“The Tom Morello” Can’t Save Us All & Maybe Music Itself Is The Savage Beast
I wasn’t born with perfect politics and I certainly don’t presume to embody 0r espouse them even today. I’m fucked up – I’ll be the first to admit it. I’m full of ego. I’m a sometimes patriarch. My own racism is a constant struggle and, despite my awareness of it, white supremacy manifests itself in ways I don’t even know are possible. I only recently even learned that cissexism exists. I’ve internalized so much nasty, insidious shit it’d probably take more than a lifetime just to identify and catalogue it all, let alone “overcome” or address it.
Academic jargon mingles in my conversations without my own knowledge of its meaning or provenance. I probably mispronounced hegemony for at least a year before I ever read a page of Gramsci. I’ve probably still only read “a page of Gramsci.” I still mispronounce hegemony.
I posture. I preen. I peacock. I like being right. Impressing people is immensely satisfying and affirmation itself can be better than any narcotic. A pat on the back is nice, getting laid is better. My motivations themselves can be less than exemplary: sex, food, shelter – or even merely assuaging my ever-present fear of being alone – have occasionally guided my behavior more concretely than any principles I profess. On the flip side, I often feel like I have even more neuroses than Woody Allen whinging in one of his own films. Like I said, I’m fucked up!
However, I also know there isn’t enough time in the day to read, discuss and begin to understand even a fraction of the historical material I would need in order to inhabit the absolutely perfect distillation of a revolutionary consciousness in one body. And more information is flooding us every day. On top of that, there is also a wealth of what is popularly called lived experience that I can never hope to comprehend. Many experiences are beyond me and always will be. I’ve got limitations and blinders and whatzits galore!
Of course, the leftier-than-thou rhetoric that plagues our impotent, fossilized US left and in which even I currently flail (instead of doing anything) isn’t beneath me, either. I know we’re heading towards ecological catastrophe, if not already deeply immersed in it. I feel the police state encroaching. I’m aware of my own quiet complicity in (ongoing) imperial war crimes. I see gentrification (and death) around the corner and I see its consequent displacement and immiseration. Shit – I participate in it.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I suspect the main reason I haven’t at least pulled a “Nestor Dondoglio” yet is because I’m scared; of pain, of loss, of torture, of long-term incarceration, of death and – maybe most importantly – of how I will respond when faced with situations that involve the threat of any of these aforementioned and frightening (yet all-but inevitable) crises. What if – after all the bluster and “blahging” – it turns out I’m actually a fucking coward?
The empire is a fucking wantonly-murderous juggernaut. Have you seen it lately? It’ll give “terrorism” charges for glittery banner drops! It has made it abundantly clear that it will defend its right to destroy us all by – well – destroying us all in whatever manner it finds most expedient. If you’re anything like me – you, too, may wake up every morning with a small reservoir of revolutionary resolve, only to watch that resolve sadly shrivel and shrink with each passing post in your preferred, social media feed. Let me say clearly: Tom Morello, I get your cynical snarkiness. I do. I’m a master of self-protective scorn, myself. I’ll get back to that later.
Worse than all of my neuroses, however, I’m beginning to think having come of age in the 1990s is going to prove to be my undoing. Forget “the Millennials,” Gen X and Y – we’ve got a lot to atone for ourselves (indulge me the conceit that “generations” even exist as anything other than a category for bloggers to “blahg” about.) If you’re like me, we need to shake free of the fetters that the culture industry put on us in our formative years.
Let me explain.
As a young adolescent, I attended Bill Clinton’s first inaugural. More specifically, I went to America’s Reunion on the Mall; the two-day, multi-stage, MTV-VJ-hyped Hollywood orgy of pseudo-left celebrity backslapping that preceded the inauguration. It was there, in fact, that I first realized how utterly useless popular music can be as a political weapon. In fact, I even learned it can be a distraction. The performance that that stood out to me that blustery January was Salt N’ Pepa, making my pubescence glow with embarrassment with their song, “Let’s Talk About Sex”:
If you remember the Clinton years, outside of the neoliberal-ascendancy-eliding progressive platitudes he spoke, then you might see Salt N’ Pepa’s inaugural performance as I now do: prophetic. We talked a lot about “sex” in the 1990s, but we let that kind of salaciousness distract us from the dismantling of our social safety nets, the full militarization of police, the implementation of racist “broken windows” theory and the broad expansion of the carceral state, the wholesale exaltation and reckless enabling of Wall Street speculation, the seedlings of the now-totalizing “War on Terror” and the absolute squandering of the mythical “peace dividend” the end of the Cold War was supposed to provide for us all.
(ed. I’m not giving the “but really, we need to fight capitalism” speech we all hear so much. I swear. I believe in the Matrix of Domination. I see it everywhere. I know most of it hardly touches me.)
But us? Many of us were lacing up our Doc Martens, buttoning down our flannels and banging our long haired heads to our new mantra: “Nevermind.” Or dishing on the bus about Biggie vs. 2Pac. Or we were watching conscious, empowering hip hop as it was being purposely eclipsed by gratuitous, accumulative “bling.” I put Rage Against the Machine in my Discman instead of raging against the machine. It was – well – cathartic.
To quote Theodor Adorno:
“The so-called releasing element of music is simply the opportunity to feel something. But the actual content of this emotion can only be frustration. Emotional music has become the image of the mother who says, “Come and weep, my child.” It is catharsis for the masses, but catharsis which keeps them all the more firmly in line. One who weeps does not resist any more than one who marches. Music that permits its listeners the confession of their unhappiness reconciles them, by means of this “release,” to their social dependence.”
Sorry, Eddie Vedder – this is not radicalism:
Rage Against the Machine didn’t create the 1999 rupture in Seattle that finally broke many of us free of our dot-commodified hypnosis. They may have been a part of the soundtrack we played when we shut shit down in DC, but The Tom Morello has yet to write a “great song” that:
Nobody has. Because songs don’t stand down the fucking pigs. Or make them flee. We do. Or we could. The fucking culture industry sure as fuck isn’t going to. (I’ll show some shitty, post-occupy “revolutionary” imagery and music videos in Part 2.) Raising consciousness is one thing, but even that can be done fucking terribly, even “counterrevolutionarily”:
Frankly, I don’t think world-destroying “creative destruction” – the likes of which we are increasingly unleashing upon the planet and particularly upon our comrades in the so-called “third world” – can continue to suffer while we in the belly of the beast slowly and methodically deploy Rudi Dutschke’s reformulation of the Gramscian ‘war of position’: the “long march through the institutions” that was afforded to baby boomers, many of whom traded their music-fueled personal rebellions into shares of Apple, AOL and Microsoft. And that, of course, makes total sense. But fuck that!
Where’s the goddamned sense of urgency? Or creativity? Are we wasting it on tweets? Or theses? Or blogs? Or song lyrics? Or endless unspoken resentment? Or spoken resentment? Are we already among the dead? Do we need to occupy something again? Do we need to shake the cobwebs off and throw ourselves at the machine again, before we forget how and accept the slow descent into our domesticity unto death?
The old models are old, y’all. Can’t we try something fucking new instead? Or, if we’re bent on “music”, can’t we just DIY the shit – instead of going through bullshit channels like a heavily-concentrated music industry hellbent on commodifying everything while simultaneously anesthetizing us? You are not the special snowflake who will survive the machine. It’s not 1968. As Tool, perhaps themselves paraphrasing Adorno, once said:
All you know about me is what I’ve sold you,
I sold out long before you ever heard my name.
I sold my soul to make a record,
And you bought one.
Let’s talk. Better yet – let’s organize!