Take the Power Back: A Sound Study on Rage Against The Machine and Amplified Leftist Music

Written by Reggie Oey
Edited by Ben Demers

On January 6th, 2000, the rap-metal band Rage Against The Machine (RATM) shot a live music video for their single, “Sleep Now in the Fire,”[1] at the steps of Federal Hall and at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City. Famous for their radical, leftist political views, RATM teamed up with activist filmmaker Michael Moore for the shoot, which was eventually cut short by city police due to noise violations. RATM’s deliberate disobeying of sound laws acted as a political gesture that the band called for in their music. By injecting amplified, anti-capitalist rock music in a heavily acoustically regulated area, RATM interfered with the power structures that privilege some types of speech over others and shed light on the social context in which this sound was situated. This essay will look at the impact of RATM’s actions, using Lillian Radovac’s analyses of historical noise control in New York City as an entry into this sound study.

One of the main advantages of using amplified sound (as opposed to non-amplified sound) is that listeners can come to create large public gatherings.[2] For example, with radios, audience members tend to listen in solitude in different locations. However, with amplified public sound, the audience becomes anyone who is physically within hearing distance of the speaker. Without regard for acoustic boundaries, RATM was able to create a wide reaching and physically present audience.[3] So, not only was the audience sharing the experience of listening to the same message, but their participation as members of a crowd brought a material and a spatial dimension to the acoustic territory. By playing music in a public space, the public was unified under the shared experience of listening to RATM. If Radovac postulated that amplified public sound creates “the possibility that crowds that assembled for political events could be listeners,” [4] then RATM turned this paradigm around and used listeners of public sound to create a crowd for a political event. In doing so, the band used this trait of amplified sound to assert their presence in the space. They demonstrated that their message had support from the audience that gathered to listen and that they would be heard by the masses using sound to organize a protest-like crowd and make a statement in front of the institutions that they sought to critique.

In response, the city’s police department began shutting down the event roughly two hours into the shoot, as RATM and Moore did not have the required loud-noise permit.[5] In fact, RATM and Moore were denied a sound permit by city authorities.[6] One can hypothesize that the prohibition of RATM’s music playing was partially motivated by the band’s radical message. “Sleep Now in the Fire” comments on the greed and the oppressive impacts of capitalist economic and political institutions in the USA. RATM’s negative portrayal of these institutions also criticizes the inherent power imbalance that benefits those who are at the top of these economic and political hierarchies. Thus, city authorities at the top of these social ladders may have felt threatened by RATM’s critical message.

The use of sound laws as a means of quelling radical speech was not a new phenomenon in New York City. Even when city officials began regulating noise in the 1930’s, permit requests to use loudspeakers in public settings were denied more frequently when made by left-wing organizations.[7] In addition, the association of public address systems with “movements that [fall] outside the bounds of acceptable political discourse” [8] poses the question of who decides what is acceptable discourse and what is not. As the individuals in power issue or deny sound permits, it would work in their own best interest to deny permits to groups who seek to undermine their authority. By criticizing the volume of speech as opposed to its contents, the police and law-making institutions are able to suppress the speech that questions their power without directly acknowledging those ideas. These systems legalize the subduing of undesirable speech and facilitate “the institutionalization of the silence of others [to] assure the durability of power.”[9] The ability of the people in power to arbitrarily decide which types of speech are allowed and which are not further solidifies the systems that privilege them. allowing them to suppress radical speech under the guise of noise violations encroaching on the sanctity of the city’s aural space.

In the case of the “Sleep Now in the Fire” shoot, it is important to acknowledge the fact that the music played was loud. However, it seems that loudness itself was not the principal issue, as New York City has systems in place to permit the playing of noisy music under certain circumstances. New York City officials have authorized publicly amplified events in the past and would have been open to an event similar to the “Sleep Now in the Fire” shoot, but only if the event fulfilled their conditions. Because it seems that a loud music event was possible and had been done in the past, the volume of the event could have been accommodated or discussed further until an agreement was reached. However, since the event also spoke out with a message that challenged the power of the New York City authorities, the loudness of the music could have been easily singled out as the cause of the shutting down the event as it was easier than confronting RATM’s message directly. This silencing of anti-capitalist rhetoric helped to preserve the power structure that RATM criticized. This continued the cycle of marginalizing speech that sought to challenge and change the systems that caused them to be silenced in the first place. RATM’s deliberate violation of these noise laws highlighted whom these rules were meant to privilege, or more specifically, whose aural space in the city was most privileged.

