The ’90s were an amazing time for music, as an enormous amount of great material emerged in the first half of the decade. By the last few years of the decade, however, all of the grunge heavyweights had gone down in flames or, in the case of Pearl Jam, had been exiled to relative obscurity — it had been eight years since Ten, after all — as power rapidly began to shift back to corporate, “produced” music. When I first started listening to music back in the spring of ’99, Britney Spears was on top of the world. She had released her debut album …Baby One More Time at the beginning of the year and it took off like a rocket, soon pervading every inch of public consciousness, reaching even an eleven-year-old like myself who didn’t follow music at the time. And thanks to MTV, everyone got a good look at her and saw this (not-so) bizarre mix of an angelic schoolgirl and an obvious sex object.
It all seems so carefully calibrated now, and it was all part of a teen pop movement that included ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys and a slew of other boy bands. Interestingly, I don’t recall girl groups being as successful, with the exception of Destiny’s Child, which served as a launch pad for Beyoncé. As for Christina Aguilera, Britney’s chief rival, I felt like her success was a little more deserved since she has such a great voice. As for rock music, grunge was out, and nü metal was in. Nü metal bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit amplified the angst of grunge to caricature-like levels, and given how few channels existed back then for discovering new music and how naturally resistant I was at the tender age of eleven to listen to old music, I felt like I was forced to choose between overly feminine teen pop and overly masculine nü metal.
In fact, the key show that all of us watched in my middle school years was MTV’s TRL, which played nothing but teen pop and nü metal, it seemed. (The host of TRL, Carson Daly, now hosts the hit NBC music show The Voice.) It was a terrible show, really; they basically just played the same ten music videos every day. Yet there was nothing else on TV that was even mildly interesting when I came home from school every day, so I put it on anyway. And so I wound up identifying with the Korns and the Limp Bizkits and all those other ultra-aggressive bands. In the fall of 1999, Rage Against the Machine released The Battle of Los Angeles, and I remember it being sort of a big deal. I wasn’t familiar with their history, and I certainly had no idea that they basically invented the rap-metal genre and that all of these other bands were basically ripping off their sound.
Furthermore, all of the “angry” rap-metal bands Rage inspired sound embarrassingly fake now in hindsight. It’s hard to imagine Fred Durst (Limp Bizkit’s laughable frontman), for example, was all that miserable when he was raking in millions. The vast majority of that angry stuff is very inward, talking about how ugly you are and how much you suck and a host of other nonsense that can be filed under an “I’m angry at you for making me angry at myself” rhetoric, or lack there of. With Rage Against the Machine, however, it isn’t like that at all. Their expression is very outward, and it’s with such conviction and force that you never doubt the sincerity of their message, regardless of whether you agree with it or not. In fact, I would go as far as to say that you can actually enjoy their music without agreeing with their politics.
For instance, Rage Against the Machine practically call for Marx’s bloody revolution throughout The Battle of Los Angeles, but I don’t want America to turn into a socialist country, since I have seen no evidence that socialism has ever worked. (Though to be fair, I will concede that it has yet to be applied properly in the first place, as well.) Furthermore, this is art, at the end of the day, and shouldn’t be thought of as anything else. You don’t have to agree with everything the art or artist says to appreciate its power. Out of all of the albums on my list, I have had this one the longest, and I have listened to it the most over the years. I can remember buying The Battle of Los Angeles in the spring of 2000, after I had just turned twelve, and thinking it was amazing. I had no idea what socialism was at the time, of course, and I didn’t really get all of the references to 1984, either, but I sure as hell connected with the energy of it.
Everything feels futuristic, like some kind of post-apocalyptic work of science fiction, with each song serving as a rallying cry for freedom fighters and rebels rising up against the oppressive enemies of tomorrow, after the world has gone to shit. Somehow The Battle of Los Angeles has always felt the most relevant of their albums to me, since the world has gone to shit, to a degree. Let’s recount some of the failings of our democracy since this album came out in ’99. First, there was the Gore vs. Bush election of 2000, which is the subject of the lead single “Guerrilla Radio.” Bush won with a little help from his Republican friends — not to mention his governor brother Jeb — in Florida. 9/11 was no one’s fault, really, but the invasion of Iraq was pretty unacceptable, especially given that it was more about Bush trying to finish his dad’s war more than anything else.
The accuracy of the opener — and third single — “Testify” is eerie now in hindsight, given the lines “Mister anchor assure me that Baghdad is burning” and “Yes, the car is our wheelchair / My witness, your coughing / Oily silence mocks the legless boys / Who travel now in coffins.” But what hits home the most about The Battle of Los Angeles is that the skirmishes in each song tend to be of an economic nature, just like most of the problems the world faces today. It’s interesting to me that when this album was made, the economy was booming. The United States national debt, for instance, was supposed to be completely paid off by 2010, a notion that’s completely laughable now, given that we’re currently staring down a deficit of over a trillion dollars and a debt of some fifteen trillion dollars.
That these songs have this kind of post-apocalyptic worldview is astonishing, since the closest thing to an apocalypse in November of 1999 was the threat of Y2K. The result is one of the most forward-thinking albums of all time, since not only is it as lyrically powerful now as it was at the time of its release, but the entire band just clicks. This is one of my favorite guitar albums ever, with just about every song loaded with Tom Morello‘s otherworldly-sounding guitar riffs and solos. I don’t think The Battle of Los Angeles sounds dated at all. In fact, I think the world is still catching up with it.