They Were Right: Angry ’90s Rock as Prophesy

Western society claims to be first and foremost a rational affair. Quantifiable metrics, scientific processes and cool-headed application of reasonable logic are the stated corner stones of our advanced capitalist society. Boosters and apologists for the status quo point toward a stable social system by which all phenomena work in their appropriate rhythms to do the greatest good for the greatest amount of people.

Nowhere is the post-enlightenment fantasy of ever-improving progress more stoutly defended than the realm of mainstream culture. Think of the rom-com and the frivolous situational comedy centered on a family of loveable goofballs who finds a way through despite all indications to the contrary. Bask in the glow of sunny pop divas and social media sirens who renew the myth of the American Dream and prove the might of commercial ingenuity one million likes at a time — these are the benchmarks of a society we are made to believe is approaching an accelerationist utopia. Mazel, guys, you did it.

Alternative views suggest that ours is actually a volatile, chaotic, imbalanced, punitive, irrational world. If you’re just now joining us from the world of Real Housewives escapism or the hallowed pharmacological halls of blissful ignorance, you may be wondering who could have predicted the terrifying turn of events you see played out in places like Nice, Ankara, Baton Rouge and on stage in Cleveland, Ohio.

Funny you should mention it. Many of the ultra-angry, hyper-visceral hard rock villains of the mid to late 1990s cut their teeth painting the western world portraits of itself in the grip of imminent apocalypse. Despite having been tossed into the cultural trashbin, the catalogs of artists like Marilyn Manson, System of a Down and Rage Against the Machine play in retrospect like a horribly lucid “told you so” brochure for the reality of political instability, economic polarization and social alienation we know more colloquially as the fucked world we live in.

When I see an orange bozo rant and rave to a room full of high on hate buffoons eager to join the new red, white and blue SA, I can’t help but hear “The Beautiful People” lyric “capitalism has made it this way, old fashioned fascism will take it away.

When six billion dollars, fifteen years and nearly 2,500 American lives don’t suffice to pacify a backwater poppy den like Afghanistan, I’m reminded of System of a Down’s rhetorical query, “How do you own disorder?

When I reflect on a nation that double checks its moral compass against the Dow Jones Industrial ticker in a march across the globe for raw resources and cheap labor that facilitate a consumption orgy whose ecological repercussions threaten to extinct the entire species, my synapses play a pre-recorded Rage Against the Machine message, “for it’s the end of history/its caged and frozen still/there is no other pill to take/so swallow the one that made you ill.

All hail these gloomy naysayers. May the final chapter of humanity give special footnote to the grotesque savants whose music cataloged our perverse self-destruction. A toast to amplifiers and overdrive pedals and blood-curdling screams. As we swan dive into upheaval, I doff my cap to the violent timbre of outsider rock stars who saw past the profit glow of 1990s hubris to show us glimpses from over the precipice. A tribute now to those who made a mint and secured their legend predicting a not-too distant cacophony of just desserts for a people mind-fucked on prosperity and blissfully unaware of the karmic repercussions of hypocrisy.

Which is not to suggest that the musicians listed here were purely stalwart radicals who somehow commandeered the record industry to press a revolutionary agenda of countervailing angst that changed the world forever.

Fuck no. Pop culture is the product of a marriage between commerce and expression. “Artists” write, record, grind and tour to perpetuate an existence by which they are financially compensated for their creative output. The rise of popular music, from old shellac records to border blaster radio to television appearances and scene-making magazines, is a story of clever demographics, ad buying and identity hawking.

Here in these United States, popular music has historically supported an amazing length and breadth of styles, aesthetics and opinions for a number of reasons. One, American social and political populism not only encourages dissent and diversity, but offers legal protection for those pursuits. Two, culture is one of this country’s most noteworthy exports — global hegemony rides on the pervasiveness of our image and its association with the cool and cutting edge. Three, a post war prosperity bubble by which savvy financial posturing, advantageous post-colonial strategic dynamics and block-buster trade ensured the post-WWII United States had ample disposable income (especially among adolescents) with which to purchase ungodly quantities of music.

Going deeper down the rabbit hole, culture, like identity itself, is fundamentally written in a binary language of affirmation and negation. Musicians and directors and writers and painters develop their unique product by assessing what stimuli have come before with a simple “yes” or “no” or perhaps even a cheeky “maybe.”

Early hip-hop, for example, responded with a glowing “1” to big party sound systems, master of ceremony culture, boasting traditions and vinyl scratch/sample techniques. Punk receives gaudy prog rock, hyper-polished, saccharine sweet pop music and unbridled celebrity wealth with a fat “0” made from raw, flaw-ridden guitar tracks and willful self-destruction.

Coded into that dialogue of yes and no is a cultural branching effect. Film, literature, art and music all respond to the society around it with a broader sense of approval or disdain. The core schism in rock music and all other virally disruptive forms of sonic culture is between a celebration of a society that allows us to go and party all night in nice clothes before heading off to a substantial job the next morning to continue making money to feed the high times and a vehement disavowal of the terms, prejudices, hierarchies, assumptions and all out brutality of a larger system that rewards “winners” and punishes “losers.”

