Politically subversive images in Rage Against The Machine’s music videos

“It has to start somewhere; it has to start sometime. What better place than here? What better time than now?”

Zack De La Rocha, lead singer of the band Rage Against The Machine, used this lyric from “Guerrilla Radio” to define the purpose of his band: to combine music with a significant political message that encourages activism and political change. Unlike most other bands, Rage Against The Machine’s music was founded entirely on their passionate opinions about the government and politics. Throughout the 1990s, Rage Against The Machine relentlessly presented this message, becoming one of the most acclaimed and criticized bands in recent alternative music.


Fig. 1

Zack De La Rocha
Source: The Artists Network

Fig. 2

Tom Morello
Source: Rolling Stone

To understand the motives behind the creation of Rage Against The Machine, it is essential to take a look at the life of Zack De La Rocha (seen in figure 1) and the influences he discovered. A biography of De La Rocha from AMG: Music Guide, a comprehensive online music guide, explains that his story begins in Irvine, California, growing up Hispanic in an area which, during the ’70s and ’80s, was one of the areas of California most dominated by whites. His parents separated when he was very young, so he split his time between them. When De La Rocha was 13 years old, his father “had a nervous breakdown and subjected his son to extreme religious asceticism,” or sharp, conservative religious views and activities. Soon after that, he found himself unable to deal with his father’s overbearing actions. A few years later, De La Rocha “began to express his feelings of anger and isolation by listening to hardcore punk music and hip-hop (AMG). After receiving these influences, he joined his first band, Hardstance, while in high school. He contributed both guitars and vocals for the band. This band was later renamed Inside Out and released one album in 1991. Around this time, he met Tom Morello (seen in figure 2), a guitarist with strong socialist beliefs. Immediately, De La Rocha and Morello found themselves cooperating “both musically and intellectually.” They started a band together in 1992, which De La Rocha called Rage Against The Machine (AMG).

Introducing Rage Against The Machine’s Music

Fig. 3

Rage Against The Machine
Source: Rolling Stone

Soon after De La Rocha and Morello decided to form Rage Against The Machine, bassist Tim Commerford (known as Tim C.) and drummer Brad Wilk were signed on to complete the band (seen in figure 3). The combination of heavy-metal riffs and hip-hop styled lyrics proved to be one of the first successful attempts to blend two styles of music and political messages in one band. Gavin Rattmann, author of “Rage Unofficial FAQ,” a highly-regarded article on the Internet which outlined the band’s history, explains, “Their music was a revolutionary combination of heavy rock and hip hop, with punk and jazz elements.” Most of Zack De La Rocha’s lyrics “dealt with political and social concern, but he managed to fit some personality in, too.” Rage Against The Machine publicly supported political causes, and played many benefit concerts as well as voicing their opinion about particular issues. The major goal for the band was to combine an infectious lyrical and musical style with rooted political opinions that were both anti-corporate and anti-government.

Fig. 4

1992 self-titled album
Source: Amazon.com

Rage Against The Machine released their first, self-titled album in November of 1992, seen in figure 4. The image on the cover of the album is of a burning monk named Thich Quang Duc, an elderly Buddhist who lived in Vietnam. This image is from 1963, in which Duc is using fire to commit suicide as a protest against Diem, a leader in Vietnam who was the head of an anti-Buddhist campaign. This action was filmed by some American media and eventually led to the end of Diem’s rule in Vietnam (Rattmann). The cover was a striking introduction to the album, which James Rotondi reviews, “Not since the days of the Clash and the MC5 has rock seen such political force. Intelligent and aggressive, this is unimpeachably one of the best hard-rock records ever made.” The first single from the album, “Freedom,” introduced the band to most listeners, with De La Rocha passionately reciting the lyrics, “What does the billboard say, come and play, come and play, forget about the movement.” The type of aggression seen in Rage’s early lyrics defined the message they sent throughout their entire career. Guitarist Tom Morello explained the lyrics in an interview, stating “One of the important things about Rage is that we are able to seduce some people in with the music who are then exposed to a different political message” (MTV News Archives).

