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Rage in a Time of Millennial Raving: Rage Against the Machine’s Critical Disruption of Y2K Excitement

Rage Against the Machine, ou la critique raisonnée de la frénésie millénariste
Phillip Serrato
p. 41-61

Résumé

Nous étudierons l’intrusion brillante et salutaire du groupe Rage Against the Machine, avec son album The Battle of Los Angeles (1999), dans la frénésie euphorique du passage au deuxième millénaire à la fin de l’année 1999. Les genres musicaux les plus populaires de l’époque – dance music et pop « bubble gum » – reflètent un intérêt décroissant pour le politique, notamment sur les questions ethniques et le problème de l’immigration. Face à la popularité d’artistes latinos comme Jennifer Lopez et Marc Anthony semblant annoncer une ère d’où aurait disparu toute discrimination raciale, le disque de Rage Against the Machine détonne singulièrement, de par son insistance à défendre des positions politiques tranchées. Au vu de la place prépondérante des questions d’immigration au début de l’an 2000, l’album de ce groupe engagé peut être envisagé comme un avertissement aux allures prophétiques contre la tentation de l’étourdissement dans une euphorie millénariste.

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Entrées d’index

Index chronologique :

XXe siècle, 20th century

Index thématique et géographique :

société, États-Unis, histoire, musique, society, United States, history, music
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Texte intégral

For them, the future is a battleground.
Alex Heard, Apocalypse Pretty Soon:
Travels in End-Time America (20-21)

Who controls the past now controls the future
Who controls the present now controls the past
Who controls the past now controls the future
Who controls the present now?
Now testify!

Rage Against the Machine, “Testify”

1On 8 January 2000, I read an editorial in a local newspaper headed “U.S. Must Put Limits on Immigration.” The author of this piece, Cox News Service columnist Howard Kleinberg,

2offers the usual anti-immigrant insistence that “the United States has to put a cap on who gets here” because “the [immigration] situation is out of control” (A9). In particular, the existence of sympathy for illegal immigrants bothers Kleinberg because, he says, “Illegal means they skipped the process, violated U.S. law” (A9). This gesture to ground his position in an apparently noble concern for the stability of U.S. immigration laws is simply a smokescreen, however, for a fundamentally xenophobic fear of hordes of immigrants flooding into the United States.

3His first two paragraphs give away his true inspiration for this column:

No sooner had the calendar flipped to a new year, century, and millennium, than the same old dilemma was upon us again.A shabby wooden vessel carrying 411 Haitians, Dominicans, and Chinese ran aground just off the Miami area. None of the passengers had gone through the formal process of immigration to the United States, and authorities suspect professional smugglers had a hand in their voyage. (A9)

4All at once Kleinberg seems horrified by the poverty of the immigrants, their racial difference, their transgression of U.S. law, and their sheer number. For him, this boatload of people represents another 411 non-American “others” who, besides swelling the United States’ population with their numbers, threaten to contribute to the degradation of U.S. society via the economic, racial, moral and hygienic deficiencies he projects onto them. Trying to mask his racist anxieties and assumptions with humanitarian rhetoric, Kleinberg states midway through the editorial, “There is no denying that these are people in need, but does that also mean that everyone who feels like coming to the United States can set out tomorrow?” (A9). Putting aside Kleinberg’s wish for immigration in an orderly fashion as a mere façade, it is obvious that he worries that in the new millennium, racial others will continue to flow unabated into the United States.

5Ironically, just two days before I read Kleinberg’s editorial, I read Chon Noriega’s Introduction to the Fall 1999 volume of the Chicano Studies journal Aztlán. At first glance, Noriega’s Introduction appears to be some kind of homage to Gertrude Stein. It features the word “Millennium” repeated 251 times in a 7-column by 36-row block of text. Buried almost imperceptibly in the middle of this dizzying creation is the word “Mexicanos.” At the bottom of the page, Noriega asks with tongue in cheek, “I guess they’re done with the ‘Border Crossing’ craze, right?” (vii). In response, I wondered whether Mexican immigrants and the “problems” they are popularly seen to embody had indeed been relegated to near invisibility during the 1999 millennium craze. Instead of the problem of a southern border too porous for Americans’ comfort, weren’t “they” too busy talking about Y2K bugs, television coverage of festivities around the world, stockpiling food and water, and “Greatest (whatever) of the Century/Millennium” lists? Wasn’t the excitement over the millennium an opportunity for the “problems” posed by migrating Mexicans (and others) to be unimportant for a little while? With the arrival of the year 2000, Americans for once fussed and fretted over a threat to the United States that came from within, not from south of the border. The nation’s own electronic infrastructure threatened to implode and throw it into chaos.

A search of the archives of the Los Angeles Times suggests that in the months leading up to the rollover to Y2K, immigration did not constitute the most urgent social problem, danger, or cause of woes. My search reveals, in fact, an inverse relationship between the newspaper’s attention to immigration and its attention to the millennium. Basically, in the months leading up to 2000, there was a significant obsession with the millennium that was accompanied by a distraction from immigration issues. Using “immigration” as a keyword, my search of 1998 articles returned 959 matches. For 1999, only 905 articles came back. With “Y2K” as my keyword, only 94 matches came back for 1998, but for 1999 there were 956, a number that exceeds the paper’s coverage of immigration for the same year. Telling, too, is a breakdown of the coverage of immigration and Y2K in the two halves of 1999. In the first six months of 1999,

6464 articles dealt with immigration while only 307 referred to Y2K. However, between July and December, the number of articles dealing with immigration dropped to 441 (a – 5% change) while the number of Y2K-related pieces skyrocketed to 649 (a + 111% change).

Keyword

1998

1999

Change

Jan.-Jun. 1999

Jul.-Dec. 1999

Change

Immigration

959

905

-    5.63 %

464

441

- 4.96 %

Y2K

94

956

+ 917.02 %

307

649

+111.40 %

7A search of Proquest, a database that catalogs articles from major newspapers from across the United States, returns similar results.

