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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

September 7, 2011: All the Rage

Maybe it’s just because the phrase “angry young man” flows so smoothly off the tongue of, well, more mellow older men, but I think that our cultural images of angry and aggressive protest music pigeonhole it very definitely as a feature of youth. Billy Joel might not be the go-to authority for discussions of protest music, but I think his song “Shades of Grey” (1993) captures perfectly an older man’s inability and unwillingness to embrace the angrier and more righteous attitudes of his youth; see for example the second verse: “Once there were trenches and walls / And one point of every view / Fight ‘til the other man falls / Kill him before he kills you / These days the edges are blurred / I’m old and tired of war / I hear the other man’s words / I’m not that sure anymore.” Given the explicitly warlike or at least violent metaphors adopted by many emblematic angry young bands—The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Rage Against the Machine—Joel’s maturing rejection of war seems particularly salient.
Any long-time reader of this blog will know that I agree with Joel, not only in his rejection of militancy and desire to hear the words of others, but also with his song’s overarching embrace of complexity over certainty, shades of grey over black and white, simplified narratives. Yet I believe that to equate anger with militancy or even certainty, and thus to dismiss it as a function of overconfident and overaggressive youth, is both to patronize protest music and to miss much of what makes it meaningful and appealing for any demographic. Certainly there are angry protest songs that bury the value and effectiveness of their ideas in their extreme and over-the-top emotions and rhetoric; The Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” with its definitions of that monarch as a “fascist regime” who “ain’t no human being,” would to my mind illustrative that kind of hyperbolic rhetoric. But it could be argued that the Pistols and punk music in general were in any case less interested in protesting than in shocking, less in challenging social or cultural narratives than in pissing off everybody over a certain age, making them and their genre indeed a music of youth—and leaving open the possibility that angry protest music can still transcend such hyperbolic youthful rhetoric and appeals.
I’ve come to that perspective more fully over the last couple of years, and have done so at least in part through a (belated but still relevant) discovery of none other than Rage Against the Machine. For whatever reason—the extremely aggressive music, the martial imagery of their videos and of a record title like The Battle of Los Angeles (1999), the band name itself—I had always thought of them as angry young men par excellence. Lead singer and main lyricist Zack de la Rocha was indeed only 22 when the band released their self-titled first album (1992), but guitarist Tom Morello was 27, and it seems to me that their music from the outset combined youthful passion with a more experienced worldview, a combination that only deepened over their subsequent two albums (Evil Empire [1996] and Battle). When the band broke up in 2000 to pursue separate projects, it might have seemed that they were in fact moving on from more youthful pursuits—but their 2007 reunion, and a series of concerts over the next few years, have proven that, even if the band never records new music together (and to this point they have not announced any plans to record), the songs from those earlier albums (including the three at the links below) both sound entirely appropriate coming from older men and continue to speak to American and world realities just as fully as they ever did (if not even more so—much of Rage’s 1990s music uncannily foreshadows the worst excesses of the Bush administration).
I’m still more likely to turn to Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (1995) or Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963) than to Rage when I’m in the mood for a protest song; what can I say, the harmonic will always say “protest” to me, and it’s pretty hard to make a harmonica sound really angry. But I won’t ever again dismiss Rage or their ilk as angry young men—angry yes, and justifiably so, but angry with all the complexity and maturity that Billy Joel could hope for. More tomorrow,
PS. Four links to start with:
1)      “Know Your Enemy” (1992), with lyrics:
2)      “Bulls on Parade” (1996), with lyrics:
3)      “Wake Up” (1999), with lyrics:
4)      OPEN: Any protest artists or songs you’d recommend?


  1. Hey Ben, if you haven't yet, you might want to check out Rage's version of "The Ghost of Tom Joad...

  2. I'm a big Ani Difranco fan. I think she's one of the very best lyricists in modern music (not to mention a phenomenal guitarist). One of her newer songs "Alla this" is what I might call a protest song...