Music as a Language Part Two


Tom Morello. Image Credit: Max Whittaker – Getty Images

Sam Graziano

In the summer of 2020, the band Rage Against the Machine went trending on twitter. After expressing a lot of support for the Black Lives Matter, some of guitarist Tom Morello’s fans had had enough. A viral but now deleted tweet read “I use to be a fan until your political opinions come out. Music is my sanctuary and the last thing I want to hear is political bs when I’m listening to music. As far as I’m concerned you and Pink are completely done. Keep running your mouth and ruining your fan base.” Thousands of twitter users responded with an extremely obvious point.

Rage Against the Machine has always been extremely political. Their career has been full of anti-establishment, left wing messaging. One has to look no further than one of their biggest songs, “Killing in the Name Of”. The famous lyric “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses” is so clearly a critique of the policing system and the white supremacists who infiltrate the force, something that the FBI has been warning about since 2006. Additionally, there are countless interviews where members of Rage, specifically Morello and singer Zack de la Rocha, give their views on current issues. The idea that a fan of RATM was unaware of all of that is a little silly.

But why the misunderstanding? Similar things have happened with Green Day who relaunched their career with American Idiot which was a blazing criticism of the Bush administration, the Iraq war, and life in capitalist America. How can we understand these misunderstandings? We might find some answers in re-examining that tweet. “Music is my sanctuary and the last thing I want to hear is political bs”. If this person wasn’t listening to the political messaging of the song, what are they listening to?

This brings us to an interesting insight about what kind of communication actually happens when listening to music. While the artist may be trying to communicate to you, the real communication is internal. We use music as a mirror to better understand ourselves. So, if you aren’t politically left wing and you listen to RATM, their messaging won’t phase you. But there is more to RATM that anyone can connect with, anger. Unspecified, seething, anger. Everyone can feel that way about something and Rage’s music can be used to express that anger.

With this view of music this odd social occurrence seems resolved. If music is mainly internal communication, rather than from author to audience, it makes sense that a conservative can listen to a left-wing band like Rage and still get something out of it. To that conservative listener, Morello’s tweets are something out of the ordinary, hence the “stay in your lane” response.

While this view may have some explanatory power, there are strange implications. If music is a means of internal communication, then of what use is political messaging in music? Are artists cursed to forever be misunderstood by their audiences? While it may be fulfilling to be able to use music to gain personal insight, isn’t this view extremely isolating? Well, yes and no.

While someone might not become radicalized by music necessarily, music does help form a community within movements. Songs can become rallying calls. I remember, in the early days of the protests last summer, Run the Jewels released RTJ4 in which rapper Killer Mike talked about life as a Black man in America. Killer Mike’s verse on “Walking in the Snow” is amazingly crafted critiques of white supremacy in America. These lyrics help those within the movement reflection on their emotional state. It may be fair to say that the same misunderstanding going on with Rage probably doesn’t happen with Run the Jewels or, say, Kendrick Lamar who has also been extremely critical of policing in America.

While music can be understood as a language, it is important to know the nature of that language. It seems to be primarily an internal language, where one can create or listen on process their emotions. This is not to say that language from one to another is impossible musically, just that the primary communicators in the language of music is the self to itself.