The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #248: Killing in the Name by Rage Against the Machine (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #248: Killing in the Name by Rage Against the Machine.

When I was growing up, I was not a tough boy. I was small for my age and, furthermore, I had a fairly privileged upbringing which kept me shielded from many of the realities of how others lived their lives. One of the beliefs that allowed me to live my childhood with confidence was the notion that if I was to ever have to deal with “bad guys” then, all I needed to do was turn to the Police. All throughout my childhood, I thought of our local Police, not so much as my friends but, as my protector and as the folks who kept my town and my neighbourhood safe. Being a good kid who always did the right thing…..and, being a white kid…..I never gave the Police any reason to deal with me in person. Consequently, they were always more of an ideal to me rather than being real people.

But, as I have matured into adulthood, many things about the way the world works have revealed themselves to be much more complicated and complex that I ever thought them to be. One of those things is how I view Police officers. For me, my relationships have continued to be good. But, what has evolved for me is my understanding that, while I can still view the Police as being “my friends”, not everyone is so lucky. From a historical point of view, I am much more aware of the role of the Police in enforcing some of the most violent and racist policies in the Southern US. I am, also, aware of the role of Police in enforcing the policies that saw Indigenous children taken from their homes and forced into Residential schools. But, when it came to living in the present, the one event that really opened my eyes about the nature of Policing was the Rodney King incident. For anyone who doesn’t know what I am talking about, it was a videotaped incident whereby four Los Angeles Police Officers dragged a black man named Rodney King out of his car and proceeded to violently assault him, even though he offered no resistance. When an investigation was launched and all four Officers were acquitted of any wrongdoing, anger exploded and the Los Angeles Riots occurred, broadcast live on CNN, in all its violent, gory detail.

These were still pre-internet times so, like many, my reaction to seeing the Police behaving, as they did to Mr. King, was to be shocked and disappointed. I was not the only one to feel that way. “Rage Against the Machine” consists of singer Zach de la Rocha, guitarist, Tom Morello, bassist, Tim Commerford and drummer, Brad Wilk. As they watched the Rodney King video ad nauseam, their anti-authoritarian nature came to the fore. While teaching a guitar lesson, Tom Morello came up with the signature riff that would end up defining the sound of their biggest hit, “Killing in the Name”. He quickly recorded the guitar riff and took it to the rest of the band the next day. Very quickly, lyrics were added, the rest of the music fleshed out and the song was completed. As protest songs go, “Killing in the Name” is a fiery, incendiary rocker of a song. The lyrics speak to the view that Police Officers may not be the idealized heroic figures that I dreamed them to be when I was a child. In fact, the band states quite forcefully that many Officers are, in fact, abusers of the power bestowed upon them. This is portrayed in lyrics that state:

“Some of those who work Forces

are the same as those who burn crosses”

and, later on in the song, Police Officers are deemed to be “the Chosen Whites”.

The lyrics to this song also contain many examples of profanity and, as such, the playing of “Killing in the Name” on MTV or on public radio has resulted in much controversy, making “Killing in the Name” one of the more heavily censored song in music history. However, the fact that “Killing in the Name” is so heavily censored on the public airways lead to it playing a subversive/funny role in UK broadcasting history a few years ago.

As many of you may know, TV personality Simon Cowell, has made a name for himself producing and commentating on Talent Shows such as “American Idol”, “America’s Got Talent”, “Britain’s Got Talent” and so on. Cowell is a savvy marketer and is well-versed in making “stars” out of the contestants who end up “winning” his talent competitions. Well, as it turns out, he has designed the show, “Britain’s Got Talent” in such a way that the finals are held just as the Christmas shopping season is starting in the UK. For four years in a row, Cowell had managed to manipulate the UK music scene so that the act who won his show ended up being the #1 hit on the charts at Christmas time thus, earning way more dollars, in terms of record sales, than may have been the case if the finale of the tv show had been at an earlier time in the year. After four years of this crass market manipulation, a couple of UK DJs decided that they had had enough. They organized a counter campaign aimed at promoting a different song from whatever Cowell had up his sleeve and helping that song become the Christmas #1 hit in the UK. The song they opted to promote was seen as the antithesis of the sugary pop songs Cowell was promoting. The song that was chosen for this promotion was, “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine.

The members of “Rage Against the Machine” happily went along with the gag. Other prominent UK music personalities, such as Sir Paul McCartney, climbed on board and soon, “Killing in the Name” became the #1 Christmas hit in the UK. This happened, even though the song is loud and profane and was almost impossible to play live during the contest. However, donations received during this “competition” ended up totalling over $100,000 which was all donated to UK charities involving the homeless. In gratitude to those who voted their song #1, “Rage Against the Machine” volunteered to put on a free concert at a place called, Finsbury Park. The video you will see of them performing this song is from that free benefit concert.

Despite the fact that some people hear the lyrics and instantly write them off as being rude and inappropriate, the reaction of the fans in this video will offer a differing point of view. “Rage Against the Machine” are beloved by many around the world and are highly respected by millions who feel, as they do, that the system is rigged against ordinary people and that, only by protesting and raising their voices, will change ever be affected.

As for me, my view of Police Officers and the role they play in our society has become more nuanced. I am still highly grateful that there are people willing to go into the dark and dangerous places that ordinary people like me turn away from. To those Officers who strive to keep our communities safe, I salute and applaud you all.

However, I have watched, with increasing alarm, the number of instances (especially since Trump came to power) where violent protests have occurred while the Police have stood by and done nothing to protect anyone. It is becoming a case where the cozy world of whiteness where I have lived my whole life is drawing ever closer to the world of the marginalized community members who have always viewed the Police through a different lens. As I write this post, right-wing anti-vaxx protesters are set to protest/riot at hospitals all across the country of Canada. One of the important side-stories to these protests will be the role the Police choose to play.

As you listen to the lyrics from “Killing in the Name”, my hope is that you will see past the profanity and see that the defiant message speaks to issues of right and wrong in our society, of power and powerlessness, of flawed heroes and of the need for Laws and for Justice for everyone in our communities. I wish everyone involved at a hospital today, peace and safety. I sincerely hope that the Police actively protect you all. I will feel better if that turns out to be the case. Time will tell.

The link to the video for the song, “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine, can be found here.

The official website for Rage Against the Machine, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP for supporting good music in all forms. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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