Fig. 5

1996’s “Evil Empire”
Source: Amazon.com

Rage Against The Machine followed up their self-titled debut with their next album, Evil Empire, released in 1996 and seen in figure 5. Zack De La Rocha explained the album’s title, saying, “Toward the end of the Cold War, the Reagan administration constantly tried to breed this fear in the American public by referring to the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire. We’ve kind of come to understand that you can pretty much flip that on its head to see that the U.S. has been responsible for many of the atrocities in the late 20th century” (Rattmann). With the release of the single and music video for “Bulls On Parade,” Rage Against The Machine’s music became even more known and the band was quickly considered to have become “one of the most politically volatile bands ever to receive extensive radio and MTV airtime” (AMG). An article from Inside Connection explains that listeners could immediately realize “music isn’t all that Rage Against The Machine is about.” The band incorporated “inventive rock assault and outspoken lyrics, and feared by authorities for their strident, far-left slogans, civil rights activism and political involvement – the real threads that weave through the band’s story.” Zack De La Rocha “used that pedestal” of receiving more recognition and airplay “as a catalyst to further his left-wing political beliefs” (AMG).

Fig. 6

1999’s “Battle Of Los Angeles”
Source: Amazon.com

Even with the success and popularity that Evil Empire brought to Rage Against The Machine, the band still found that focusing on an effective political message was more important to their success than cooperating with the “mainstream” music industry. In 1998, Zack De La Rocha spoke out against the music industry’s Grammy awards. “We were at the Grammys a couple of years ago receiving an award for a song that most of the people in the room had never heard, and I remember leaving the stage carrying this little golden plated statue and feeling a little disgusted and empty” (MTV News). De La Rocha’s statement helped prove to skeptics that Rage Against The Machine were passionately creating music that discussed real political issues.

Rage Against The Machine’s 1999 album, The Battle Of Los Angeles (seen in figure 6), proved that their strong lyrics were not going to soften and the level of aggression found on their previous albums was still present. Three important singles from The Battle Of Los Angeles, “Guerrilla Radio,” “Sleep Now In The Fire, and “Testify,” were played in high rotation on alternative/rock radio stations and on the popular television channel, MTV (Rattmann). The exposure that Rage Against The Machine received for their singles from The Battle Of Los Angeles was crucial to their continued influence as political activists.

Rage Against The Machine used their success on radio to gain airplay and exposure for their music videos on MTV. As a 2001 New York Times article states, “to gain that influence, artists often have to play the corporate game: create music that sells in order to gain more exposure. Even Rage Against the Machine had to do it,” visiting MTV for interviews. Each of the band’s music videos from The Battle Of Los Angeles, “Guerrilla Radio,” “Sleep Now In The Fire,” and “Testify,” were “world premiered” on MTV during weekday afternoons, a prime viewing time slot. Millions of young viewers “saw something different: a band breaking through the typical onslaught of pop music to introduce a political message that [the band] hoped was lasting” (MTV News). This type of nationwide exposure was extremely important to the band. Again as the New York Times states, “radicals have a term for it: ‘culture jamming,’ the act of infecting the mainstream from within. That spirit may be the strongest element linking Rage’s legacy and today’s varied protest-music scene.” This type of “culture jamming” was especially evident in the airplay that Rage Against The Machine’s music from The Battle Of Los Angeles received. Zack De La Rocha was quoted as saying, “We’re not going to play to the mainstream. We’re going to hijack it.” Rage Against The Machine created “commercially viable music that was still rebellious and sincere in its nature” (Uprising). Receiving this exposure for The Battle Of Los Angeles was essential for Rage Against The Machine to continue to find and help influence a new audience.

Fig. 7

Tim C. rages at the 2000 VMAs
Source: Rolling Stone

In 2000, Rage Against The Machine’s bassist Tim C. took the band’s name literally when he climbed a piece of the set during MTV’s 2000 Video Music Awards, held at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall in September of that year. Tim C.’s stunt temporarily halted the show before he was removed by security, as seen in figure 7. “The Mickey Mouse Club. That’s all I saw up there,” Tim C. said in a statement after being released (Uprising). An article on MTV News’ web site explains that “sources close to the band say that the incident angered De La Rocha (who walked out of Radio City Music Hall afterward), and indicate that it may have snapped the singer’s working relationship with the band.”

