Emperor Tomato Ketchup
Rage Against the Machine
By Franklin Soults
The choice between capitalism and communism has always amounted to a rip-off. Back in the good old days of the cold war the socialist East promised cradle-to-grave protections to each and every citizen, but only in prix fixe form–no substitutions, or else. The capitalist West promised nothing, but to those who could afford it the system offered an enticing array of consumer goods, cultural lifestyles, California girls, you name it. Punks and other bohemians may have denounced these choices as empty (think of Trainspotting’s opening soliloquy), but capitalism won the ideological battle because the vast majority of Westerners (not to mention Easterners) were convinced that the mere idea of this smorgasbord made life worth living.
Since the red threat has been vanquished, however, capitalism has let down its benevolent front and gotten down to what it’s really good at: consolidating power and disenfranchising dissent. Everywhere you look, the salad bar is shutting down. Even the principle of democratic elections–the one tenet of “free choice” that’s supposed to be independent of economics–has been openly debased by the naked rule of capital. Whaddayaknow, capitalism can be a force for monolithic hegemony too. That the new boss will always be the same as the old boss was acknowledged this year by everyone from your local right-wing militia to the national media.
And yet this grim big picture isn’t the whole picture. Capitalism, as countless tenured Marxists have observed, has a boundless capacity for contradiction, a fact demonstrated by two excellent major-label albums: Rage Against the Machine’s Evil Empire and Stereolab’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup. As our choices are swallowed up by megamergers and dwindle with our paychecks, the unfettered greed of the recording industry brings us two new flavors of–guess what–commie art.
In style and content, Rage Against the Machine and Stereolab are about as similar as Groucho and Karl Marx. As everyone knows by now, the platinum-selling Rage is a gang of short-fused militants out to crush the miltary-industrial complex in a steely embrace. On its eponymous 1992 debut vocalist Zack de la Rocha delivered furious raps against guitarist Tom Morello’s Zeppelin-style riffs and the fragmented funk of bassist Timmy C. and drummer Brad Wilk’s rhythm section; the long-awaited follow-up pursues its goal with a similar hybrid attack (but with a different bassist, Tim Bob).
Stereolab also does its best to live up to its name, with a white-coat-and-clipboard approach that typifies the European avant-garde tradition from which coleaders Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier sprang (he’s English, she’s French). Romantic partners since 1988 and musical ones since ’91, the duo and its ever-changing roster of band mates started out free-associating vague leftist lyrics over synth-based experiments influenced by the metronomic sound of the 70s Krautrock bands, particularly Neu! Over the years, the group has incorporated exotic influences ranging from 50s stereo test-pattern recordings to 60s French pop, from the Velvet Underground to lounge music. On Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Sadier and Gane’s tastes for politics and frothy French pop have taken precedence in the mix. Suddenly they’re laying out precise Marxist analysis in a groove as cheery as a sunbeam.
As different as these two bands are, they’re united by their ability to make the most of their own contradictions, just like their avowed capitalist foes. Rage may be beholden to Sony (owner of Epic) and Stereolab to Time-Warner (owner of Elektra), but their deals with the big bad major labels are concessions made to reach a mass audience. Of course, there may be other concessions we don’t know about: on the cover of October’s Spin, de la Rocha displays three inches of Calvin Klein underwear, for which there happens to be an ad on page six. More important, the Spin piece immediately acknowledges that audiences love Rage mostly because Rage rocks, a fact that remains unaffected by de la Rocha’s insistence that he “would rather talk about the Zapatistas than himself or the band.” Stereolab, meanwhile, sometimes completely obscures its treatises by luring us into a trance and then singing in the less-than-universal French language.
The most any political artist can realistically hope to do is open up a few minds here and there while shoring up his own community–a nicey-nice way of saying he mostly preaches to the converted. Every good political band has to address that dilemma in its own fashion. Rage and Stereolab’s answer is in their music as much as in their words. If the groups’ lyrics detail the many ways in which capitalism’s freedom-of-choice propaganda has been a lie and a cheat, their music concedes that it’s based on a wondrous and vital truth: humans just want to have fun.
