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What the Hell Did Right-Wingers Think Rage Against the Machine Was Singing About?

After the band made a statement against forced birth at a recent show, conservatives shrieked that the band should stay out of politics. But bro, have you ever heard a RATM song?

There are plenty of songs where the meaning and intent aren’t entirely obvious. You’d be forgiven if you didn’t notice that “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind is about doing meth, or that “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba is an anarcho-communist anthem. Rage Against the Machine, on the other hand, puts it all out on the table. The main chorus of one of their biggest songs is literally “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses.” And if you tuned in a little closer to any of singer Zack de la Rocha’s verses, you’d hear blistering critiques of the military-industrial complex, the oil industry and white supremacy — among nearly every other anti-capitalist, anti-fascist talking point.

So, how is that, more than 30 years since the band rose to prominence, people on the right are now claiming that the band has gone “woke” and ought to “stay out of politics”?

This whole dynamic is currently festering within the hell that is the Facebook comments on a Pitchfork article about the band’s show last weekend — their first in 11 years. At some point during the concert, they condemned the overturning of Roe v. Wade. “Forced birth in a country that is the only wealthy country in the world without any guaranteed paid parental leave at the national level,” a giant screen behind the band read. “Forced birth in a country where Black birth-givers experience maternal mortality two to three times higher than that of white birth-givers. Forced birth in a country where gun violence is the number one cause of death among children and teenagers. Abort the Supreme Court.”

Obviously, this triggered some people online. “You should go back to entertaining and get out of politics,” one person commented. “You do know that has nothing to do with the Constitution, that it’s up to the states like it should be. Try to get educated. The Supreme Court is supposed to rule on things constitutionally, not about your little feelings.” 

This rhetoric has been thrown at Rage for years. Cases of people discovering that Rage is political go viral almost annually. In 2020, someone tweeted at guitarist Tom Morello saying, “Music is my sanctuary and the last thing I want to hear is political BS when I’m listening to music,” to which Morello replied asking which of Rage’s non-political songs he was referring to, so that he could remove them from their catalog. 

At this point, it’s not even funny that people still reveal themselves as the type of person to publicly complain about a band that they know nothing about. It shouldn’t even need to be explained that Rage has always been political. And not that it matters, but Morello has a political science degree from Harvard; undoubtedly, he is educated on the mechanics of the U.S. government. 

But therein lies some of the controversy: For many of those angry about Rage’s statement, institutions like Harvard and left-leaning causes like abortion rights are indicative of the “machine” they believe should be raged against. “They used to fight the machine, and now they shill for the machine,” Mindy Robinson, a conservative journalist wrote on Facebook. “They are on their knees for The Machine, now. Some revolution,” another commenter said.

Of course, the “machine” these detractors believe Rage is now in favor of is entirely ideological, and they see wokeism as the dominant political force, despite the fact that policy decisions like the overturning of Roe v. Wade prove otherwise. 

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of fair critiques you can throw Rage’s way. For example, the cheapest tickets on their current tour are $125. That’s not very comrade-of-the-working-class of them. (That said, they did announce they’d be donating $500,000 of concert profits from two recent shows to reproductive rights.) 

Regardless, Rage has never changed their stance, and they haven’t even put out a new album in 22 years to share new views on. So making a big show of talking about forced birth, Black maternal mortality and gun violence is extremely on brand for them. Again, if you take a look at their lyrics from the 1990s, these statements would fit right in. This isn’t a case of a band going “woke” — whatever the hell that means. It’s just another example of people who have no clue what the hell they’re listening to intermixed with the painful messiness of our current political climate. 

It’s now more clear than ever that it doesn’t matter which side you’re on, or even what you’re actually saying — your opponent thinks you’re in support of the machine. But in this political hellscape we are all forced to navigate, rest assured there are two constants: Rage Against The Machine is a political band, and people commenting on Facebook aren’t paying attention.