Keyword

1998

1999

Change

Jan.-Jun. 1999

Jul.-Dec. 1999

Change

Immigration

2749

2785

+     1.31%

1415

1370

- 3.18%

Y2K

379

2914

+ 668.87%

965

1949

+ 101.97%

8It thus seems that from 1998 to 1999, popular discourse in the United States centered more and more on the millennium. Apparently, this resulted in the displacement of the popular fixation on border stability and the problem, for instance, of Mexicanos and Mexican immigration.

9This lowered concern with the issue of immigration suggests the possible existence in the United States of a diminished interest in social and political issues at the end of the millennium. To be sure, more comprehensive research is needed to fully test this hypothesis. Interestingly, however, the American popular music scene of 1999 seems to further reflect and register such a possible disinterest. In this essay, I will investigate how preferences in 1999 for rave music and catchy bubblegum pop suggest a widespread desire to forget real world problems and revel in cataclysmic, uninhibited, boys-and- girls-gone-wild Y2K party fantasies. Then I will explore how and why, amidst this context, Rage Against the Machine adamantly insisted upon the need for the maintenance of politicized critical consciousness. Just two months before the arrival of the new millennium, and in the festive heat of millennium-party planning, the band released its third CD, The Battle of Los Angeles. With this CD, Rage articulated and called for an aggressive, politicized consciousness in response to a range of social issues. The belligerent ethos of this work stood in stark contrast to the fact that music makers and music listeners in the United States were otherwise off working themselves into a bacchanalian Y2K party spirit. In retrospect, Rage’s rage in a time of Y2K party planning was both prophetic and necessary. As soon as the partying finished, the nation resumed normal business. As part of the resumption of national business, coverage of “immigration” in 2000 skyrocketed +37% in the Los Angeles Times and +38% in Proquest, and I found myself again reading editorials headed “U.S. Must Put

10Limits on Immigration.”

Why Rage Against the Machine Crashed Jennifer Lopez’s Party

new year’s eve 1999.anything is possible. nothing is forbidden.
Advertising caption for the film Strange Days (1995)

The expectation [of] what is a fairly spurious date (depending on your calendar) is still energy to be harnessed.

Bono (1999)

11At the climax of the video for Jennifer Lopez’s hit song, “Waiting for Tonight,” all the revelers at a Y2K New Year’s Eve rave party made possible by Lopez’s song suddenly stop dancing and turn their attention upward to an electronic counter. With the counter reading “23:59,” the thousandths of seconds are furiously counting down to the arrival of the year 2000. The blur of the digits as they roll by creates an intense sense of anticipation, for the chronometer appears to be racing toward its own expiration. The moment that throughout 1999 we were alternately told to fear and celebrate is fast approaching. When the counter finally runs out, it–and the entire party space– goes dark. Within an anxious heartbeat, however, its apocalyptic darkness gives way to a brilliant “2000.” Initially, the ravers remain collectively breathless. They appear paralyzed by the weight of the millennial moment. Yet after only a brief silence, a smile spreads across Lopez’s face and across the faces of everyone else. Realizing that the arrival of 2000 has not meant the end of the world (after all, the ravers are all alive and they still have electricity for their party), everyone becomes reinvigorated and busts out dancing again. Lopez herself, who is atop a platform in the middle of the dance floor singing rapturously and gyrating frantically, leads the resumption of the revelry.

12In this video, the arrival of the new millennium is depicted, for reasons that are never clear, as a cause for blow-out partying of the type Prince might have had in mind several years ago when he sang, “Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1999.” For some reason, people throughout the United States wanted to usher in the year 2000 in a similarly celebratory fashion. Time magazine staff writer James Poniewozik begins to explain the fascination that many had with the arrival of 2000 when he posits that “the passing of a thousand years is staggering for a mortal of perhaps 80 years’ life-span to apprehend” (59). According to Poniewozik, a widespread inability to grasp fully the idea of a millennium made it seem like an extraordinary event and precipitated nervous energy that manifested itself in multifarious forms of enthusiasm as well as fear.

13The anxiety-inducing, disorientating lack of a sense of time to which Poniewozik alludes is a condition which theorist Ursula K. Heise suggests has already become a staple of life in the postmodern world. In Chronoschisms: Time, Narrative, and Postmodernism, Heise asserts,

Postmodern culture exposes human time as just one among a multiplicity of temporal scales, one that can no longer be considered the measure and standard of continuity: we are now aware that events which may be perfectly continuous and coherent at one time scale may not appear so at ours. Hence, the multiplication of time scales available to the postmodern imagination contributes to the experience of temporal discontinuity in the individual and social domains, and to the uncertainty regarding any relevant description of past and future. To use a perhaps rather modernist metaphor, the postmodern subject cannot but be aware of the very large and the very small flywheels besides the “medium-sized” ones in the transmission that makes the temporal vehicle go forward; but just how these different “gears” engage and interact is inaccessible to human perception and experience. (46)

14For Heise, the “crack of synchronicity in the postmodern time consciousness” means that “our image of the world now routinely includes a time scale that lies so far above human experience and all but mathematical manipulation that our time sense quite literally ‘falls apart’ into different temporal scales which have a simultaneous reality and yet cannot be contemplated simultaneously” (42). With these ideas of Heise, we can push harder Poniewozik’s postulation to realize that in 1999, the convergence and irreconcilability of two disparate time scales, that of an individual’s brief existence and that of an almost incomprehensible span of years, produced millennial excitement. The rollover to 2000 was an especially stunning moment in which our overwhelmed ability (and inability) to comprehend the different time scales that converged resulted in widespread uncertainty, fear, curiosity, and disorientation. The combination of these responses in turn produced a general, nervous sense that, for better or worse, “we [were] heading for a period of dramatic upheaval and change” (Heard 16).

  • 1 It is striking how Lopez’s video embodies Poniewozik’s reading of the millennium as a history of im (...)

