Tuesday, January 10, 2012

"Killing in the Name" - Rage Against the Machine

Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!

As posted to the official Rage Against the Machine website, these are the final lines of "Killing in the Name," Rage's blistering anti-racism rant. Not very promising anthem material, you might think. But this prime cut from their first, eponymously-titled album (1992) has grown in stature over the years. It became a centerpiece of Rage's incendiary live performances (see Pinkpop, below), then -- and out of the blue -- the subject of an Internet campaign in 2009, which chose it to stand as the most seminal opposition imaginable to Simon Cowell and his X-Factor clones. A Facebook campaign attracted over a million supporters, downloads of "Killing in the Name" skyrocketed, and the song triumphed handily as the end-of-year UK number one single, an honor that Cowell had seemed on the verge of claiming in perpetuity.

The name that Rage Against the Machine chose to encapsulate their thundering brand of rap-metal has become a cultural meme in itself, deployed in headlines and on placards whenever human beings are up against (or claim they are up against) an oppressive system. In the Rage worldview, the system is usually faceless, except for its armored "security" agents -- "those who work forces", in the first lines of the song. Some of these are "the same that burn crosses" -- the racist foot-soldiers of the Ku Klux Klan. And their racism sanctifies their thuggery, buttressing the racist system in turn: that, at least, is how I read "Those who died are justified, for wearing the badge, they're the chosen whites." It's a regular theme in Rage's songs: think of the indelible goons of "Bulls on Parade", from Rage's second album (Evil Empire, 1996), and their frequent live renderings of NWA's "Fuck Tha Police".

The anthemic potential of "Killing in the Name", for our purposes, may lie in successive, hypnotic repetitions of the song's key chants:

Some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses

-- particularly helpful when you're up against the billy-clubs and pepper spray;

And now you do what they told ya (Now you're under control)

-- chanted in counterpoint perhaps; and most essentially, of course, the cathartic finale:

Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!
Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!
Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!
Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!
Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!

-- shouted in anger or good humor or a combination thereof, and repeated until the cows come home, or the revolution wins. While anti-racist demonstrations might seem an most obvious context for the song, I feel that with a little theatrical imagination and crowd participation, its anthemic appeal is considerably wider.

Here's the original version of "Killing in the Name" as it appeared on Rage Against the Machine (1992):

Here's a definitive live version, from the 1993 Pinkpop Festival in the Netherlands:

Other Resources

Original version of "Killing in the Name" on Rage Against the Machine (1992), track 2.

Full lyrics from the official RATM site.

Wikipedia page for "Killing in the Name."

The original video for the song:

The complete and uncensored BBC performance of "Killing in the Name," following the crushing of X-Factor pap: 

"The Lyrics of Rage Against the Machine: A Study in Radical Criminology?", Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture (2002). (Yes, really.)

"Top Twenty Political Songs: Killing in the Name" (New Statesman, 2010).

Lively fan debate over the song's meaning.

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