Fig. 8

Source: Amazon.com

In October of 2000, Zack De La Rocha left the band, claiming in a press statement, “Our decision-making process is no longer meeting the aspirations of all four of us collectively as a band, and from my perspective, has undermined our artistic and political ideal.” However, he went on to say, “I am extremely proud of our work, both as activists and musicians, as well as indebted and grateful to every person who has expressed solidarity and shared this incredible experience with us” (MTV News). Because Zack De La Rocha carried with him most of Rage Against The Machine’s history and lyrical talent, his departure effectively ended the band. The remaining band members, Tom Morello, Tim C., and Brad Wilk, re-grouped and joined Chris Cornell, lead singer of the band Soundgarden, to form a new band named Audioslave (seen in figure 8) in 2002. However, Audioslave is not an attempt to re-create Rage Against The Machine, and the political opinions reflected by the band’s members are mostly kept separate from their music. Meanwhile, Zack De La Rocha has pursued a few solo efforts and collaborations with other hip-hop musicians such as The Roots and El-P (AMG). Since Rage Against The Machine’s breakup, they have released an additional CD of recorded covers, entitled Renegades, in 2000, and an album of live material, entitled Live At The Grand Olympic Auditorium, in 2003.

Introducing Political Subversion

After exploring the history of Rage Against The Machine, it becomes evident that political criticism and activism fueled the band’s creative process. The method in which Rage Against The Machine integrated their passionate opinions about politics into their music is most accurately defined as “political subversion.”

Political subversion can hold multiple meanings. Barbara Wolf, a political and environmental activist, helps describe how the word “subversive” can contain a double meaning based on the way the term is being used: “It is one thing to attempt to be subversive; it is a totally different thing to be labeled subversive from the outside.” She explains that during the 1960s, “politically active people were labeled ‘subversive’ in order to marginalize them and question their credibility.” From her perspective, if one chooses to be politically subversive, it is comparable to simply “being a responsible citizen” (Wolf).

Rage Against The Machine’s guitarist Tom Morello describes what the word “subversive” means to him in an interview for Mother Jones magazine. “The music of Rage Against The Machine is not music for the elitist coffeehouse culture. It’s rock ‘n’ roll music for kids across the land, and I think that makes it much more subversive in a way, in that it has the form and the function of [popular] music, but it can carry very [aggressive] messages,” he explains. He also indicates that Rage Against The Machine’s music was inspired by “burning political passions,” and that the band creates their music in order to “fight for causes they believe in” (Davis). Morello also believes that being “subversive” can be both positive and effective, as he describes in the magazine The Progressive. “Was the women’s suffrage movement subversive; was the civil rights movement subversive? Yes. Were they patriotic? Yes.” He explains, “I think that dissent [from widely-held beliefs] and broadly defined subversion are crucial historical strains in America. All progressive change has come from that” (DiNovella).

The word “subversive” has been used with negative connotations in the past by those in power, but it can be used today in a more positive context by individuals attempting to provoke political change. By using the term “politically subversive” in this investigation, it represents an alternative political message that is meant to provoke political, social, and economic change.

Political Subversion in Music Videos

It could be said that Rage Against The Machine had the best opportunity to present this message of political subversion in their music videos, which combine music and lyrics with images. Through this combination, music videos have the ability to create a new dimension of music. Gregg Walker, a professor at Oregon State University and author of the article “Is it more than rock and roll?: Considering music video as argument,” explored the idea that music videos can contain even stronger social and political messages than just the songs alone. His article included a survey he conducted, in which he gathered a group of 195 viewers and asked them to note whether they received any dominant social or political message from about an hour of music videos that they watched.

Almost all of the viewers noted receiving specific social or political ideas from some of the videos, supporting the claim that music videos can indeed contain strong social and political views. “Some music videos may heighten awareness and encourage viewers to think, contemplate, reflect,” Walker notes. “To that extent, viewers encounter the videos as decision makers, granting adherence to the message in the videos. Music video viewers do not watch argumentative videos as hapless, passive receivers” (Walker 11). Walker’s survey determined that viewers of music videos are actively searching for a dominant message in both the lyrics and images. Rage Against The Machine included this type of political message in each of their music videos.

Significance of Topic

By analyzing politically subversive lyrics and images in Rage Against The Machine’s music videos, one of the main goals of this investigation is to incite discussion about political messages found in music and music videos. It is important to explore how the combination of politics with music influenced the way young people voted in the presidential elections in the past (particularly the elections of 1992, 1996, and 2000), and relate it to the 2004 presidential election. With the absence of Rage Against The Machine as an influence to voters in this election, it becomes important for music video viewers to analyze political messages in some of today’s music and music videos. One of the ultimate goals of this investigation is to use the lyrics and images that Rage Against The Machine presented in their music videos as an example which reflects on the continued importance of political messages in today’s music.

How did Rage Against The Machine present politically subversive images in their music videos? It is important to know the ways that Rage Against The Machine incorporated elements of political subversion in their music videos in order to fully understand the band’s ultimate importance in encouraging political change.