15Alex Heard points out in Apocalypse Pretty Soon: Travels in End-Time America that the idea of the millennium additionally carried significant religious baggage. Heard explains, “The very idea of a millennium–which refers not to the year 1000 or 2000, but to the thousand-year period of peace that will follow the final conflict between the dueling powers of God and Satan–comes from Revelation 20” (73). He then points out that according to The Revelation, after the passage of the millennium, “[A]ll of mankind, both the living and the resurrected dead, will be lined up for the Last Judgment, with dire consequences for the unworthy–eternal damnation–and eternal life for the blessed. Finally, the old world will be swept away, replaced by a New Heaven and a New Earth” (73). For many people, this prophesied alignment of apocalypse with the passage of 1000 years added fuel to the nervousness that Y2K generated on other levels. Already, questions about computers’ ability to handle the rollover from 1999 to 2000 prompted popular visions of an electronic breakdown that would leave the United States in a post-apocalyptic condition on January 1. On top of this potential for an electronic meltdown, the Bible was being quoted to forecast Armageddon.

16Heard’s accounts of the different “millennial and utopia oddballs” (16) he met in his travels across end-of-the-millennium America throw into relief “a fundamental paradox of millennial beliefs: the way they can be terrible and wonderful at the same time” (Heard 65). Lopez’s video and Prince’s song easily demonstrate this paradox. Uncertainty and potential cataclysm subtend the meaning of the year 2000 in both texts. It is precisely the uncertainty and potential cataclysm associated with the millennium that enable and lead to the carefree and reckless festivity that the Lopez and Prince texts portray. Of course, it is possible to say that the arrival of any new year involves some such intertwining of anxiety and festiveness. However, Y2K was both scarier and more fun because of the meaning as well as the absurd meaninglessness that it simultaneously held. Because of a sense of the amplified stakes of Y2K, this particular new year evoked more intense responses. As Mark Leyner, another Time magazine staff writer, insightfully observes,

[W]e remain perennially susceptible to New Year’s Eve’s specious allure, annually convinced that next year’s shebang may somehow be different. And when it comes to the pathos of impossible expectations, there’s never been anything like this: New Year’s Eve Y2K. The millennium, baby! The expectations for this year’s gala are pathologically high. An apocalyptically giddy time is expected to be had. We seem to be demanding nothing less than a cosmic collision of the dimensional trajectories of time and space in which, for one amazing instant, the entire universe becomes an unimaginably immense T.G.I. Friday’s franchise. (122)

  • 2 This meaning is further drawn out by the frenetic “Hex Hector Remix” version of the “Waiting for To (...)

17Lopez’s video (like Prince’s song) reflects the association of the millennium with the explosion of time and space. Lopez’s bash is set in some unidentified jungle that the ravers can only access via a canoe ride down a secret route.1 As I mention above, the climax of the video is a chronometer first running itself out and then stalling at 2000. Evidently, with the arrival of the year 2000, the passage of time is no longer measured. All of these details of the video combine to suggest that after the arrival of 2000, the rave continues in a placeless and timeless post-apocalyptic space that resembles the one that Leyner describes. The placelessness and timelessness that end up characterizing the party perhaps explain the even more uninhibited ecstasy that the music and dancing assume. For the ravers, the Y2K, post-apocalyptic moment means existing boundlessly outside mortal time and space and, instead, floating amoebically within a newfound realm of pure carefreedom.2

18In contrast to the out of control, festive meaning that many projected onto New Year’s Eve 1999, Heard indicates, “Throughout the nineties, many scholars and (especially) journalists seemed to assume that millennialism automatically means darkness and destruction” (77), and he then lists some of the darker, scarier examples. It is possible, though, to identify this very darkness as producing the fantastic, escapist, rave-like parties that Lopez and Prince create and to which people around the world looked forward. Indeed, Simon Reynolds’ characterization of raves and rave culture in Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture dovetails perfectly with the “Waiting for Tonight” image many had projected onto New Year’s Eve 1999. Summarizing the ethos of raves, Reynolds indicates, “I still believe that the essence of rave resides with . . . the rave audience’s demand for a soundtrack to going mental and getting fucked up” (8). He characterizes rave culture as one that is “fundamentally amnesiac and nonverbal” (9), a culture devoted to “heightened sensations, abstract emotions, and artificial energies” (10). Also according to Reynolds, the aficionado of rave music finds him/herself “lost in music, out of time” (9). All of these descriptions capture perfectly the ethos of the bashes that were being prepared and imagined for Y2K. Importantly, there is an intrinsic apoliticalness to the rave experience that ended up getting transposed onto the millennial moment. Brian McNeils, one of the producers of the rave movie Better Living Through Circuitry, suggests, “The kids who flock to raves have no political agenda . . . They aren’t trying to push anything or anyone” (qtd. in Harrison F7). Rather, he continues, “raving [is] just a way to blow off steam, to escape from everyday frustrations.” Presumably, raving additionally offered an escape from the weight of the new millennium, hence the rave-like parties that greeted Y2K. When a raver is drawn into the “liberating joy [of] surrendering to the radical anonymity of the music”

  • 3 An article in the Los Angeles Times points toward this continued meaning of raves when it reports o (...)

19(Reynolds 4), he/she leaves behind the real world for an alternative, amnesiac one of ecstasy. In the process, “real world” issues and concerns (e.g. Y2K electronic meltdowns) no longer seem to exist.3

  • 4 In a May 2000 appearance on the Los Angeles-area television show Illegal Interns, Reiss specificall (...)
  • 5 In “Power Play and Party Politics: The Significance of Raving,” Daniel Martin says, “Although the e (...)

