published: 23 /
In the latest in his regular Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll column Ben Howarth questions the thought behind reformed political rockers Rage Against the Machine's recent attempt to shut down the stock exchange by playing an uninvited concert
In 'Uncut', Kele from Bloc Party derided Oasis as making stupidity fashionable. Not only was he picking an easy target, he was picking the wrong one. In a cultural climate where all you have to do to raise a cheer is make a cheap jibe at President Bush, there are far too many ‘political’ bands getting off lightly. The father figure for these bands is Rage Against The Machine, who, sensing that the Bush-baiting Green Day won’t be on the arena circuit this summer, have decided to cash in on the ‘reformation’ trail.
When I was 13 or 14, I sung in the choir at a school concert. My parents came to watch, as you would expect, and so did some of the parents of the other students. Many regretted missing England play Italy in a European Qualifier, but were less upset when they found that Gianfranco Zola had scored the only goal of the game to give Italy the vital points. And yet, most of the evening was pleasant, if far from inspired, as we regaled our folks with traditional classical music. Yet, out of left field, the ‘bill’ included the school’s resident metal band. The parents hated it, and so did most of the kids. It may have been a radical choice by the school to acknowledge a bit of diversity in its ranks, but it was a far from satisfying experience. If we learnt anything at all, it was that while a small amount of people do inexplicably like metal, most don’t.
By contrast, it wasn’t at all radical to like Oasis. At least a quarter of my class counted them as their favourite band in 1996, and most of the rest had still bought the album. Our form tutor was also known to be fan. Listening to Oasis wasn’t a ‘statement’, it was a choice. A harmless, uncontroversial and popular choice, yes, but a satisfying one. You didn’t get weird looks in the street or in school concerts as an Oasis fan, but you didn’t subject your parents who were trying to watch a school concert or trying to watch TV downstairs to anything too unpleasant either.
It isn’t only at school where people try and force their music on people who don’t want it, and don’t need it. Some bands feel it is a responsibility, even a right. When Rage Against The Machine decided to close down the stock exchange by staging a gig uninvited, they clearly felt that they were using their music to make a worthwhile point. But they weren’t. All they did was shove an uncompromising sound into an environment where it wasn’t appropriate, where people couldn’t choose to ignore them, where people had never asked for their opinion and almost certainly wouldn’t respect the credentials upon which their ‘political commentator/activist’ status was formed.
Of course, there are times when political statements can make for outstanding music. The wave of joy captured by Neil Hannon on his song 'Sunrise', written about the Good Friday agreement, (worth digging out again now that a stable peace in Northern Ireland finally seems secure) makes for both a brilliant song and a worthwhile contribution from an artist to the tone of his times. Hannon forms part of a noble tradition. Bob Dylan gave a generation gasping for a political voice a song they could sing, which the governing generation of politicians who had been young before or during the Second World War could never have matched. Punk’s political voice 14 years later - was grumpier, less sensitive and generally inarticulate - but it still provides documentary evidence of the difference between a government who saw the country through the eyes of party activists and the unions, and the real experience of a working class whose ‘work’ left them demoralised and alienated.
But Rage Against the Machine - who, if you like that kind of thing, (I used to, but not any more) may be musically very potent - provide none of this. Their defining statement goes, “Fuck You, I Won’t Do What You Tell Me”. Shutting down the stock exchange might rally a fanbase impressed by ‘shocking’ slogans and bold gestures, but it made no contribution to intelligent political thinking, even on the margins. Yes, they also do charity work, but so do Girls Aloud, and it doesn’t make their music any good, or make their opinions (“all politicians are liars”) informed or valid. By being so blunt, so tasteless and so bloody stupid, Rage Against the Machine ensure that their ‘message’ is heard and appreciated only by those who are already inclined against 'conformity'. Something comes to mind here involving preachers, empty churches and choirs….
Oasis, on the other hand, have actively shunned political involvement. But their music is enjoyable to a broad base of the population, great swathes of which regularly come together to sing along to songs that might not ‘mean’ much, but still grabs the attentions of people from all classes, from all parts of the country. Among anyone of my age, it is invariably swirled up in our memories of our childhood summers. Music is not a matter of life and death, and it very rarely impacts on the actions of the government. Yet, whoever wins the next election, whatever the poverty rate is, however many people are in prison or fighting wars in far away continents, the music we like will never go away. And that’s a more comforting thought to me than the idea that music is just a medium through which to tell people how to behave, which (ironically) is precisely what Rage Against The Machine intend to do with their reformation. Both Rage Against the Machine and Oasis get their huge crowds to come together as one, which is why they have both been so successful, and it might be argued that you have to be a bit stupid, or at least a bit simple, to do this. But at least Oasis aren’t sinister…