Rage Against The Masses

The chart victory of the preposterous RATM suggests today’s yoof might be the uncoolest generation in history.

Neil Davenport

Topics Culture

So, now we know. After weeks of Facebook blather urging us to buy Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name’, thus depriving The X Factor winner Joe McElderry of the Christmas No.1 spot with his single ‘The Climb’, the petulant adolescents have had their seasons’ wishes granted. And apparently, getting RATM’s clod-hopping piece of lumpen dirge to No.1 in the British pop charts over Christmas is sticking it to The Man or, at the very least, Simon Cowell.

‘It’s all a bit of fun’, cry the RATM champions, which you could easily say about an average episode of The X Factor. The only crucial difference is that you don’t have X Factor viewers smugly congratulating themselves on their exquisite taste. However, the joke is on the yoof who’ve bought and bounced around to ‘Killing in the Name’, because the victory of RATM in this latest chart war raises a very important question: are today’s youth the least cool generation in living memory?

It is rarely acknowledged, but 1992 was possibly the most horrific year for pop fans. Indeed, I think Queen Elizabeth II made some reference to this fact in her infamous ‘Annus horribilis’ speech of that year – or at least she should have. Such was the absence of decent tunes that music fans started buying old Lee Hazelwood and early Bee Gees albums to compensate. Heck, I even thought The Verve were good. What went wrong back then?

Well, the charts were dominated by tinny, toy-town rave and U2 discovering irony (at the age of 36), while the alternatives promoted in the weekly music press were even worse. The year was dominated by the fag end of Madchester and baggy, second-rate Thames Valley shoegazing outfits failing to copy My Bloody Valentine properly, and scores of earnest grunge dullards like Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots. And on top of this pile of steaming dung lay the preposterous Rage Against The Machine and their unintentionally hilarious ‘Killing in the Name’. When it was played in pubs, it was met with howls of derision. Melody Maker used to have a weekly column mocking the band’s pretensions.

Although the single is meant to sound like a blast of righteous fury against authority, it actually sounds like a spoilt 14-year-old refusing to tidy up his room. ‘Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me!’ yelps the chorus. Play this after Stiff Little Fingers’ volcanic ‘Suspect Device’, with its rather more searing ‘they take away our freedom in the name of liberty’, and you’ll see what I mean. Likewise, Eddie & The Hotrods’ ‘Do Anything You Wanna Do’ managed to combine class anger – ‘tired of doing day jobs with no thanks for what I do’ – with a yearning, emotional quest for freedom.

Defenders of RATM claim it’s great to have a sweary single at No.1, which is a bit like saying that Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown is a great comedian because he frequently says ‘cunt’. As far as swearing on records go, ‘Killing in the Name’ is playground Tourettes compared with the leering menace that Ian Dury’s swearing conveyed on The Blockheads’ 1978 album, New Boots & Panties.

The whiny RATM are about as threatening and menacing as Snow Patrol or James Blunt, and as slickly marketed, too. At least Snow Patrol, Keane et al don’t pretend to offer off-the-peg ‘radicalism’ by way of crass hectoring that makes The Clash’s lyrics seem as insightful as John Stuart Mill. I’m not interested in ‘political pop’ because music should be judged on its own terms rather than any message (plus, combining pop and politics usually ends in tears). Yet even when judged by such dubious criteria, RATM’s ‘Killing in the Name’ stinks.

If you can get past the fucking fucks, RATM’s lyrics are an adolescent, middle-class rant on the evils of consumerism mixed with a useless tantrum against the government and big business – and the dumb people who go along with it all. Merry fucking Christmas! This is why ‘Killing In The Name’ was chosen by youthful rads – as a sort of ‘fuck you’ to the apparently brainless masses who went out to buy the McElderry single. Not so much Rage Against The Machine as Rage Against The Masses and their supposedly awful tastes. Imagining yourself as morally superior on account of your download/CD collection is a phase lots of young people go through. But looking down on others through the prism of culture also has an ignoble history among the elites and the middle classes. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with rubbishing The X-Factor single or the latest cringe-inducing travesty by Black Eyed Peas, but making moral judgements on the people who buy such stuff is another matter.

The problem today is that such sentiments aren’t confined to adolescents or the snobby elite – they are widespread amongst the commentariat, too, who have championed RATM’s victory. The public face of class war today isn’t about strikes and pay disputes; it’s expressed through attacking the cultural habits of the masses, which are seen as either environmentally damaging or proof that ‘these people’ are stupid, politically disengaged, unfit parents, and so on. And the nonsense surrounding the RATM vs X-Factor battle is a continuation of this desire to prove how stupid and vulgar and tasteless the masses are.

In truth, record sales don’t reveal very much at all, least of all about the moral worth of the buyer. Nevertheless, the victory of RATM in the charts, and the backlash against evil Simon Cowell, his wicked X-Factor and the duped people who watch it, reveals just what miserabilist and dour times we live in. There has always been an element of popular culture that is frothy, lightweight, daft and, as a result, quite entertaining. Indeed, laughing at truly mediocre songs can be a great bonding ritual (Billy Ray Cyrus’s ‘Achy Breaky Heart’, anyone?), and The X-Factor of course works on this level, too (consider Jedward). But it’s a rather pointless activity to point out the intellectual deficiencies of light entertainment, especially while promoting an intellectually challenged single such as ‘Killing In the Name’.

So enjoy your victory, Facebook campaigners, but really the joke is on you. Believing that RATM are cool is one of those peculiar things – such as going to Glastonbury, backpacking around Thailand, and wearing long shorts in the summer – which only a certain class of people buy into. And really, how stupid is that?

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

Previously on spiked

Emily Hill wrote about the castration of Cheryl Cole and suggested that Glastonbury has become a weekend in the country for poshos. Tom Slater rated Beck as ‘the coolest Scientologist in music’. Andrew Calcutt questioned the authenticity of The Ramones. Patrick West tracked the Samsonite demise of heavy metal. Or read more at spiked issue Music.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


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