20Of particular interest to me is the fact that Lopez’s video features a bacchanalian social spectacle that is apolitical to the extent that race is not an issue. People of all colors ecstatically move to the Puerto Rican singer’s hit, suggesting the blindness of millennial raving to racial difference. Revealing this much about raves, Eric Harrison relates in an article on rave movies, “Human Traffic’s [writer-director Justin] Kerrigan, and the ravers [whom director Jon] Reiss interviewed for [Better Living Through] Circuitry, all stress the inclusiveness and harmony of the scene” (Harrison F7). 4 Christopher Stanley’s figuration of the rave space as a “wild zone” is useful for understanding how racial difference can drop out at a rave. Stanley says of raves, “These spaces exist as deregulated spaces and become nominated as ‘wild zones’ by the state. They are not spaces without law but they are spaces of the without-laws” (91). In these non-regulated spaces where the raver “surrenders to the void in a Dionysian hedonism of an entirely internal satisfaction of desire through the sacrifice of the self to the dance” (Stanley 107), individual difference is concomitantly sacrificed and the transcendence of racial divisions is possible. By suturing all in attendance into a speechless, semi-conscious union with pulsing beats, difference and the divisiveness that goes with difference may evaporate. Music and bodies of different varieties come together to become a singular organic, orgiastic, and orgasmic entity.5

  • 6 As evidenced by the summer 2000 release of three rave movies (Better Living through Circuitry, Groo (...)

21In 1999, innumerable pop songs (including Celine Dion’s excessively emotive “My Heart Will Go On”!) were subjected to rave-ish remixes. Moreover, as the year progressed, more and more radio stations in the Los Angeles area devoted their Friday and/or Saturday night airtime to pulsing dance music. One implication is that in 1999, there was a heightened fascination with rave beats and the liberation they suggest. 6 I think it is possible to read the demand for remixes/rave-ish music as indicative of a widespread interest in not caring about the real world and, instead, in knowing the pleasure and euphoria that previously had been the preserve of the underground youth culture. A look at the overwhelming popularity of bubble-gum pop in 1999 further supports this idea.

22Evaluating the pop music of 1999, Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times comments in a Christmas-day article, “In the year’s best-selling single, Cher asks, ‘Do you believe in life after love?’ After the lows of the year’s commercial pop scene, discriminating music fans may be asking themselves a variation of the same question: Do you believe . . . we’ve had to listen to so many heartless hits?” (“Sounds of ’99” F1). Attempting to account for “the woeful nature of commercial pop these days,” Hilburn in the same article posits, “One reason there is so little character in the year’s hits is that producers are designing records with few goals other than to catch the ear of radio programmers who are looking for novelty or ear-candy tunes” (F1). While the music scene of 1999 may not have been different from that of other years in this regard, Hilburn notes that in 1999 the profit-motive resulted in an especially disappointing predominance of shallow, catchy tunes: “The lack of compelling artistry among these new hit-makers [such as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, 98 Degrees, etc.] underscores a growing concern: that a bottom-line consciousness causes record labels to place an emphasis on immediate returns, making them increasingly reluctant to invest in challenging artists who may need two or three albums to build a respectable fan base” (F1). At a time when people wanted and finally got to party like it was 1999, thoughtful, purposeful, and/or even confrontational music was nurtured by neither record companies nor by radio stations. Perhaps such music would have weighed too heavily on already jittery nerves. It was sacrificed for happily amnesiac music that could comfortably appeal to as many ears as possible.

  • 7 Interview with Los Angeles radio station KROQ’s Big Tad at the Grammy Awards, 23 February 2000.

23Along these lines, I think the Latin invasion of the U.S. popular music scene in 1999 occurred not because of a new, enlightened, multicultural popular consciousness, but, rather, because the work of the Latin artists who led this invasion dovetailed with and drew out the apolitical, sexy impulses that bubble-gum pop and techno embody in their own ways and which U.S. audiences voraciously sought at the time. Notable about Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” Jennifer Lopez’s “If You Had My Love,” Marc Anthony’s “I Need to Know,” and Santana’s “Smooth” is the resemblance of these songs to U.S. mainstream pop. Anthony, in fact, has insisted on his alignment with mainstream pop music by asserting, “Because I’m Latin, does it have to mean that my music comes from somewhere [other than America]?” (Graham 17), and by hotly downplaying the uniqueness/difference of emerging Latino stars by saying, “We’re pop performers who happen to be Latino.”7 A TV Guide article that calls “I Need to Know” a “dance-inducing, Latin-tinged” song captures the mainstreamness of Anthony by saying that the “platform” he represents is that “Latinos are not so different from non- Latinos” (Graham 18).

24Admittedly, the Latin-tinged-but-otherwise-mainstream-pop artistic directions that Martin, Lopez, Anthony, and even Santana pursued in the late 1990s proved to be empowering and productive artistic and commercial avenues to follow. These artists gained access to the kind of profit and popularity that no Latino/a had previously been able to attain. Moreover, as evidenced by their astounding success, the music world found exciting their explorations of musical forms and fusions. Yet it must also be noted that the music of these artists really constitutes nothing less than what Guillermo Gómez-Peña calls “[Latino] art without thorns” (“The Multicultural Paradigm” 50). In his essay, “The Multicultural Paradigm: An Open Letter to the National Arts Community,” Gómez-Peña astutely points out that “What the [U.S.] art world wants is a ‘domesticated Latino’ who can provide enlightenment without irritation, entertainment without confrontation” (51). Clearly, the songs that constituted 1999’s Latin explosion can be seen as a confirmation of Gómez-Peña’s sense of the limited meaning of “multiculturalism” at the end of the millennium. As he brilliantly and prophetically elaborates in his performance piece, “The New World Border: Prophecies for the End of the Century,”

The Federation of U.S. Republics’ fragile sense of self is sustained by a government- sanctioned transnational media culture that is broadcast via Reali-TV, Empty-V, radiorama, and telefax. Its mission is to transmit an idealized and apolitical version of who we are, but unfortunately, it must contend with rebels who operate pirate radio and TV stations throughout the borderless and still nameless continent.
Still, F.U.S.R.’s experience in overthrowing revolutionary groups has made it clear that the best way to contain rebellion is to offer an easier alternative. That’s why they’re undertaking the current campaign of the amigoization of the North, better known as Operation Jalapeño Fever. This multicultural consumer training project promotes sexy and inoffensive Latino products that range from taco capsules and chili spray to inflatable Fridas and holographic naked mariachis.
(36-37)

  • 8 Martin’s song also stirred controversy among some Latinos because it effectively disarticulated and (...)

