How Rage Against the Machine Were Embraced by All Political Sides — and May Have Lost Their Sting in the Process
The band, and particularly the song "Killing in the Name," has been embraced by right-wing groups and anti-mask protesters
Adamson BBQ owner Adam Skelly seems to be enjoying this. He was head nodding to Rage Against the Machine and grinning ear to ear as bylaw officers walked in (he's in blue and black plaid). Then told media to get off his property. #covid19ontario pic.twitter.com/D2Dgw9NgRU— Kamil Karamali (@KamilKaramali) November 24, 2020
This is just the latest in a string of incidents in which Rage Against the Machine — a famously left-leaning band with socialist iconography — have been used to soundtrack political protests that seemingly go against the core tenants the band stand for.
It's easy to see how Rage's music has been misinterpreted, since a surface reading of their message really just boils down to one thing: defying authority. The closing refrain of "Killing in the Name" features the phrase "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me" repeated 16 times by singer Zack de la Rocha — wonderfully cathartic, but not very nuanced. If you're the kind of QAnon conspiracy theorist who rants about the "deep state," or a coronavirus truther who thinks masks and lockdowns are imposed by politicians to control the public, it's easy to see the appeal of these simple messages of defiance.
Maybe RATM have always appealed to the right wing, but this counterintuitive trend hit the mainstream in 2012, when U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan — then running as the Republican Party's Vice Presidential candidate — cited them as one of his favourite bands. In a scathing op-ed for Rolling Stone, RATM guitarist Tom Morello called Ryan the "embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades."
My thoughts on Paul Ryan's love of Rage Against the Machine: http://t.co/c6Oizkch— Tom Morello (@tmorello) August 17, 2012
That same year, Brexit leader Nigel Farage used "Killing in the Name" at events for his UK Independence Party. Morello condemned the usage and called the party's anti-immigration rallies "racist." (In 2018, RATM sent Farage a cease-and-desist over the name of his new podcast, Farage Against the Machine.)
Hey UKIP & Nigel Farage: Stop using "KILLING IN THE NAME" for ur racist/rightwing rallies. We are against everything u stand for. STOP. IT.— Tom Morello (@tmorello) September 21, 2012
Maybe that should have ended the right wing's love of Rage, but it didn't, and the group have continued to emerge as a favourite on all political sides. In July 2019, the podcast Steel Truth analyzed RATM's 1994 song "Year of tha Boomerang" through the lens of QAnon conspiracy theories; although the episode has since been taken down from YouTube, host Ann Vandersteel reportedly claimed that the line "Enslaved by dogma, talk about my birthrights" was about Barack Obama's citizenship (referencing the widely debunked "birther" movement).
A year later, in June of 2020, Twitter user @scott_castaneda (who has since deleted their account) complained about Morello espousing "political BS" in interviews. Morello satisfyingly roasted the former fan.
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 catalog. https://t.co/AMpmjx6540— Tom Morello (@tmorello) June 9, 2020
And maybe most absurdly of all, on November 6, as Trump intensified unfounded claims of election fraud, video captured in Philadelphia showed two MAGA supporters dancing to "Killing in the Name." In a particularly ironic twist, one of them wore the pro-police "Thin Blue Line" American flag as a cape, dancing along with a song explicitly about police corruption and brutality. Morello again weighed in, simply tweeting, "Not exactly what we had in mind."
Not exactly what we had in mind https://t.co/RydKGCk9RA— Tom Morello (@tmorello) November 7, 2020
Who exactly Rage's titular "Machine" is mostly boils to individual bias. For many listeners, these songs are simply about government control in all of its forms — and in that sense, the listeners aren't totally wrong. Consider some of the band's most famous and quotable slogans: "Wake Up," "Take the Power Back," "Sleep Now in the Fire." They resonate with anyone who believes politicians can't be trusted and society ought to wake up to brainwashing; who exactly is doing the brainwashing, and to what ends, is up for interpretation. RATM were once outspokenly opposed to Bill Clinton, so there's a warped, wonky logic to the way they have now been embraced by members of the "lock her up" anti-Hillary crowd.
In the 29 years since RATM formed, the political spectrum has shifted around them, and some of their leftist messages now resonate with members of very a different crowd. In particular, their libertarian bent used to align them with far-left anarchists who opposed big business and warmongering governments; in more recent years, however, North American libertarianism has increasingly become synonymous with free-market capitalism, gun rights, opposition to political correctness, the dismantling of welfare programs and, most recently, anti-mask activism.
So never mind that RATM used communist imagery, called Fox News "fascist motherfuckers" and protested Arizona's strict immigration laws — their music will continue to be appropriated by anyone and everyone, regardless of political affiliation. But after seeing those MAGA diehards dancing to "Killing in the Name," it's hard to imagine chanting along with "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me" with quite the same conviction ever again.