I put the TV on this afternoon and The Matrix happened to be on. Since one of my favorite movies of all time was effortlessly available, I had no choice but to lock myself on the couch and watch. I’ve always been attracted to the film, but for various reasons. I remember watching it with my parents as a tween, enamored with the visual spectacle it threw at my impressionable. As a young man, I saw the film again and was drawn into its mystical, nightmarish atmosphere. Now, as a pretentious college student, I identify very strongly with the film’s purpose. The plight of the characters is far removed from anything that any of us have experienced in our lives, but is yet still relatable. That seeking, that constant nagging that something isn’t quite right with our life. As Morpheus tells Neo at their first meeting: “Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know, you can’t explain. But you feel it. You felt it your entire life. That there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there. Like a splinter in your mind – driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?” Even the most unreflective person experiences this feeling, even if once for a fleeting moment.
And yet, as the last moments of the film play out, I’m most struck by the song chosen to represent the ending: “Wake Up,” by Rage Against The Machine. It’s sort of funny to me that I like the band now, because I remember that The Matrix was the first time I was ever exposed to the band. The song has a unique quality to it. At times, it’s almost cheesy; crammed full of faux badassery and pseudo-political lyrics. But closer inspection reveals the song to in fact be just awesome. Indeed, a perfect fit for the end of The Matrix. It captures the style of the film along with the intensity of its message. Indeed, it was The Matrix that first led me to Rage Against The Machine’s debut album, a self-titled album released in 1992. I think that one interesting factoid about the self-titled album is their claim that no electronic instruments were utilized in the production of the album: only unaltered vocals, guitar, bass and drums appear. This is certainly no revolutionary concept – much of American rock ‘n’ roll music was completely analog in this way. However, the assertion points at what I think one of the band’s real aspirations: authenticity. “None of that bullshit, just real rock telling it like it is,” we can imagine them saying. That’s really all they care about. If we take lyricist/vocalist Zack Le Da Rocha as a representation of the band’s collective ideology, all they really care about is telling it like it is.
The band’s political nature is both well-documented and obvious, so it feels almost tired, or pointless, to describe it in any detail. Suffice it to point out one specific indicent that seems to define Rage Against The Machine as a band. In 2000, they filmed a music video for their song “Sleep Now In The Fire” in front of the New York Stock Exchange. After the shoot, the band attempted to enter the building but were denied entry from security. They started a shouting match and were forced out of the building. Nobody was arrested, but it symbolized the band’s down-with-the-system intention. They’re unabashed revolutionaries with outspoken views on the government, the police, and society in general. Though I confess that I don’t much agree with the band’s political message, I’m nonetheless sympathetic to the band’s efforts. I feel like the believe really strongly in what they say, and there’s something to be positive to be said for that.
The album cover comes from a famous photograph of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk named Thích Quảng Đức who burned himself to death in protest of the South Vietnamese government’s oppression of the Buddhist religion. I find it interesting that the band thought it appropriate to utilize the image for their purposes. The spirit that it invokes – an infinite willingness to protest injustice – is exactly what the band attempt to evoke with their music. And for what it’s worth, I’m enamored. It’s quite a task for a communist musical collective to interest to someone who believes, with good philosophical grounding, strongly in free market economics. Regardless of political orientation, Rage Against The Machine have a message that they refuse to allow to go unnoticed. And that’s exactly why it was chosen for the ending scene of The Matrix. Because the auters of that film refuse to allow their message to go unnoticed. Question everything. Be sure of nothing. Be mislead by nothing.
It’s amazing that music can do that.