As Rage Against the Machine’s Evil Empire turns 25, Caemeron Crain looks back at how the album affected him as a youth, how it strikes him now, and the moments in between. All views expressed herein are his and his alone, and not to be attributed to 25YL.
Although their second album, Evil Empire, was released on April 16, it wasn’t until the summer of 1996 that I first heard Rage Against the Machine. Fifteen-year-old me was attending a writing camp at a mid-Ohio college, and my compatriots and I were staying in the dorm. Not that I’d known any of them prior to this shared experience, but outside of the various workshops and other planned activities, we spent a good amount of time together. Among other things, this included hours sitting in the main room of the dormitory on the ground floor, which housed the only TV to which we had access. Evil Empire’s “Bulls on Parade” was on full rotation on MTV that summer, along with Fugees “Killing Me Softly with His Song“—they still showed primarily music videos at that point—and Comedy Central was airing a lot of reruns of The Kids in the Hall.
I didn’t much care for Rage at first, perhaps due to “Bulls on Parade” being the song I heard over and over again at the beginning. It struck me as overly repetitive (as if “They rally round the family with a pocket full of shells” were the only line in the song), and I think I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the style.
When I finally gave Evil Empire a proper listen, however, my opinion changed pretty quickly, and I think it would be fair to say that the experience of this album (along with Rage’s 1992 self-titled debut) aligned with a certain political awakening on my part—an awakening to politics, I mean.
Suddenly “Bulls on Parade” hit in a new light—it wasn’t the putative chorus to focus on but the insanely adept verses. Zack de la Rocha spun beautiful poetry out of political outrage. Every line seemed to bear a deep significance, with references carrying me down rabbit holes of research.
Weapons, not food, not homes, not shoes
Not need, just feed the war, cannibal animal
I walk the corner to the rubble, that used to be a library
Line up to the mind cemetery now
What we don’t know keeps the contracts alive and movin’
They don’t gotta burn the books, they just remove ’em
While arms warehouses fill as quick as the cells
Rally ’round the family, pockets full of shells
But this was poetry always laden with anger. The energy of RATM was like a fire that entered through one’s ears and went straight to one’s brain. I wish I had seen them live then. But even in a live performance on a DVD, you could feel the electricity seep through the screen, the wild look in De la Rocha’s eyes matched by the feeling that Tom Morello’s guitar killed fascists far more effectively than Guthrie’s ever could have.
I sat in a band practice room at high school as my friend read lyrics from the album liner notes aloud to others, and while they didn’t seem to get what he was so worked up about, I did, even if our schemes for revolutionary action never went beyond talking about refusing to comply with arbitrary high school orders. We were infused with a rebellious spirit.
This was the mid-1990s and Bill Clinton was President, but our rage came from the Left. We saw a machine of “republicrats” maintaining an established order of American hegemony, exploiting the indigenous and the disenfranchised. “Evil Empire” may have been the nickname that Reagan gave to the USSR, but Rage turned that around and focused it squarely on the U.S. and “the West” at large, with all its history of Eurocentrism and colonialism.
As the 2000 election approached, the video for “Testify” (from The Battle of Los Angeles) featured images of Al Gore and George W. Bush morphing into one another and ended with a line from Ralph Nader. And on Sept. 11, 2001 as I walked about campus as an undergrad, I heard Rage Against the Machine wafting through the air from a boombox, protests already beginning around the student center against the forthcoming wars that were still but a glimmer in W’s eye.
But a strange thing happened over the course of those Bush years—and here you’ll have to forgive me if I blur the line a bit between speaking for myself and for the zeitgeist—but it at least seemed to me that at first, the culture took a hard turn into the kind of “patriotism” that Rage always questioned—an unthinking rallying around the family with a pocket full of shells, ready to lock and load in the name of the Red, White, and Blue. There were paeans to this moment of “national unity” coming from unexpected quarters at times, and those of us who dared to question what came to be known so ungrammatically as the War on Terror seemed few and far between, and at a certain level afraid to speak.
And then, as the years passed and the anti-W sentiment spread more and more, I looked back at that election in 2000 and began to imagine a world where Al Gore had won. Maybe the lesser of two evils wasn’t such a bad way of thinking after all? How much pain, suffering, and death might have been avoided? And would we have actually done something about the phenomenon that Bush rebranded as climate change (on the advice of conservative propagandists)?
In 2007, I finally saw Rage Against the Machine in concert, as the band had reunited to play the Rock the Bells festival on Randall’s Island. It was great, but something felt off. That energy that had veritably burst through the screen when I’d watched my live Rage DVD in the late ‘90s seemed to be missing. Rage had disbanded back in 2000, so this was a reunion show, and it felt like one. All of the greatest hits were there, but it felt like something was missing. I’m not sure if that something was in them, or in me, or if perhaps we were collectively going through the motions, as if this were the letter of the rage but not the spirit.
By the time 2008 came along, it seemed everyone was so hungry for hope and change that we let ourselves feel deeply inspired by a man who campaigned on the words alone. Hope for what, exactly? And what kind of change were we looking for? The more Obama left those questions open, the more he allowed us all to project on him our own political hopes and believe they could be achieved. Perhaps we did not need to rage against the machine? Perhaps we could work within it?