This question could be approached from a skeptical point of view, with the argument that Rage Against The Machine did not present their albums and music videos with the intent to cause political change. However, after exploring Rage Against The Machine’s extensive history and connection to political activism, it makes more sense to assume that the band’s claims are passionate and legitimate, and explore how they incorporated this political subversion into their music videos.

Rage Against The Machine’s music videos were politically subversive because they included images that presented an alternative political message not represented by most other media and news sources, directed against an authority of both large corporations and the U.S. government in order to empower individuals, and meant to cause political change.


To explore the ways that political subversion is found in Rage Against The Machine’s music videos, four sections will focus on analyzing the lyrics and images found in four of their videos: “Bulls On Parade,” “Guerrilla Radio,” “Sleep Now In The Fire,” and “Testify,” with one music video explored in each section. Analysis of these individual music videos will then be followed by an exploration of common themes in each of the videos, connecting Rage Against The Machine’s anti-corporate and anti-government messages.

“Bulls On Parade”

Fig. 9

De La Rocha sings “Bulls On Parade”
Source: All figures from these sections are still captures taken directly from the music videos

Rage Against The Machine’s music video for “Bulls On Parade,” from their 1996 album Evil Empire, criticizes the government for allegedly providing more rights to those with more money. The video is primarily based around a live band performance, adding several clips of protests, messages, and other scenes of political activism.

Fig. 10

Free speech statement and graphic

Fig. 11

“Who is bought and sold?” graphic

Fig. 12

“Who is beyond the law?” graphic

An alternative political message is presented in the “Bulls On Parade” video. The music video opens with an outdoor stage performance of the song from the Big Day Out Festival in Australia, which is used for the basis of the video and seen in figure 9 (Rattmann). Scenes of lead singer Zack De La Rocha chanting the opening lyric “come wit’ it now” are interspersed with images of the band performing and the crowd reacting to the performance. Shortly after, a message is displayed on the screen as the first verse starts: “Free speech is like money, some people just have a lot more of it than others.” The presence of this image, seen in figure 10, clearly defines Rage Against The Machine’s message for this song and video. Through this song and the message displayed on the screen, Rage Against The Machine show disapproval of the widely-believed “laissez-faire” system, which suggests the U.S. government and large corporations and other commerce are completely independent and unrelated.

Fig. 13

Activists create posters with slogans

Fig. 14

Activists post signs around town

Fig. 15

Protesters carry red flags

Fig. 16

Groups of red & black flag protesters meet

Following the definition of political subversion, the “Bulls On Parade” video is directed against an established political authority: in this case, the U.S. government. As the band’s performance continues, another message is superimposed on the screen, stating “Who is bought and sold?,” seen in figure 11. The message appears with the image of a U.S. flag and “Uncle Sam”-type figure. The image implies that the U.S. government supports and helps to facilitate the dominance of large corporations. This is illustrated again later in the video, when a similar message appears, stating “Who is beyond the law?” (figure 12). This time, a clenched fist holding dollar bills appears with the message. This image links back to the one that began the video, “Free speech is like money, some people just have a lot more of it than others.” It continues to support the claim that those with more money have more rights, blaming the government (“beyond the law”) for causing the problem and facilitating the process rather than stopping it. The “Bulls On Parade” video is also meant to provoke political change with another series of lyrics and images appearing throughout the video. Several scenes (seen in figure 13 and 14) show people posting the messages such as “Who is beyond the law?” and “Evil Empire” on walls and telephone poles, providing an alternative political opinion that states the government helps facilitate supposedly independent corporations. Also mixed throughout the video are clips of young people organizing in the streets with political signs, military drills, flags, and other similar images, as well as a scenario in which activists in a group are carrying red and black flags (seen in figures 15 and 16), symbolizing actions that can be taken to change the way government conducts business. It should be noted the scenario shown in these scenes is purely symbolic and was set up for filming the video.

Fig. 17

“Burn” appears on screen with child

Fig. 18

“Who laughs last?” graphic

Fig. 19

“These are the thoughts…” silhouette

Additionally, the word “burn” is displayed on the screen with the image of a young person (seen in figure 17), which can be viewed as an attempt to tap into possible “rage” inside viewers, encouraging them to take action to prevent themselves and their children from being affected by the intermingling of government with those who are rich. The message promotes everyday people taking a stand to win back equal rights from the government for those who are not rich, so the idea that “free speech is like money” will no longer be applicable. Near the end of the video, the idea of “Who laughs last?” is presented (figure 18), with an image of a skeleton holding a microphone stand. The incorporation of the microphone stand in this image can be interpreted as an implication that music can provoke or assist political change. The skeleton in the image most likely represents De La Rocha himself, reciting the call for political change which is found in the lyrics of the song.