25With no disrespect to Martin, Lopez, or Anthony, their breakthrough success seems to bespeak not the breakthrough acceptance of Latinos and their uniqueness. Instead, the success of these artists emanates from their safeness/sameness. For example, one can gyrate and grind to “If You Had My Love” and “I Need to Know” as happily and carelessly as one could to any other dance song. “Livin’ La Vida Loca” was so well received because it finally offered access to the eros that many sought in techno and dance-inspired pop.8

26Santana’s “Smooth” is also sexy in an Operation-Jalapeño-Fever way, but (as Gómez-Peña would likely indicate) it is not surprising that a song such as “Migra,” another track off the mega-selling, Grammy-winning Supernatural CD, did not get much public attention. Lyrics such as “Migra Migra pinche Migra/déjame en paz” (“Migra Migra fucking Migra/leave me alone”) were just too irritating and confrontational for a musical epoch distinguished by preferences for apoliticalness. Unlike “If You Had My Love,” etc., a song such as “Migra” opens up “Intercultural dialogue [that] unleashes the demons of history” (Gómez-Peña, “The Multicultural Paradigm” 47), and in the pre-Y2K scene, such dialogue was anathema.

27Into this music scene and millennial environment of personal pleasure and political indifference, Rage Against the Machine defiantly hurled a Molotov cocktail. Rage’s The Battle of Los Angeles CD was a brilliant, prophetic, and necessary critical intervention into late-1999 Y2K excitement. Reviews of the CD predominately note its musical and political energy. The music is loud and relentless, and singer Zach de la Rocha is as angry as ever. A Time review calls the CD “an exhilarating mix of hip-hop and hard rock” (Farley 107), and Hilburn suggests that de la Rocha “sounds like a man addressing a rally, [and] in The Battle of Los Angeles, Rage . . . captures the supercharged spirit of that rally better than it ever has on record” (“They’ve Altered the Battle Plan” 64). The venom with which de la Rocha delivers the songs which he says he wrote to “engage people in a critical dialogue about fighting for and among dispossessed peoples around the world” (de la Rocha qtd. in Farley 107) makes “his social battle cries seem all the more urgent” (Hilburn, “They’ve Altered the Battle Plan” 64). Rolling Stone’s Neil Strauss offers one of the most accurate accounts for the exhilarating effect of The Battle of Los Angeles by saying that the group “make[s] everything seem bloody and on the brink of cataclysm” (130).

28Such politicized passion stands in marked contrast to the “heartless, anonymous sounds” (Hilburn, “Some Winning Sounds” 72) that dominated the airwaves in 1999, and it therefore justifies one critic’s declaration of the record “a landmark” (Farley 107). The songs on the record address contentious issues such as the imprisonment of Mumia Abu-Jamal, global capitalism, U.S. imperialism, and the Zapatista revolution. In addition, de la Rocha tackles Chicano political issues like immigration, the exploitation of migrant labor, and the Anglo-American takeover of Mexico’s northern territory. In a period when popular music was uninterested in agendas, Rage released as the first single “Guerrilla Radio,” a song in which de la Rocha angrily declares, “[Revolution] has to start somewhere/It has to start sometime/What better place than here?/What better time than now?/All hell can’t stop us now!”

29The refrain of “Guerrilla Radio”–“Lights out, Guerrilla radio/Turn that shit up!”–can be seen as a self-reflexive figuration of the aesthetics of this guerrilla CD relative to the surrounding music scene. Rather than functioning as an instance of simple slang, the use of “shit” in this refrain to refer to guerrilla music such as Rage’s reflects de la Rocha’s proud sense that next to the sanitized aesthetics of Britney Spears et al., Rage’s music is comparatively ugly, unpleasant, and offensive–everything that mainstream American media outlets tend to try to contain. Best summarizing Rage’s modus operandi is de la Rocha’s merciless assertion in “Sleep Now in the Fire”, “There is no other pill to take/So swallow the one/That made you ill.” In these lines, de la Rocha indicates the necessity of confronting ugly realities in order to dismantle contemporary hegemonies even when one may not be predisposed to do so because, for example, one would rather indulge in blow-out parties and mindless fun. Thus, unlike their 1999 musical colleagues, Rage demonstrate a full commitment to opening up the “dialogue [that] unleashes the demons of history.” In “Mic Check,” capitalist exploitation and oppression are confronted as de la Rocha sings, “Nameless cold millions gaspin’ for air/Those naked and wageless/Now scream within cages/They make you pull your shit/Just to get your share.” In these lines, de la Rocha indicts the psychopathic wage-labor system that has created an economic underclass that exists at the system’s mercy. Rather than epitomizing progress, capitalism at the turn of the millennium, as nightmarishly figured by de la Rocha, means social degeneration and human degradation. Such criticism of capitalism appears ungrateful in 1999, for the Y2K bashes to which people flocked seem partly to be celebrations of the fiction of the economic boundlessness that capitalism supposedly makes possible. After all, disposable money allowed for the funding of the Y2K bashes that were staged in the United States and throughout the world. The fact that ample amounts of money could be blown on extravagant and frivolous parties suggest our indebtedness to capitalism for enabling such wonderful excess and indulgence. Such a dominant meaning, of course, allows for the successful masking of the scarcity and strife that capitalism actually generates even in the ultra-modern Y2K epoch.

30On other tracks, Rage further works to disturb any supposition of the United States’ economic and social well-being at the start of the new millennium. “Born as Ghosts” challenges Americans’ happy amnesia and makes us acknowledge “the tales that tear at the myth of the dream” of benevolent and protective U.S. military intervention in Latin America. This occurs through lyrics such as

The hills find peace Locked armed guard post
Safe from the screams
Of the children born as ghosts
Gates guns and alarms
Shape the calm of the dawn
Peering down into the basin Where death lives on
Where young run foaming at the mouth with hate
Where burning batons beat the freezing who shake

31De la Rocha further attempts to deny American complacency by recounting in the song “Maria” the brutality and ongoing reality of the immigrant experience. Graphically, de la Rocha narrates,

The sun ablaze as Maria’s foot
Touches the surface of sand
On northern land
As human contrabandSome rico from Jalisco
Passed her name to tha boss
She stuffed ten to a truckbed
Sweat and vomit are thrown And she prays and suffocates Upon tha memories of home.