Condemned by hard-line leftists for generations as bourgeois extravagance, pleasure–or its promise–is what gives depth to the West’s horn of plenty, and its absence is part of what made the East’s promise of lifelong security so one-dimensional. In their quest to establish credibility, many leftist bands end up duplicating the East’s mistake by adhering to the cliche of the drab folkie in drab clothing fighting to establish the drab workers’ state. From Consolidated to Fugazi to Team Dresch, countless talented contenders have at some point donned the hair shirt (available in tan, gray, and olive green).
On earlier albums Stereolab and Rage were just as vulnerable to that charge as anyone. Stereolab’s drones were so abstract that many critics took their muffled Marxist lyrics to be just so much ironic detritus, no more straight-faced than their retro album covers. Rage’s first album went too far the other way, with pat sloganeering (“We gotta take the power back!”) and music that pledged allegiance to metal’s predictable array of bass lines and chord changes.
On Evil Empire, though, 26-year-old de la Rocha has followed the example of the best militant rappers by making the political personal. Like his most obvious influence, Chuck D, he’s learned to cram his feverish litany of outrages into a barrage of arresting images and cryptic threats. Whether showing up the hypocrisy of right-wing zealots (“Bulls on Parade”), sympathizing with the terror of a battered wife (“Revolver”), or simply glossing over the daily headlines in a roll call of injustice (“Roll Right”), his is the cry of an individual pushed too close to the edge, not a staged or naive attempt to proclaim revolution.
Of course de la Rocha would rank slightly below Michael Franti on the roster of minor Chuck D disciples if it weren’t for guitarist Morello’s newfound flexibility. Taking lessons not only from Jimmy Page but also from Gang of Four’s Andy Gill, the Minutemen’s D. Boon, and even U2’s The Edge, Morello lightens his metal sludgehammer with blasts of wah-wah, radio static, one-chord whiteouts, and woozy psychedelic sine waves. The effects are not only galvanizing but downright entertaining–they radiate a love of invention that can make you giddy. If sales figures prove anything, it’s that this hardcore hybrid has genuine populist reach: Evil Empire debuted at Billboard’s number-one spot and it has remained in the top 20 for months.
Meanwhile Gane and Sadier have also learned to take their pleasure straight up: they bring the vocals forward and let the contradictions between sweet music and harsh words play out as they will. If you can remember your high school French, you’ll plainly see that almost every number unfolds around an axiom of Left analysis: religion is an opiate, the market dehumanizes personal relations, the right wing’s cruelty is ultimately self-defeating. “Slow Fast Hazel” is even a warning about the dangers of romanticizing a precapitalist past, a warning that might have been directed toward Rage: “Won’t go back to the days, couldn’t even start a fire / Won’t go back to the days, America’d not been discovered.” With its warm organ riffs, goofy synthesizer effects, and cute tunelets (reminiscent of a French bubblegum style from the 60s called “ye ye”), the album is the aural equivalent of a French New Wave film. Like Godard’s Masculine-Feminine (whose heroine is a ye ye singer), it’s out to create something radically intellectual but also intensely pleasurable–brain food that doubles as ear candy.
Of course, Stereolab will never pierce the upper reaches of Billboard (what francophone band could?), but if Rage has won over hordes of hormonally challenged teens, Stereolab has made decent inroads among back-in-black bohemes. Unfortunately, though, there’s no way to know if either band reaches its natural constituency in the Left. It would be a pity if they didn’t. These bands offer two great ways to fight what Ice-T once called the “capitalist migraine.” Neither album can promise cradle-to-grave security, but they may make a few of the moments between the two ends a little more worthwhile–which is all capitalism ever had to offer in the first place. Who would have thought it would take the system’s sworn enemies to help keep the myth alive?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Stereolab by Ralph Perou; Rage Against The Machine by Lisa Johnson.