The “Bulls On Parade” video ends with an image of a spray-painted silhouette (figure 19) with the words “the$e are the thought$ that set fire 2 your city.” It is important to note the dollar signs that are substituted for the letter “S” in the image. Through this representation, Rage Against The Machine are supporting their original claim that the rich people who control large corporations and allegedly have more rights (represented by the dollar signs in the image), are intertwined with the government.

“Bulls On Parade” meets the definition of politically subversive because images found throughout the video insist that people with more money should no longer have more rights, and that the government should provide an equal amount of rights and free speech for everyone, not just those who are rich. The video becomes subversive by rejecting widely-held beliefs that everyone in the U.S. has equal rights and free speech, and suggesting that political change needs to happen so that people with more money do not have more rights.

“Guerrilla Radio”

Rage Against The Machine’s music video for “Guerilla Radio,” from their 1999 album The Battle Of Los Angeles, attacks large corporations for helping to widen the economic gap that exists between the rich and the poor. The video is a direct parody of advertisements for the Gap clothing corporation, which were also seen on TV during the same time period. Scenes of the band performing the song are combined with the Gap parody that illustrates the band’s claim.

Fig. 20

Kids work in “Gap” sweatshop

Fig. 21

Band appears as if in “Gap” ad

In “Guerrilla Radio,” there is a message being presented that claims executives of large corporations are greedy, self-serving, and cause many of the economic problems that exist today. The opinion presented here ignores the mainstream belief that corporations cause no major harm and opens up a fuller picture that is not normally represented. This becomes immediately evident from the first scene of the video (seen in figure 20 on the previous page), which presents a group of young workers laboring in a sweatshop. The white background and arranged pattern of their work locations is a satirical replica of the layout of people and other items in the Gap clothing commercials. The band also imitate the Gap commercials in the performance clips (seen in figure 21), which depict the band playing instruments in the same white backdrop used by Gap.

Fig. 22

Customers serving the corporation become mannequins

Fig. 23

Another customer becomes a mannequin as she charges her credit card

The direct parody of Gap’s commercials used in the video makes it evident that the established authority that Rage Against The Machine is speaking against in this video is large corporations. As the video continues, the images presented establish the opinion that large corporations help the rich get richer by turning them into puppets for these corporations, while the poor (such as the ones depicted in the sweatshop conditions in the opening of the video) continue to become poorer based on these corporations’ actions. A particular scene found in the video especially illustrates this point. Figure 22 shows the scene, in which two people playing tennis are depicted not as real people, but rather as mannequins for the clothing corporation that would appear in their store; in this case the activewear or sportswear section. A similar scene, shown in figure 23, shows a woman paying for her purchase at the store with a credit card. When she places the credit card on the counter, her hand turns into that of a mannequin, illustrating that she is becoming a puppet for the company, feeding into their continued profits and supporting the “rich get richer” claim.

Fig. 24

An executive pockets the workers’ cash

Fig. 25

A girl is taken away from her mother by an executive to work in a sweatshop

As the video continues, scenes of an executive pocketing the cash that is created from the profits of the sweatshop workers’ clothes are shown (figure 24), as well as an image in which the same executive is taking a girl away from her mother to be sent to work in the sweatshop for the company (figure 25). These images represent the other side of the story, or the “poor get poorer” claim. In each case, the scenes help represent the idea that large corporations are to blame for the economic gap. Although it has not been confirmed by the band, the Gap Corporation’s commercials could have been chosen to represent the economic “gap” because the company’s name is shared with the problem that Rage Against The Machine targets them for creating (Rattmann).

The “Guerrilla Radio” music video provokes political change by encouraging viewers to stop buying from large corporations and instead support smaller businesses, which, according to the band, have a far less significant involvement with the government and widespread economic problems. This promotes a boycott of these large corporations and also sends a message to avoid electing politicians that stand by these corporations, again creating a link between “big money” and the government. The lyrics at the end of the song, including the lines “what better place than here, what better time than now” and “all hell can’t stop us now!” encourage this political change.