When looking at the different spaces built around New York City, especially around Wall Street, it becomes evident that there is an imbalance between spaces built to encourage discourse related to pro-capitalist versus anti-capitalist ideologies. Local buildings, such as the NYSE or Federal Hall, are located in densely populated, high-traffic urban areas. These buildings stand as symbols of capitalism and prompt what types of topics are allowed to be discussed in these areas of the city. As these areas are also imbued with high financial and political influence, discourse in favour of capitalism becomes more acceptable and is normalized. On the other hand, more left-wing topics, such as those brought forward during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement, are considered to be an inappropriate or unruly use of those urban spaces. Spaces for pro-capitalist discourse are permanently established in powerful areas of New York City. The sound laws that suppress speech aimed at criticizing these right-wing spaces further back the legitimacy of these areas. RATM’s use of sound to gather and unite a crowd disputed the aural space created by the NYSE and Federal Hall. They challenged the authority of these institutions by using publicly amplified sound to create a crowd for a left-wing political event. In turn, this crowd became a space in which other radical discourse could be had.

However, even as RATM’s anti-capitalist message was amplified in the streets, pro-capitalist discourse still transpired within the confines of those buildings. As discussed by Radovac, restrictions on public assembly and publicly amplified sound in addition to the dominance of more economically restrictive broadcasting media, such as radio and television, relocated “political life from the disorderly spaces of the streets to acoustically contained indoor venues.”[10]  This historical shift has worked to stigmatize publicly amplified speech and to create acoustic divides between the two ends of the political spectrum as pro-capitalist ideologies have historically had more financial backing to access these restrictive media. As the NYSE and Federal Hall are imbued with power and house pro-capitalist discourse, they protect the philosophies that support their influence. The voices and politics of RATM were aurally segregated from the systems of power they wished to change. The sounds created by RATM’s “Sleep Now in the Fire” in public spaces could not penetrate the walls of those buildings. As a result, although they were able to create a space for leftist anti-capitalist discourse on the streets of a pro-capitalist area, the anti-capitalist message carried by their music was not able to have a large impact on the indoor aural and political space of the institutions they wanted to change.

In an attempt to break down these auditory barriers and access the space with the most political influence, members and supporters of RATM charged into the NYSE after police had shown up to shut down the video shoot.[11] The clashing of opposing political groups in New York City is not a new phenomenon. What is interesting to note is where these disputes occur; historically, these encounters have taken place in the space that the opposing groups determine to be the most politically salient. In the 1930’s, political conflicts usually concluded with contact in the streets of New York City[12]. On the other hand, the 2000 event ended with RATM making contact with pro-capitalist ideologies in a private building. This shift highlights an important change in the most meaningful aural and political spaces due to different technologies and their social context.

For example, the increased use of the public address system during the 1930’s reflected how political power was situated with the public in the streets. The context in which this technology was popularized demonstrated the desire for politicians to “enlarge the acoustic territory of public speech”

On the other hand, the confrontation between RATM and their political opponents occurred within the NYSE. As mentioned before, the historical shift towards radio, television, and the internet as technologies of political broadcasting after the public address system era relocated political life indoors.[14] In this context, expressions of political power were exerted within the aural space of indoor locations. Thus, it would follow that RATM and their supporters would break into the NYSE; in doing so, the aural space of their discourse shifted from the public streets into a private building. RATM and their followers were able to make a more meaningful impact on the most significant auditory and political space. Broadcasting their own leftist and anti-capitalist ideologies into this indoor location allowed them to disturb the politics housed within the NYSE.