32As de la Rocha sings about and exposes different social and political matters and realities, he aims to force people to acknowledge that, in fact, with the coming of Y2K, it is not “all good.” Injustice and human suffering continue to exist and require not only our attention, but also our action. According to Rage, entering the new millennium with a combination of apoliticalness and personal indulgence is therefore inappropriate.

  • 9 Further evidence of the lack of American popular music listeners’ interest in political projects is (...)

33Through confrontation with these issues, de la Rocha and Rage demand that we begin the new millennium with a war mentality. In “Mic Check,” de la Rocha announces, “Fed upon America/We be spittin’ it up/Rippin’ it up,” while he indicates in “Voice of the Voiceless,” “My panther my brother [Mumia Abu-Jamal]/We are at war until you’re free.” On “Calm Like a Bomb,” de la Rocha ends the track with an ominous image of civil disobedience, “There’s a right to obey/And a right to kill,” while concisely capturing the ethos of the band and this disc on “New Millennium Homes” with the proclamation, “Violence is in all hands/Embrace it if need be/Livin’ been warfare/I press it to CD/A fire in tha master’s house is set.” Of course, the name of the CD, The Battle of Los Angeles, conveys immediately the mentality of the record. Unique about this title is the fact that amidst the most festive time in recent memory, Rage was talking about battles. Perhaps this is why after debuting “Guerrilla Radio,” a DJ on the “Kevin and Bean” radio show in Los Angeles wittily (in his mind at least) asked, “Have we ever figured out just what is up Zach’s ass?” Evidently, serious political commitments were out of place at the end of the millennium.9

34Notable are the specific ways the millennium is (re)/(dis)figured on this CD. On “Sleep Now in the Fire,” de la Rocha incisively points out that we are “at the end of history/It’s caged and frozen still.” Such an idea is also articulated in the 1995 movie Strange Days, which is set around the arrival of the year 2000. In this movie, Max Peltier (played by Tom Sizemore) insists that the end of the millennium is really the end of history because there is nothing new to be done–it has all been done already. Commenting on such a postmodern understanding of the end of history, Heise explains,

[It] postulates that history as a dialectic interplay of opposing forces has exhausted itself and led society to a stage in which all that can be expected of the future is a continuing replay and spread of already familiar modernization processes. The end of history in such theories is . . . a process of petrification or crystallization which turns society into a machine-like aggregate that stubbornly reproduces its own structures without allowing any meaningful human intervention. (17-18)

35Intriguingly, this model depicts perfectly the 1999 music scene especially vis-à- vis the persistence/resuscitation of veteran acts who would not do anything new. Mariah Carey and Dr. Dre, for instance, simply rehashed their previous work. Returning to the music scene with “Still Dre,” a song that insists that Dre is still a potent rap force heading into the new millennium, Dre did nothing more than recycle “Dre Day,” the 1992 breakthrough with which he emerged as a premier rapper. Meanwhile, in her “Spankin’ New Music Week” appearance on MTV’s TRL in November 1999, Carey weakly tried to explain the similarities between her current material and previous releases with the justification that resemblance cannot be helped since it was all written by the same person who, evidently, was only interested in having carefree fun in her post-divorce life. The upshot is that music listeners in 1999 were subjected to more of what they had heard before which, anyway, was as “heartless [and] anonymous” as the year’s new stuff. In contraposition to this petrification of the music scene and that of music-listeners’ minds and spirits, de la Rocha and his mates raged. In a time when “meaningful human intervention” seemed significantly arrested, Rage saw politicized consciousness as a necessary–and possible–faculty.

36On one level, the title, “The Battle of Los Angeles,” participates in a Chicano politics that demands the return of the U.S. Southwest (“Aztlán”) to Mexico. The band’s special foregrounding of Chicano politics on this CD is undeniable given the cover image of “The Street Phantom” (an icon immortalized by the Chicano! PBS special), songs such as “Maria” and “War Within a Breath,” and the immigration-related juxtaposition of barbed wire fence and a palm tree in the artwork inside of the CD case. In addition, “The Battle of Los Angeles” can be seen as referring to Los Angeles as the center of the music industry. In this case, the battle that Rage declares with this CD is against the Britney-led music scene/machine. With de la Rocha screaming about different oppressions, we cannot help but notice that as he unequivocally asserts his intervention in a time of petrification, he attempts to stir his listeners out of their own “rigidification,” which has occurred due to “the unending self-reproduction of [dominant society’s] own internal structures” (Heise 18). In the case of 1999 American society, widespread apoliticalness was reproduced by internal structures such as popular music and, according to the video for “Guerrilla Radio,” resulted in the widespread devastation of human consciousness and agency. In the “Guerrilla Radio” video, when a blonde, all-American upper-class man stretches out his credit- card-wielding hand to pay for a shopping spree, his arm suggestively becomes one with the credit card. Such a melding of man and credit card implies the reduction of human existence to mindless participation in and submission to commodity culture. As the video progresses, the man and his wife become rigidified until they shatter. Symbolically, their transmogrification captures the horrifying freezing and disintegration of human consciousness and agency in ultra-modern, ultra-capitalist America.

