti-American protest song. This prompts a flurry of pearl-clutching on the right and piss-taking on the left. Everybody has a good time.
Rage Against The Machine have gone through this process more than once. Right-wing frat bros who grew up moshing to “Bullet In The Head” are horrified—simply horrified—to discover that their beloved Rage are not an awesome party band, but are in fact literal communists. Even worse than that, they are woke.
And so these bros go online. They complain about woke politics. Tom Morello slams them. Twitter makes jokes and memes, and we all feel a bit superior because we understand the lyrics.
I wonder though.
Personally, I’ve never been a huge RATM fan. Respect ‘em, but they’re not for me. However, like most men of my age and disposition, I have never been able to resist a “Killing In The Name” moshpit.
Everybody gets in the moshpit for “Killing In The Name”, because everyone wants to be there for the climax, for the moment where the beat drops and you leap into the air and scream with all your might:
“Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me”
In those moments, was I politically conscious? Was anyone in the moshpit? Were we listening to “Killing In The Name” the right way? Or are we just enjoying the music without all the political B.S?
Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me
Just to be clear, there is no separating Rage Against The Machine from their politics. Politics is their whole thing.
The band themselves come from impressive left-wing backgrounds. Zack de la Rocha’s father was a pioneering Chicano artist and activist who fought hard for indigenous rights. Tom Morello’s dad literally stood up to colonialism, having taken up arms in the Mau Mau uprising, which was an attempt to eject the British from Kenya.
Rage’s debut album is bursting with political invective—even the sleeve notes include Thank You’s for Huey P. Newton and Bobby Sands. The sleeve also includes lyrics for the most of the tracks, although the original pressing omitted the lyrics for the second song. The reason for this is that it barely has any lyrics, just a few repeated lines, a lot of “fuck you”s, and a single “motherfucker”.
(Fun fact: “Killing In The Name” contains fewer unique words than 2 Unlimited’s “No Limit”.)
However, while these lyrics are sparse, there’s no ambiguity. The song was written in the wake of the Rodney King trial, and the message here is: cops are racist, and it is our duty resist them.
Rage were not remotely the first people to make this statement. Hip-hop had given us controversial classics like Ice T’s “Cop Killer” and NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police”, while punk bands wrote so many anti-cop songs that it was almost a cliché. Texas punk band The Dicks have a track called “Anti-Klan” with the line, “I see that you're a policeman / I know you're in the Ku Klux Klan”, which is basically the same thing as “Some of those who were enforcers / Were the same that burnt crosses”.
RATM are about as political as it gets. The only difference is that the 90s alternative scene elevated them to the status of rock gods. Rage Against The Machine appeared in November 1992; by summer of 1993, they were playing Lollapallooza’s main stage, absolutely destroying the pit with “Killing In The Name”.
The band were now big-time, but they never compromised their politics or softened themselves for the mainstream.
Unfortunately, the mainstream didn’t care.
Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me
“Killing In The Name” has shown up in some bizarre places over the past 30 years.
Quite recently, a bunch of Canadian radio DJs decided to have an Airheads-style protest against their station rebranding. They seized control of the booth and played “Killing In The Name” on a loop for 10 hours. Occasionally, they would stop and ask the audience to phone in with requests, on the condition that you requested “Killing In The Name”.
In 2009, a viral Facebook campaign set out to challenge The X Factor’s stranglehold on the Christmas Number One spot. After much shenanigans, “Killing In The Name” ended up as the festive chart-topper, while poor wee Joe McElderry had to settle for second place.
Less amusingly, “Killing In The Name” was one of the songs used to torture prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Soldiers pumped loud rock music into the cell, which kept the inmates in a sleep-deprived state.
Some nasty folk have also adopted the song. Tom Morello issued a public slap-down to Ukip in 2012 after they played it to introduce Nigel Farage. Not only did Nigel ignore the rebuke, he later started a podcast called Farage Against The Machine.
Trump’s people also liked the song, of course. In 2020, there was a viral video of gammons in MAGA hats and Blue Lives Matter t-shirts, all of them singing this song while trying to stop the election count.
Tom Morello once again tweeted to say that these people are morons. Defending this song seems to be his new full-time job.
Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me
“Killing In The Name” has a fundamental problem—it’s too simple.
“Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” is a great lyric, but it applies to almost any situation. You can scream it as you fight colonialism or stand up to racist cops. You can also scream it at your mum when she asks you to tidy your room.
It taps into a universal feeling, the sense that there’s an authority trying to crush you and hold you down. And this is sometimes a real feeling—oppression does exist! But human beings also have a magical ability to feel oppressed, even when we’re not oppressed.
Trump, Farage, and the other populists have tapped into this emotion, and convinced lots of people that they’re being stomped to death by authoritarians. They urge their crowds to rage against the machine, with “the machine” being anyone who makes them feel uncomfortable.