Yet the so-called War on Terror continued. Despite his promises, Guantanamo Bay remained open and operating. Drone strikes became the norm—the war made ever more silent, but no less deadly. And the crowning achievement of the Obama years was a universal health care bill whose central idea stemmed from a conservative think tank.
But I can’t say I wanted to rage against this machine. Indeed, those sentiments of my youth began to feel increasingly quaint, and I don’t know to what extent that related to me getting older and to what extent it was a shift in the culture. But I do believe there is something of the latter to think about.
When we learned that Paul Ryan listened to Rage, were you surprised? I was not. And not because his political views could in any way be seen reflected in RATM’s music—on the contrary. Rather, it was the sense that music could effect change in the world that seemed increasingly undermined. Where were the anti-war anthems in the aughts? Where were the calls for peace, love, and understanding? In the place of any such thing, we voted for John Kerry and listened to Modest Mouse.
And as the internet proliferated and the age of social media was born, it became clearer and clearer that taste in music doesn’t track at all with important judgments about a person’s character or politics. Of course there are people who listen to Rage and don’t get it. A lot of people don’t even listen to lyrics.
But it is more recent events that make listening to Evil Empire now feel far different than it did 25 years ago. Trump stirred up an anti-globalist sentiment that is like the mirror universe version of the anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The latter put forth a universalist humanism in the face of corporate greed, whereas Trumpism stands on the side of such greed in a rejection of human rights in the name of nationalism.
How did Karl Marx put it? First as tragedy, then as farce.
Regardless, it became Trump himself who from the Oval Office raged against the proverbial machine, or at least put forward an image of himself as doing such. But the farce of the Right claiming the mantle of rage isn’t funny; it is rather disquieting. One could well imagine “Wake Up” as the soundtrack to a QAnon video, or Trump ending a rally with “Vietnow”—fear is your only God on the radio, it’s fake news, turn it off—or a talking head involved in such politics favorably quoting RATM’s line about pleading the fifth because you can’t plead the first.
Of course they wouldn’t listen to the rest of “Down Rodeo”—they never pay that kind of attention. Everything about Rage is in the direction of the progressive and the revolutionary, but that doesn’t keep their music from being co-opted by the reactionary. And indeed, we might wonder to what extent this is because it is hard to find a properly anti-establishment Left in 2021. If I imagine “Down Rodeo” being released today, I can almost hear the pearl-clutching at its exaltation of violence and the flood of discourse on Twitter that would surround it.
The forces are out there that would seem to be in line with the politics Rage promoted back in the 1990s—anti-colonialist, multiculturalist, anti-police state—but they have an odd way of being co-opted by the powers that be rather than threatening them. We start out in protest against the police and end up with decals on pro sports jerseys.
I don’t mean to question such things at the level of culture so much as to question the idea that culture can affect the necessary changes in society. In other words, it is no surprise that we see the backlash, the decrying of our woke agenda and claims about “cancel culture.” The very existence of the alt-right belied a feeling among many that subversion stemmed from these quarters—at least some of the antisemitism was “ironic” and related to a desire to buck what was perceived as a prevailing sense of political correctness (not that this makes it any less horrible).
It is no excuse for the racism or the xenophobia, but we ought not to lose sight of the ongoing suffering of the workers of the world, the poor, the indigent, and the downtrodden. The culture war can distract us, and we can risk fighting merely over culture, without ever redressing injustice or making a movement that addresses not just the superstructure but the base of society.
Thus we end up with a choice between the basket of deplorables and a Clinton Democrat again. Instead of raging against the machine at this point, one is rather prone to embrace it as a bulwark in the face of wolves at the door.
But the real battle lines are elsewhere, even as it gets harder to see where they are drawn, and so we perhaps should not get worked up about it if proto-fascists want to listen to Rage as they lift weights. What remains revolutionary about the band is in their art—Zack de la Rocha turning phrases of poetic righteous anger; Tom Morello turning his guitar into an alien instrument that doesn’t simply mimic scratching on a turntable but explores a musicality beyond genre; Tim Bob laying down basslines that move you in your soul; Brad Wilk punctuating the beats with a syncopated snare.
Listening to Evil Empire now, what can’t be denied is how much the album still feels novel after 25 years. It doesn’t hold the answers to the questions of contemporary politics any more than I do, and in some ways feels tied to a worldview that no longer seems to have a place. It’s a relic of its time in one sense and a timeless revolutionary act in another.
But it is in that latter sense that we may continue to find something to seize upon in RATM to apply to our present moment—a push towards the new and different against all of those reactionary forces, whatever political party they brand themselves with, who attempt to stop progress or move it backward. It is not a question of nostalgia but a question of how to repeat the revolutionary act, not in its content but in its form. The critique of the machine leveled by Evil Empire feels as pressing now as it did in 1996, but rage no longer feels like the appropriate response.
Perhaps, then, this has been the story of my political maturation more than of a cultural shift over the past 25 years that makes Rage feel impotent. Perhaps I am merely now old, cynical, and tired, unable to see the hope that lies in the present political moment and caught up in a mere desire for normalcy.
What Evil Empire stirs in me now mostly is nostalgia. Whether for my youth or its time is hard to say. I miss the clarity of that rage against the machine, but find myself connecting now to other tones and other lines on the album:
I wanna be Jackie Onassis
I wanna wear a pair of dark sunglasses
I wanna be Jackie O, oh, oh, oh, please don’t die!