37To fight the pre-Y2K elision of the problems of the real world, Rage hijacks dominant meanings of the millennium. The final track of the CD, “War Within a Breath,” most pointedly figures the arrival of the new millennium as an opportunity not for the realization of “the most hyped party in world history” (Baldwin 78J), but for the realization that “Everything can change on a new year’s day.” In this song, de la Rocha presents the Zapatista uprising in Mexico as a model for seizing the potential significance of a new year:

Southern fist
Rise through tha jungle mist
Clenched to smash power so cancerous
A black flag and a red star
A rising sun loomin’ over Los Angeles
Cause for Raza livin in La La
Is like Gaza on to tha dawn of Intifada Reach for tha lessons tha masked pass on And seize tha metropolis

38As articulated by Rage, the start of a new millennium may mean not the end of the world, but the beginning of a new one. For this new world to be possible, however, politicized critical consciousness, passion, and action are all needed– none of which, as depicted in the “Guerrilla Radio” video, abound much in our postmodern world of petrification. Precisely because of this nature of our postmodern world at the end of the millennium, Rage released The Battle of Los Angeles.

 “What’s it gonna be then, eh?”

Crawl with me into tomorrowOr I’ll drag you to your grave.
Rage Against the Machine, “Sleep Now in the Fire”

39The Battle of Los Angeles debuted atop the pop music charts, displacing a few places the likes of Mariah Carey, Santana, and the Backstreet Boys. Given Gomez-Peña’s assertion that only non-abrasive Chicano art becomes popular in the United States, as well as my own valorization of Rage’s CD as resistant to dominant, apolitical musical trends, the early popular success of The Battle of Los Angeles (it sold 2 million copies in its first month) complicates things a little. Moreover, along with the success of the CD, “Guerrilla Radio” received significant play on alternative radio and on MTV.

40This initial popular success captures the paradox that plagued Rage during its brief existence. Its purpose was to criticize dominant society and demand change, yet it spread its message thanks to a major record contract. As an article in Spin says, “In the U.S., both purists and cynics charge that Rage simply rehash fight-the-power platitudes for clueless white-jock consumers while clocking fat checks from Sony (as if this were an obvious get-rich-quick scheme)” (Aaron 92). In response, guitarist Tom Morello once indicated, “I want to do political action, and I want to rock, no matter how flawed the contexts” (qtd. in Aaron 93). At the very least, Rage’s work offered to reverse the petrification that abounded in 1999. As the months passed after the release of Battle, we soon enough ended up seeing the realization of Gómez-Peña’s insights. By January 2000, Battle was not even in the Billboard Top 20, while Christina Aguilera, Dr. Dre, Mariah Carey, the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and Blink-182 were still perched there. The second single Rage released was “Sleep Now in the Fire,” and with the video for this song Rage slipped in its status as popular darlings. In the video, the band plays across the street from the New York Stock Exchange. Interspersed with clips of this performance are parodies of the once-beloved television game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. In Rage’s video, Regis Philbin’s show is bluntly presented as Who Wants to Be Filthy F#&%ing Rich? and in lieu of innocuous questions about history and culture, Rage’s version features pointed questions about poverty, the inequalities women face, and the disturbing prevalence of inadequate health coverage. The video received little airplay, however, prompting Bean of the “Kevin and Bean Show” to comment once, “I guess kids aren’t into those things these days.” When The Battle of Los Angeles was initially released, perhaps people were drawn to the energy of Rage–much in the way they were also drawn to such pounding acts as Limp Bizkit and Korn. Yet while CDs by Korn and Limp Bizkit, both of which were released well before The Battle of Los Angeles, stood at 10 and 11 respectively on the 15 January 2000 Billboard pop album charts, Rage was conspicuously absent because, it seems, audiences were not willing to go all the way with the band’s demanding political commitment.

41Rage’s call for critical consciousness turned out to be a prophetic intervention into the millennial scene, for as 1999 drew to its close, attention to the “problem” of immigration again began to rise, and well into 2000 Latino immigration was as much an issue as ever. By mid-November, the media and the nation worried about Osama bin Laden’s potential to mastermind a terrorist assault on the United States in the middle of its millennial festivities. A 24 November Washington Post headline announced, for example, “U.S., U.N. Posts Watch for Bin Laden Attacks” (Lynch A20). By mid-December, as the 25 December Economist reported in an article revealingly titled “The New-Year Bombers,” “The State Department had released a ‘worldwide caution’, saying the government had ‘credible information that terrorists were planning attacks specifically targeting American citizens’. The terrorists in mind were Mr. Bin Laden’s lot” (25). “Border crossing craze” really began to return to previous nervous levels with the arrest of the Algerian Ahmed Ressam in December as he was trying to cross into Washington state from Canada with a carload of bomb-making materials. This incident effectively reactivated the nation’s anxieties about its borders and its concomitant security. Headlines consequently screamed, “U.S. Working at ‘Full Tilt’ Since Border Arrest of Bomb Suspect” (Pianin A2) and “U.S. Puts Borders on High Alert; Hunt for Terrorists Shifts from Abroad After Seattle Arrest” (Loeb and Pearlstein A1). Although the nation wanted to party like 1999, it was at the eleventh hour being cautioned to maintain vigilance of national borders for the sake of national security.

  • 10 Within the first six months of 2000, editorials such as “Mexico Is America’s Nemesis” (Zavesky B9) (...)

42With the Elian Gonzalez case and some more border arrests, by the beginning of 2000 debates about immigration and Latinos specifically had somehow recrystallized. It seems that as soon as the stability of the United States’ borders and the nation’s inability to manage immigration became the topic of conversation and concern, the U.S.-Mexico border and Latinos/Mexicans resumed being particularly pressing issues. This turn of attention back to Latino/Mexican immigration throws into relief the irony of Chon Noriega’s question, “I guess they’re done with the ‘Border Crossing’ craze, right?”. America evidently ended up realizing that in its Millenium Craze, it let its guard down. Consequently, xenophobic conversations about Mexicanos and immigration took hold again. Notably, these debates continue to linger into the present day (for instance, in arguments about the rights undocumented immigrants should have to driver’s licenses, federally-funded scholarships, and public services). 10 The hopes for a multicultural, Latino- friendly United States that Y2K may have precipitated turned out to be misleading. As Gómez-Peña asserts in “The ’90s Culture of Xenophobia: Beyond the Tortilla Curtain,” “Nothing is scarier than the blurring of the border between them and us…. For many Americans, the border has failed to stop chaos and crisis from creeping in” (49). Gómez-Peña then concludes somewhat optimistically,