Through RATM’s music, one can catch a glimpse into some people’s dissatisfaction with the economic systems and institutions, since music “is a way of perceiving the world, [and] a tool of understanding.”[15] Music can be seen as the manifestation of social contexts; different styles or themes of music are birthed from the systems and technologies of its era.[16] Like any other technology, music “is caught up in the complexity and circularity of the movements of history.”[17] RATM’s boisterous, heavy metal sound contrasted the calmer pop music of the early 2000’s from the likes of Destiny’s Child, ‘N Sync, and Faith Hill. Even within the metal genre, RATM played an important role in bringing unique subgenres such as nu metal and rap metal into mainstream popularity. This demonstrated their willingness to transcend social norms and to participate in the counter-culture that had been stigmatized by those in power. As well, their use of loud, amplified sound in their music established their outspokenness and desire to be heard on social and political issues. It is interesting to note how this protest music reflected the USA’s economic system; RATM’s ability to gain popularity and to play music at the capital of the American economic system for a short time showed that their anti-capitalist lyrics against corporate greed mirrored some people’s growing discontent with their current economic system. However, the fact that RATM’s was shut down is exemplary of the right wing’s marginalization of contentious ideologies in order to preserve their own power. As music is a reflection of its social context, the evolution of politics and music also go hand in hand.[18]

While music does reflect its current social context, one can also use it as a tool to predict the social contexts of the future. As described by Attali, the “styles and economic organization [of music] are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code.”[19] Music expresses sentiments that have not yet materialized and cannot be expressed in the public sphere. Thus, this medium is both a manifestation of the contexts that created it and a prophet for how these contexts will evolve. By keeping these properties of music in mind, one can see how “Sleep Now in the Fire” not only reflected RATM’s fans’ dissatisfaction with the American capitalist system, but also how it heralded social and economic change. Evidence for the premonitory properties of their music can be seen with movements such as Occupy Wall Street, in which thousands of protesters (including members of RATM) took to the streets in opposition to the greed and imbalance of power within American political and economic institutions.[20] Occupy Wall Street and “Sleep Now in the Fire” commented on the same systems in a parallel manner; both exerted pressure on the systems they wished to change by controlling physical, aural, and political space. RATM evolved as a reflection of the growing civil dissatisfaction and paved the way for movements that shared similar ideologies. With the current shifting political climate, it would be interesting to see how songs like “Sleep Now in the Fire” mirror and foretell of social changes to come.

[1] RATMVEVO, “Rage Against The Machine – Sleep Now in the Fire,” online video clip, 3 minutes and 52 seconds, last modified February 26, 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w211KOQ5BMI.
[2] Lilian Radovac, “Muting Dissent: New York City’s Sound Device Ordinance and the Liberalization of the Public Sphere,” Radical History Review 2015, no. 121 (2015):35, doi: 10.1215/01636545-2799899.
[3] Ibid., 34.
[4] Ibid., 35
[5] Mark Schone, “Bullsh*t On Parade,” SPIN, May 2000, 56.
[6] “Rage Against Wall Street,” Green Left Weekly, last modified March 15, 2000, https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/rage-against-wall-street.
[7] Radovac, “Muting Dissent: New York City’s Sound Device Ordinance and the Liberalization of the Public Sphere,” 41.
[8] Ibid., 47.
[9] Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), 4.
[10] Radovac, “Muting Dissent: New York City’s Sound Device Ordinance and the Liberalization of the Public Sphere,” 47.
[11] Robyn Mills and Martin Smith, “Rage Against the System,” Socialist Worker, last modified February 12, 2000, https://socialistworker.co.uk/art/36469/Rage+Against+the+System.
[12] Radovac, “Muting Dissent: New York City’s Sound Device Ordinance and the Liberalization of the Public Sphere,” 44.
[13] Ibid., 35
[14] Ibid., 47
[15] Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, 10.
[16] Ibid., 19
[17] Ibid., 10
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid., 11
[20] RATMVEVO, “Rage Against The Machine – Sleep Now in the Fire”. Interestingly enough, RATM also correctly predicted Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy 15 years earlier. See RATMVEVO, especially at the 1:04 mark.

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