Traditionally, music sees its finest moments when the hip, economically fruitful mainstream colludes with the raw, edgy counter-culture or alternative.

Mid to late 90s hard rock was one of the most prolific examples of this phenomenon. On the one hand, you have the creative heirs to protest, punk, grunge, and alt rock producing music that takes merciless aim against conformity, levels heavy blows against easy listening sincerity and skewers pop seduction. On the other hand, you have a record industry that has doubled down on mega stars who exist to captivate and command audiences by skillful employment of a tool kit utilizing pricy music videos, glossy production and frenzied media manipulation.

What could be more shocking (and alluring) than the unlikely coronation of musical anti-heroes who market themselves as prophets of doom and gloom and violent discord in an era of unparalleled wealth, technological advancement and global prestige in the years after the US “won” the Cold War?

Statement-heavy hard rock affirmed a laundry list of best-selling cultural elements: pop-iconocism, youthful rebellion, and surface level disinterest in the status quo. Better yet, it threw up knowing middle fingers to deny the tropes of past-date Reaganite nostalgia porn and Clintonite neo-liberal prosperity.

In short, consumers (fans) primed for increasing iconoclastic products gave demographic to record companies eager to enable broadly subversive blockbuster albums with names like Antichrist Superstar and Evil Empire.

This is why System of A Down, Marilyn Manson and Rage Against the Machine were once cool. Not because everyone who picked up their albums was attuned to the political specifics or social critiques, but because these acts had a cutting edge sound that blended a lot of other popular shit in a package that suited any number of “fuck you all kindly” world views.

These were golden years for fans of accessible heavy music. FM radio and MTV sagged beneath the weight of an angst arms race between artists and labels eager to outsell one another and stack the lineup of legendary touring festivals like Ozzfest and Lollapalooza.

The returns were strong. Trent Reznor’s Downward Spiral went quadruple platinum in 1998. To date Marilyn Manson has sold over 68 million records worldwide including three albums that have gone platinum or more and three that have gone gold. The first two Rage Against the Machine albums went triple platinum. The Battle of Los Angeles went double platinum. SOAD has forty million records sold to their name.

These are lovely sales figures given that the prevailing brand identity in this rock and roll split offs was a consummate disavowal of the terms and conditions of contemporary capitalist society. The basic hypocrisy was but a lurking cognitive dissonance beneath an arrangement where mass media sales machines were employed to spread an effective if disingenuous ethos.

Marilyn Manson’s wormish self-mutilation and Machiavellian ambitions presage both the rejection culture and gruesome political theatre of 2016. Tack on his visionary Golden Age of Grotesque’s portrait of decadent Weimar Germany before Nazi rule and you’ve got an eerie gallery of thumb sketches outlining the depravity lurking in our collective social shadows.

Rage Against the Machine’s stylishly woven verses connected ethnic consciousness, sharp leftist rhetoric and snarky dissections of political manipulation. The free-trade capitalism critiques and savage targeting of oafish totalitarianism feel prescient of the intellectual climate in the Occupy movement or the Bernie Sanders camp. Even the Tea Party owes much of their party line to Rage Against the Machine.

System of a Down earned their fame with musical and lyrical interpretations of absolutism and physical force. Mass shooting psychology, brazen police violence, “self-righteous” suicide, jet pilots scouring territory for presumptive attack, looming genocide and ideologically legitimized terror all play their part in grim albums that postulate, “Freedom will only be available through death.”

It’s amazing to look back today on the hard rock paradigm of yesteryear. What were abnormal fantasies in the hearts and speakers of American teens in suburban 1999 have become strangely lucid realities. It’s curious to wonder if these bombastic cultural products laid the groundwork for our present political predicament. It’s interesting to think that music could predict, prepare for or even inoculate against future shock. That optimistic mindset may give too much credit. Where are yesteryear’s hardline outsider rock stars today?

Culture has a shelf life. All genres and forms and fashions have their day in the sun before something new comes and the old begins to seem tired and hackneyed. Over exposure certainly played a role in sidelining the fringe-embracing rock stars of 90s top shelf counterculture. More than atrophy is to blame.

The years surrounding the turn of the millennium were a tumultuous time for the recording industry. The birth of the MP3 and P2P file sharing systems were a portent of changing business models in the music industry. Rapid developments in computer ability began to alter the producing and distribution game. Add on the resolution to the digital crisis of faith that was Y2K and you can interpret the coming millennium as a technological watershed moment for musicians.

Hard rock largely survived that transition, but the appeal, efficacy and vital controversy of the genre suffered inestimable blows. In the three years between 1999 and 2001, society and circumstance struck back at the culture of rejection with condemnation, co-option and censorship.