“Killing In The Name” makes perfect sense to this audience, because it is a song about resisting authority and they believe that the most powerful authority are woke left-wingers. When Tom Morello gets upset, it’s evidence of the sad truth—Rage Against The Machine have been infected with the woke mind virus.
In their minds, they understand the lyrics of “Killing In The Name” better than you, me, or the band themselves. And if you try to argue, they’ll say:
“Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me”
Ultimately, the song is a victim of its own success. It works because it’s so simple, but its simplicity means that anyone can interpret it as they see fit. No matter how much Tom Morello tweets, he’ll never be able to convince people that there’s a correct way to listen to this song.
Ah well. At least he knows how Springsteen felt in the 80s.
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 2 (=): “Why Can’t I Wake Up With You”—Take That
So close! Take That get to Number 2 with this slow jam, but they couldn’t dislodge the 2 Unlimited from the top spot. We’ll have to wait until “Pray” before they get their first chart topper.
Number 6 (New Entry): “Give Into Me”—Michael Jackson
A very good track with some nice guitar licks. However, that title doesn’t sit very well these days.
Number 26 (↓ from 19): “Ground Level”—Stereo MCs
Stereo MCs were perhaps starting to look like one-trick ponies at this point, with a single that’s kind of like “Connected” and kind of like “Step It Up”.
“Ground Level” is actually very good in fairness, with some nice acid jazz tones. But the act is starting to wear a little thin now.
Number 31 (New Entry): “Reminisce”—Mary J. Blige
I am incapable of saying the name Mary J Blige in anything other than Bill Hader’s voice, which is a sickness and I am deeply ashamed.
Anyway, this is MJB’s first UK hit and it is a cracker. As we discuss 1993, we’ll probably keep returning to the theme of how so many British divas were pushed into doing very bland, mainstream ballads. This is exactly the thing they should have been doing: fun, sexy, smart, and inventive.
Number 35 (New Entry): “Walk”—Pantera
A true story from my life:
Recently, I was driving with my niece and we were taking turns picking songs on Spotify. She picked some Gen Z TikTok thing and said, “we might need to turn this down. It could be too loud for you.”
You should have seen my jaw clench. As soon as her song finished—which wasn’t even that loud by the way—I cranked the volume to 100 and yelled, “Hey Siri, play Walk by Pantera.”
Spent the rest of the day lying down with a terrible headache. My ears still hurt a bit. Old age is a terrible thing.
Album of the Week
So Tough—Saint Etienne
Saint Etienne make more sense as a band once you’ve read Bob Stanley’s books about music.
Stanely is an ex-NME hack, but he’s recently published two massive volumes on music history, Yeah Yeah Yeah and Let’s Do It, which document the entire story of pop from the 1890s to the present day. He is someone who loves music as a concept and sees every record as a tile in a much bigger mosaic.
And that’s kind of what a Saint Etienne record feels like. You’re constantly bouncing around between genres, rushing from the 80s drum loops of “Leafhound” to the heartwrenching piano ballad that is “Hobart Paving”:
Saint Etienne’s debut, Foxbase Alpha, felt like a science experiment for this precise reason. So Tough is a lot more grounded, mainly due to the presence of Sarah Cracknell, who is now a permanent band member. Her sweet cooing gives a weight to songs like “Avenue”, that might otherwise float into space:
So Tough is ostensibly a concept album about going for a stroll in London, with regular samples from London-centric movies like Billy Liar. In hindsight, that gives the record an overwhelmingly Britpop feel, especially on the album’s most straightforward single, “You’re In A Bad Way”.
Is this the first true Britpop album then? Or one of the genre’s foundational texts? Who’s to say, but there are definitely the seeds of something here.
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Your Rage piece will be all the rage in 30 years when everyone realizes you are Nostradamus. But seriously, excellent examination of how the right will always co-opt the left-leaning artist’s songs no matter if they are subtle or obvious. Or something like that. Speaking of that, I am so grateful that Take That has no memorical connection in my brain. I am guessing they didn’t have the same success in the states as in the UK. Why can’t the Trumpian right wingers co-opt their songs?
True story from my life:
My senior year, we all pile in the car to go see RATM...open for House of Pain. It's like something out of a bad movie. A couple of my friends shaved their heads like Everlast, and we do a last minute detour to pick up a buddy walking out of his job because A: this show, and B: the manager thought a pre-shift sing-along would be a good idea.
At any rate, RATM opens, and proceed to tear the roof off. To be fair, even then De la Rocha got a bit of shit for going on a long-winded rant about Leonard Peltier. I think that was down more to people wanting to keep rocking out than anything else.
A rumor also swept the crowd that Cypress Hill was in the house and might play at some point. There was enough weed wafting through the air for this to all make sense. Dunno if they were there or not, but they never took the stage.
It all wound up being a textbook case of the opener upstaging the headliner. House of Pain put on a solid show but the drop in energy between sets was pretty significant.
P.S. 100 is the only acceptable volume for "Walk."