For me, the only solution lies in a paradigm shift: the recognition that we are all protagonists in the creation of a new cultural topography and a new social order, one in which we all are “others,” and we need the other “others” to exist. […] The real tasks ahead of us are to embrace more fluid and tolerant notions of personal and national identity, and to develop models of peaceful coexistence and multilateral cooperation across nationality, race, gender, and religion. To attain this, rather than more border patrols, border walls, and punitive laws, we need more and better information about oneanother. […]Yes, we can talk to one another. We can get along, despite our differences, our fear, and our rage. (70-71)

43Realizing that in late-1999 America had not genuinely reached this ideal consciousness that Gómez-Peña describes, Rage Against the Machine resisted the national ethos of complacency and indifference. In retrospect, The Battle of Los Angeles functioned as a necessary reminder that there still remained much revolutionary work to be done and that to assume otherwise was false consciousness. The regrouping of xenophobic sentiments after the rollover to Y2K–especially in the wake of September 11–demonstrates that the paradigm shift Gómez-Peña imagines/hopes for has not yet been attained. Therefore, when we seem to let our guard down and fall prey to false consciousness, may someone like Rage Against the Machine step up in a timely fashion and testify why we better not.

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Bibliographie

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Notes

1 It is striking how Lopez’s video embodies Poniewozik’s reading of the millennium as a history of imperialism vis-à-vis its setting in a remote exotic location. Discussing the millennium, Poniewozik says, “And just as this millennium is a Western conceit, the story of the past thousand years is largely the story of the tourism of Western peoples over the span of the earth to encroach on and economically dominate the rest of the world” (65). The descent of the ravers in “Waiting for Tonight” on this remote location extends this history.

2 This meaning is further drawn out by the frenetic “Hex Hector Remix” version of the “Waiting for Tonight” video.

3 An article in the Los Angeles Times points toward this continued meaning of raves when it reports on the explosion of the popularity of these parties in post-war Serbia. One Serb youth quoted in the article says, for instance, “Our major philosophy is having a good time and not thinking about the terrible economic situation and all the other difficulties in this country” (Watson A12).

4 In a May 2000 appearance on the Los Angeles-area television show Illegal Interns, Reiss specifically emphasizes how struck he is by the fact that people of all colors come together without incident for rave events.

5 In “Power Play and Party Politics: The Significance of Raving,” Daniel Martin says, “Although the ethnic mix at raves is more dependent on locality (i.e. likely to be more mixed in the south of England, where the population is more mixed), there seems reason to believe that rave culture is more tolerant in this sense as well” (86). Martin does acknowledge, though, that “The egalitarian image of rave culture is not universally accepted” (86), and he goes on to talk about some of the different hierarchies that exist in rave culture. Martin ultimately concludes, however, “The extent to which rave can be considered an egalitarian culture is far from resolved and the amount of actual ethnographic work done on rave culture is far too limited in scope to come to any premature conclusions. . . . Rave culture does have internal hierarchies, but these hierarchies are qualitatively different from those of the dominant culture, as they are based largely on the extent to which one participates in the culture, rather than on gender or skin color” (87). When I asked one of my students who is a fan of raves about racial difference at these events, without hesitation she indicated that such difference really holds no significance at these events.

6 As evidenced by the summer 2000 release of three rave movies (Better Living through Circuitry, Groove, and Human Traffic), moviemakers apparently counted on the persistence of the 1999 mainstream fascination with rave culture.

7 Interview with Los Angeles radio station KROQ’s Big Tad at the Grammy Awards, 23 February 2000.

8 Martin’s song also stirred controversy among some Latinos because it effectively disarticulated and playfully resignified the phrase “la vida loca.” Originally, the phrase means “the crazy life” and refers to the lifestyle of Latino gang members. This meaning of the phrase has been most famously captured by Luis J. Rodríguez’s autobiography Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.. Among the criticisms levied at Martin, the online Chicano satire magazine Pocho published a smart piece titled “Ricky Martin Permanently Ruins Chicano Phrase,” with the tagline reading, “Puerto Rican Singer Damages Perfectly Good Chicano Phrase.”

9 Further evidence of the lack of American popular music listeners’ interest in political projects is the relative failure of the U.S. NetAid concert that was staged in support of the Jubilee 2000 campaign to cancel Third World debts. As Anthony Bozza reports, “While the London show, at Wembley Stadium, sold out . . . the New Jersey show was a bust. Despite a lineup that included Bono, Wyclef [Jean], Puff Daddy, Jewel, Sheryl Crow, Mary J. Blige, Busta Rhymes, and Jimmy Page, Rolling Stone has learned that a mere 11,200 people came through the turnstiles–a far cry from the 35,000 tickets NetAid claimed to have sold. The stadium holds approximately 75,000” (23).

10 Within the first six months of 2000, editorials such as “Mexico Is America’s Nemesis” (Zavesky B9) and “We Need to Get Better Control of Our Borders” (Kleinberg A11) circulated. Today, pieces such as “Licenses Cross the Line” (Sofaer B19) and “Mexican ID a Veiled Bid for Amnesty” (Erler and Zentner B13) demonstrate that Mexican immigration continues to be a lively and anxious issue.

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Phillip Serrato, « Rage in a Time of Millennial Raving: Rage Against the Machine’s Critical Disruption of Y2K Excitement », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II - n°2 | 2004, 41-61.

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Phillip Serrato, « Rage in a Time of Millennial Raving: Rage Against the Machine’s Critical Disruption of Y2K Excitement », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. II - n°2 | 2004, mis en ligne le 23 novembre 2009, consulté le 15 septembre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/2981 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.2981

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Auteur

Phillip Serrato

(Fullerton College, USA)
Phillip Serrato works in the English Department at Fullerton College (USA). His areas of research include children’s literature; American popular culture; and Latino/a literature, film, performance, and popular culture.

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Les contenus de la Revue LISA / LISA e-journal sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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