“Guerrilla Radio” meets the definition of politically subversive because it states that large corporations are corrupt and implies that everyday people can do something to change this by electing different political leaders. The video becomes subversive by insisting that large corporations are ultimately bad for individuals, and that corporations mainly exist to serve themselves, the government, and those who are already rich. The video suggests that political change must happen so the current situation does not continue to grow worse.

“Sleep Now In The Fire”

Rage Against The Machine’s music video for “Sleep Now In The Fire,” released in 2000 from their album The Battle Of Los Angeles, labels the U.S. as a plutocracy, a type of government in which the rich are in control. To do this, Rage Against The Machine emphasize links between the government, economic conditions, and the stock market by performing on the steps of the New York Stock Exchange and incorporate facts about the world’s economic conditions into the video.

In “Sleep Now In The Fire,” the established political authority that Rage Against The Machine is targeting is the U.S. Stock Market. The band claims that the stock market, large corporations, and elected officials work together so that democracy in the U.S. becomes corrupt and instead results in a plutocratic government, in which the rich are in control. This video ignores the widely-held belief opinion that corporations and the stock market are good in order to present an alternative political message.

Fig. 26

New York mayor declares band will not play

Fig. 27

Rage Against The Machine set up anyway

To set the stage for the video, Rage Against The Machine hired Michael Moore, creator of the movie Bowling for Columbine, to be the director. Moore helped the band to decide to stage their live performance on the steps of the New York Stock Exchange, “where American capitalism is generated” (Rattmann). Michael Moore explains on the band’s web site, “I was asked by Rage Against The Machine to direct their next music video, something I’ve never done. Their song is about the evils of our economic system and the era of greed in which we live… so we quickly set the band up on Wall Street in Manhattan” (RATM site). A scene from the beginning of the video, shown in figure 26, shows New York City major Rudy Giuliani claiming that Rage Against The Machine “shall NOT play on Wall Street.” This is immediately followed by scenes of the band setting up their performance there anyway, which can be seen in figure 27.

Fig. 28

The band performs on Wall Street

Fig. 29

Moore, director, negotiates with police

Technically, the band performed across the street from their original desired location, but it was still in the same general area (in front of the New York Stock Exchange) to promote the same purpose (Rattmann). As the video continues, more scenes of the band performing on Wall Street are shown, such as the one in figure 28. By this time, a large group of fans had appeared to watch their performance. As Gavin Rattmann further explains, “A large crowd showed up to watch the band, and they played the song 4 times, recording from different angles. At this time, police went berserk and ordered the performance to cease. Before Rage could stop, cops attacked Michael Moore; Rage and the fans went crazy when this happened and stormed the police.” The video also includes a scene showing Moore negotiating with the police, which can be seen in figure 29. While this is happening, the video shows the band running across the street and making it inside the first set of doors at the New York Stock Exchange. Police reacted to the situation immediately and “closed the exchange at 2:52 PM, a full hour before its official closing time,” Michael Moore explains (RATM site). Rage Against The Machine used their performance at Wall Street as a way of introducing the target for this video.

Fig. 30

“Millionaire” parody is introduced

Fig. 31

“No healthcare” question

Fig. 32

“Richest 10% in America” question

The “Sleep Now In The Fire” video includes some of Michael Moore’s signature parody and satire to help illustrate Rage Against The Machine’s claim. A parody of the popular game show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” entitled “Who Wants To Be Filthy F#&%ing Rich?” (seen in figure 30) is featured prominently in the video. This parody is used as a way to incorporate facts about the economic reality that exists in America and the world. Facts such as “45 million Americans have no health care” (figure 31) and “The richest 10% in America own 80% of all wealth” (figure 32) are incorporated as if they are questions in the game. The combination of the theme of money in this “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” parody combined with the band’s performance on Wall Street defines the stock market as their target.

Fig. 33

Winner of money refuses to take it

Fig. 34

Audience tears down game show set

Scenes from the “Millionaire” parody in the “Sleep Now In The Fire” video are also used to provoke political change. In the parody, after a man wins the jackpot in the game, a scene shows the man rejecting the prize money offered to him (seen in figure 33). This scene suggests that these massive amounts of money ultimately cause more problems, so he was taking a stand against the show. As the video continues, images are shown in which the audience rises up from their seats in solidarity with the man who gave up the prize money and tear down the set of the show, as seen in figure 34. The video ends with a few images of the end of the band’s performance and a message describing how their stunt shut down the stock exchange. Rage Against The Machine use both their performance on Wall Street and scenes of the destruction of the “Millionaire” show to suggest to viewers that political change is necessary. This is represented in their video to claim that large corporations with prominent positions in the stock market should lose control of the government and economic status of individuals.