From almost the moment of their arrival on the mainstream scene, bands like Manson and Rage earned the ire of family groups, right wing activists and other watchdogs for “moral decline.” The April 1999 Columbine shooting was a proverbial smoking gun for genre detractors who finally had an evidentiary link between angry outcast music and methodical brutality against all-American kids. The event’s mythic dimensions grew to grotesque proportions immediately. A narrative of alienation and retribution shifted to the good vs. evil legend embodied stalwart Christian Cassie Bernall being shot to death by two Rammstein fans in black trench coats while she prayed to the lord to spare her life.

No anthropologist who has studied ancient cave paintings depicting violence wonders if those paintings caused the legacy of murder and war we inherit today. Anger and its physical manifestations predate hard rock, yet it was hard rock that footed the bill of responsibility for the Columbine Massacre. Strike one.

It’s difficult to place all the blame for the catastrophic co-opting of hard rock on Fred Durst, but the Limp Bizkit front man with the backwards, red Yankee cap is a convenient emblem. In its most virile form, late 90s hard rock flirted with hip hop vocals and style in ways that soon became de rigueur in the music’s next evolutionary step: nu-metal.

Musically, bands like Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit have a decent amount in common. Rhythm section plays heavy beneath hard-boiled guitar, hip-hop borrowed effects and MC flow. Unfortunately each band’s ethos is diametrically opposed to one another’s. “You need to take down the system to retain your freedom” suddenly becomes “fuck the man/get pussy.”

The Jacksonvillified version that Limp Bizkit brought to the table conveniently married the heavy-handed musicality with a bro-friendly message about sexual desire wrapped in stylish alpha male posturing. Without the burden of political controversy, the fresh batch of spray tan-core nu metal rejuvenated interest and sales.

Though distasteful to many as a matter of nature, the nu metal issue itself boiled over in June of 1999 at Woodstock ’99. Event organizer greed, poor planning and outright lawlessness led to riots and rape. Limp Bizkit’s set provided barely needed impetus for a frenzy of wanton violence. Fred Durst gained infamy at the cost of any political legitimacy the genre had left. More condemnation, decreased cache. Strike two.

Then the towers fell and strike three came right down the middle of the plate.

The post-attack social climate of fear and apprehension was a gift of consensus building for a conservative agenda that transcended the halls of government to include corporate America. Shortly after the attacks, Clear Channel Communication, the great arbiter of taste via broadcast, issued a memorandum “suggesting” that certain lyrically “questionable” songs might be inappropriate choices for a nation whose need to mourn demanded solidarity and quiet cultural seas.

1,200 radio stations received a farcical list on which iconic tunes that bear but the slightest abstract connection to the events of September 11 were equated to sonic salt rubbed in raw emotional wounds.

From Martha & The Vandellas’ “Dancin’ in the Streets” to The Youngbloods’ “Get Together,” a slew of golden oldies join the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Alice in Chains, Tool, Soundgarden, Saliva, P.O.D., Pink Floyd, Nine Inch Nails, Mudvayne, Metallica, Steve Miller, Local H, Led Zeppelin, GnR, Filter, Drowning Pool, Dio and 311 on the list. Every single song by Rage Against the Machine was included.

System of a Down’s popular Toxicity album was released the week before on September 4, 2001. Not surprisingly, the spooky video for “Chop Suey!” was taken off the air for a time. The vision of dark-haired band members with vaguely Middle Eastern features shuttling back and forth in one another’s bodies as “when angels deserve to die” is repeated ad nauseam was deemed to be grossly inappropriate.

The glory days of muddy, over-wrought, hard-playing fringe rock as a mainstream tent pole commodity were just about at an end. More glossy pop, who-am-I indie rock and rave electronica subsumed the hard rock market. The bands that formed the core of commercial hard rock by and large continued making music and touring intermittently, but to diminished effect.

Here and now in July of 2016, I invite you to revisit your favorite albums from those happy hateful days at the ass-end of the last millennium. In retrospect, some of it is absolute garbage. Some of it holds up mighty well.

So it goes. Today’s freak icon, rabble-rouser and noisemaker stands to be tomorrow’s prophet. In the light of hard rock’s maturation over these fifteen or so years in exile, it’s fascinating to look around the musical world today and acknowledge the possibility of similar prescience.

Who are we to know what elements of glitch, post-punk, trap, ambient, dubstep even could be somehow seminal to tomorrow’s percolating political quandary? What gender, class, sexuality, ethnic identity stances are intriguing gimmicks today and essential cultural context tomorrow?

What is certain is that the western world has an absolute glut of culture. We no longer adhere so strictly to hierarchies of popularity and sales. We do not aspire to listen to music in a linear, generational fashion. Streaming and ubiquitous access means that all culture sits simultaneously in postmodern repose.

The reality is that the world is evolving at a pace we struggle to comprehend. Moore’s Law predicts further advancements and with them the necessary corollary of social disruption. Culture becomes a valuable tool to our adaptive skills as a species. Recorded music unifies the influences, styles and sentiments of our collective past in a form that encourages speculation and innovation that, more often than we think, predicts and negotiates the terms of our future long before we’re confronted by the need to bargain.

Pay attention.