Estimated Prophets: On Supergroups & 2016 Political Music

A look at Prophets of Rage's formation and the difficulties inherent in making popular protest music in 2016
By    August 22, 2016

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Will Hagle listens to satellite guerilla radio. 

2008 was the last year in which the United States was consumed by an insurgent campaign for political change. It was also the last year in which Lollapalooza was a festival worth attending. George W. Bush was president, Lollapalooza’s now-infamous Perry’s stage didn’t exist, and the small DJ-infested area that did exist was frequented only by the scant few 90s rave burn-outs that had managed to make it to Millennium Park those August afternoons.

The bill was topped by Radiohead, Kanye West, Wilco, and Rage Against the Machine. The latter two headlined the same Saturday night, during which political fervor about the upcoming election was palpable. There were rumors that Barack Obama might be there, possibly to introduce Wilco. Rage Against the Machine, on the other hand, was an inherently political band. Hundreds of their fans stampeded the fence, evading security and ducking to the front of the stage to let loose the tension that they’d built up over eight years of a disastrous Bush presidency.

Rage’s heyday coincided with that of Lollapalooza’s — that era of alt-rock excess in the first Clinton administration. There’s a bigger market for leftist messages yelled over pulverizing riffs in an election year, and so the band’s billing atop a festival they’d played 15 years ago, in its 3rd year ever, was a logical choice.

Wilco, too, was a smart choice by those that booked Lollapalooza that year. The good-natured alt-country locals were the perfect antithesis to Rage, meant to appease suburban parents while their kids threw elbows across the park. And that’s exactly what they did.

Wilco took the stage in full Grand Ol Opry garb, played “Misunderstood,” and made cheesy jokes in between soft songs. Obama was nowhere to be found. It’d later be revealed that the rumors of his possible appearance had had some merit, but the Obama campaign had ultimately deemed the move too risky.** Obama didn’t want to lean into accusations that he was more of a “rock star” than a serious politician. With Rage on the schedule across from Wilco, the right-wing media could’ve construed that Obama was a socialist sympathizer, or something. That wasn’t worth the attempt to appeal to the young voters in his hometown that already overwhelmingly supported him. Obama’s most ardent supporters waited throughout the whole set, but then Wilco had the Total Pros Horns join them for some songs off Sky Blue Sky, and that was that.

Meanwhile, across the park, Zack De La Rocha was saying something along the lines of “I like Brother Obama, but he better make some real change or a lot of people are gonna wanna burn some shit down.” The crowd roared.

After Rage, Wilco, and whatever DJ was manning the electronic area had finished their sets, the festival spilled out onto Michigan Ave. I stood in the doorway of my hotel’s lobby, watching as hordes of band-shirted people streamed past. Everyone was for some reason just cheering. Strangers were high-fiving each other while cops watched them quietly from horseback. The scene had all the glory of Waveland Ave. after the W flag’s been hoisted above Wrigley. People pumped their fists in the air and yelled, for no reason other than they were super psyched to have just been at a music festival.

And now here we are, in 2016, eight years later, at the end of Obama’s full two terms as leader of this nation. Many are simultaneously sad and in disbelief that he’ll be leaving Washington, like a crowd during the last song of a retiring rock star’s supposed ‘last show ever.’ Most who supported him back in ’08 think he did a good job, but, like De La Rocha predicted, a lot of people want to burn some shit down. We are no longer marching down streets and pumping our fists in the air out of sheer happiness. Hope and Change have been replaced by Hope Not to Lose to a Fascist Reality Star. Politics once again dominates day-to-day conversation, but comparing the climate of 2016 with that of 2008 is like comparing an IPA to Budweiser America. It’s just way more bitter.

Lollapalooza happened again last month, but the main story wasn’t about optimism for the direction in which our soon-to-place-a-huge-fucking-vote of a country is headed. It was about Malia Obama smoking weed and dancing to Mac Miller. There wasn’t much revolutionary about Lollapalooza in 2008 either, but at least it felt like the country was going to turn things around for the better, and that that mood was reflected in the music.

To be fair, there have been great moments in music related to politics this year. YG has been performing his protest anthem in front of a backdrop that says “FUCK DONALD TRUMP.” Bernie Sanders introduced Run the Jewels via video message at Coachella. Hillary Clinton hit the dab on Ellen. Several rappers have made songs about domestic issues more important than any presidential election will ever solve.

But passion for true change, as it usually does following eight years of one party’s rule, has shifted to the other side. Donald Trump has replaced Obama as the insurgent political campaign, and he’s done so by substituting anger & fear for hope & change. The music, as a consequence, has suffered. Trump has the support of Kid Rock, Ted Nugent, and Loretta Lynn. That’s not exactly the soundtrack to a revolution anyone wants to watch happen.

But the left doesn’t have such great musical support, either. Artists have rallied around Clinton or one of the third-party candidates, sure, but the only band that’s urging us to “take the power back” because “dangerous times demand dangerous songs” is Prophets of Rage. That’s as telling as it is terrifying.

Even in 2008, Rage Against the Machine was bold enough to speak out against Obama in his hometown, on the night he was rumored to be appearing on the other stage. In 2016, Prophets of Rage have embarked on a tour called ‘Make America Rage Again.’ Rather than bands battling insurgent conservatism with truly radical music, we have an all-star group trying to harness on political angst. As 24/7 Trump coverage has shown us, rage has never been more lucrative.

Rap-rock never really made sense if you thought about it for too long. Tom Morello’s hammer and sickle-stickered guitar and the band’s Woodstock ’99 flag burning session mean less when you realize they’ve made millions selling music within the corporate structure of the record industry. Even though Rage provided an outlet for fans to cathartically release the political and economic frustrations that prevailed in 2008, they still did so from the AT&T stage.

The latest incarnation of the group lacks De La Rocha but has added Chuck D and B-Real. The group formed a partnership with the largest ticketing corporation on the planet to provide VIP experiences for high-paying fans (donating portions of proceeds to local homeless shelters, but still). Their first single, “Prophets of Rage,” is a three-minute commercial for their upcoming tour, which conveniently culminates two weeks before the election.

Guiltier than the artists are the people—all of us who are content to buy what our old heroes are selling, apathetic in an election year the same way the people who passively watched Wilco slog through the hits were that night in 2008. We are no longer rushing the fence just to see a band we like, or cheering happily together on the sidewalk just because we all saw that band. We’ve turned against one another, factions formed from a collective anxiety about how we’re going to get forward into the future, and/or how we’re going to get to the front of the stage at Lollapalooza to see Future. Optimism has eroded, and Prophets of Rage is there only to feed off that pessimism rather than to actually incite action or promote any tangible alternatives. If there’s a better band doing those things out there, they’re certainly not being marketed as well.

But it’s comforting to remember that even in our darkest eras—like 2008, in the midst of two wars and a crippling recession—there are moments in music completely devoid of any political connotations capable of bringing us briefly together. Moments like watching Navy Pier fireworks explode over Radiohead’s set, watching the Chicago skyline loom over Kanye’s “Homecoming,” or laughing because Obama didn’t come out with Wilco but the band members were wearing funny outfits.

I hope the same experiences are being had by kids growing up in this newer, more tense and tumultuous time, and that they’re sharing those experiences with each other via 10-second Snapchatted bursts of Calvin Harris sets or whatever. If music can’t help us enact political change or even prevent political takeover, at least it can continue giving us memories, however inexact they may be. I don’t know if we will be able to channel hope again, but I just hope that we’ll all soon stop channeling such faux, ill-intentioned rage.


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