“Sleep Now In The Fire” meets the definition of politically subversive because it calls for the U.S. to stop declining into a plutocracy, where the rich are in total control, and regain some of the basic values of democracy, in which everyone has equal rights regardless of their economic status. The video becomes subversive by suggesting that the U.S. is not a true democracy, as most people believe. It insists that political change must happen so that rich people can no longer entirely control the government.


Rage Against The Machine’s music video for “Testify,” released in 2000 from their album The Battle Of Los Angeles, claims that corporations’ “big money” controls politics in the U.S. and corrupts democracy, causing the two political parties (Republican and Democratic) to stand for the same values. The music video primarily showcases a performance that Rage Against The Machine held at the 2000 Democratic National Convention, and also features sound clips and images that connect the two presidential candidates in 2000, George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Fig. 35

Tim C. hitchhikes to the Democratic Convention

In the music video, Rage Against The Machine refute the widely-held belief that the two political parties are separate and opposite, creating a clear message that insists the parties are linked together on many counts. To help illustrate this claim, Rage Against The Machine once again hired Michael Moore to direct the music video and create another controversial location for a live performance. Moore and the band decided on the 2000 Democratic National Convention (figure 35), held in Los Angeles, California, the hometown of the band. Zack De La Rocha explained the rationale for the location, saying, “There’s another show going on across the street from here, but it’s all sold out. Brothers and sisters, our democracy has been hijacked. Brothers and sisters, all electoral freedoms in this country are over so long as it’s controlled by corporations.” De La Rocha expressed concern that the city was being taken over by the Democrats, Republicans, and corporations. “Because it’s all of us who have built this city, and we can tear it down unless they give us what we need” (Uprising).

Fig. 36

Protesters claim Bush and Gore both cater to rich

Rage Against The Machine’s performance at the convention coincided with various protest scenes also going on at the same time. Images of these protest scenes are included the music video, such as one shown in figure 36, where a group of protesters claim that both Bush and Gore appeal to the rich.

Fig. 37

Bush and Gore alien fused together

Fig. 38

Bush and Gore alien separated

Fig. 39

Bush campaign funds from corporations

Fig. 40

Gore campaign funds from corporations

Fig. 41

Message at end of video promotes independent candidates

The targeted political authority in “Testify” is both large corporations and the government. Michael Moore included more of his satire in the video, featuring scenes throughout the video that depict Bush and Gore splitting from one alien creation in a sci-fi movie (seen in figures 37 and 38). Moore explained the creation, saying, “it tells the story of aliens who decide to conquer Earth by sending a mutant here that splits into two heads – with both of them running for president of the United States! They say the same exact things like they both support the death penalty and more Pentagon spending – and the pundits actually believe that they are two separate beings” (RATM site). In addition to this alien creation, the video also includes sound clips from both Bush and Gore’s campaigns, where both candidates claim to support the same issues, such as “free and fair trade” and “eliminating soft money” from their campaigns. However, the strongest link between the two candidates’ campaigns was found in contributions from large corporations. Two images, one showing campaign contributions for George W. Bush and one for Al Gore, proved that massive amounts of money were flowing into their campaigns from the same large corporations. Rage Against The Machine used these images, which can be seen in figures 39 and 40, to support their claim that large corporations control both of the government’s major political parties. In the images, it can be seen that major conglomerates such as Microsoft, Lockheed Martin, Citigroup, Verizon Communications, and others all contributed massive amounts of money to both candidates’ campaigns for the 2000 presidency. The video for “Testify” provokes political change by promoting independent political parties that are truly separate from the Republican/Democratic system. At the end of the video, a message is displayed on the screen that reads, “In November, it is estimated that the majority of Americans – nearly 100 million people – will not vote… simply for lack of real choice on the ballot” (shown in figure 41). This is perhaps the most clearly stated message in all of Rage Against The Machine’s music videos. The band claims here that supporting an independent candidate for president will prove to our current leaders that the connections between “big money” and politics need to be stopped.

“Testify” meets the definition of politically subversive because it rejects the widely-held belief that the two major political parties in the U.S. oppose each other and are not linked together. The video becomes subversive by insisting that major corporations fund both of the political parties and encourage them to represent the same values. It suggests that political change is necessary so that independent views and other political parties can be equally represented.

Discussion of Findings

In each of Rage Against The Machine’s music videos, a connection is made between the government and large corporations, insisting that the “big money” of these corporations and other rich individuals controls the government. The focus for each video includes the economic gap between rich and poor, the stock market, and the two political parties. The first video, “Bulls On Parade,” criticizes the government for allegedly providing more rights to those with more money, citing links between the amount of money a person has and the amount of rights and free speech that person is given by the government. The second video, “Guerrilla Radio,” attacks large corporations for helping to widen the economic gap between the rich and the poor, insisting that corporations mainly exist to serve themselves, the government, and those who are already rich. The third video, “Sleep Now In The Fire,” focuses attention on the stock market, labeling the U.S. as a plutocracy, a type of government in which the rich are in control, and includes satirical elements that educate viewers about various economic conditions in the U.S. and the world. The fourth video, “Testify,” suggests that the money of large corporations controls politics in the U.S. and corrupts democracy, causing the two major political parties to stand for the same values. Through each of their music videos, Rage Against The Machine maintain their ambition to incite political change that removes the control of the government by money and large corporations, restoring power equally to every individual, regardless of economic status.

Because Rage Against The Machine called for political, social, and economic change in each video, a casual viewer could initially be confused about the band’s intended target, unsure of who exactly they are protesting against. This was arguably part of the band’s strategy; to incite some sort of “rage” within individuals based on either political, social, or economic issues presented in their music videos that a viewer could relate to. Rage Against The Machine realized that political, social, and economic change are all linked together, and cannot happen alone. By provoking one certain type of “rage” in each individual, their goal was to cause all three types of change, which would completely reform American society over time. It could be said that the “machine” in the band’s name represented everything about our current society.

The question that started this investigation asked, how did Rage Against The Machine present politically subversive images in their music videos? The proposed answer to the question was given using the definition of “politically subversive.” Rage Against The Machine’s music videos were supported as being politically subversive because they included images that presented an alternative political message not represented by most other media and news sources, directed against an authority of both large corporations and the U.S. government in order to empower individuals, and meant to cause political, social, and economic change.

This investigation was able to support that the passionate political opinions of Rage Against The Machine’s members were embedded in each of the band’s music videos, meeting the original definition of “politically subversive.” Throughout Rage Against The Machine’s career, this political message defined each of the songs and music videos that the band created. While this investigation supported that Rage Against The Machine’s music was politically subversive, it was not able to provide evidence of their ultimate effectiveness. It is true that Rage Against The Machine inspired some individuals to help bring about necessary political change, but most of the issues that the band presented in their songs and music videos still exist today and will likely exist for years to come. However, Zack De La Rocha knew that Rage Against The Machine alone could not “completely change the world,” as he said in an interview for MTV News in 2000. It is arguable that the band’s purpose was fulfilled by inspiring the people that it did to create some political change that did happen.


The research for this project was limited in many ways. Because the music of Rage Against The Machine is still relatively current, almost no unbiased analysis of their music exists. Most existing analysis of Rage Against The Machine can only be found by their fans on the Internet or by self-proclaimed “liberal” publications. At the same time, most objective material regarding Rage Against The Machine only includes biographical information and does not reach any conclusions about their music or politics. Because of these limitations, this investigation can only be considered as one possible interpretation of Rage Against The Machine’s music.

Further investigation of this topic could include deeper analysis of Rage Against The Machine’s lyrics in addition to their music videos. The entire project could also be approached from a completely different point of view, suggesting that the music and videos of Rage Against The Machine were politically subversive for negative reasons. Additionally, further investigation could involve a larger focus on political messages evident in the music and videos of multiple bands, allowing more analysis over a longer period of time.

While some of today’s bands, such as System Of A Down and Incubus, have incorporated political images in recent music videos, the clarity and passion of their intended message is not as consistent as that of Rage Against The Machine. The absence of Rage Against The Machine as a potential influence for young voters in this year’s election will create a different scene than that of 1992, 1996, and 2000. With that said, there are some current efforts to keep the connection between politics and music alive for this year’s election. Some alternative rock bands have cooperated to release the first volume of a series of CDs entitled Rock Against Bush, in association with the website PunkVoter.com, to promote the importance of voting.

Perhaps the breakup of Rage Against The Machine came at an ideal time. Following the events of the last three years, young people are arguably more interested and informed about politics now than in 2000. Still, it would undoubtedly be interesting if Rage Against The Machine were still making music today, reacting to today’s political issues in a strong, persistent way that has not been matched since their breakup four years ago.


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