Rage Against The Machine or the Sound of Resistance

Term Paper 2018 15 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Definitions of Popular Culture, Gramsci's hegemony and Identity
2.1 Different ways to define Popular Culture
2.2 Antonio Gramsci and the concept of hegemony

3. Popular Music as a part of Popular Culture

3.1 The sound of resistance

3.2 Rage Against the Machine as the embodied protest

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Historically seen, music has always been accompanied humanity in large part. People have different soundtracks for many parts of their lifes. Music is an important part of our everyday life and of our culture. It is able to form identities and a feeling of togetherness. The topic of this term paper is music and especially the function of music within a cultural setting. Music has the ability to be used politically, to affect people and to manipulate people. Music can also be used as a social protest - as resistance. At the same time music and politics are going hand in hand for many years. Musicians, or bands are used for political purposes in many different countries. During the late 1990s the British band Oasis helped Tony Blair and his party in their election campaign. having said that musicians play songs against certain campaign or ban the usage of their music for political purposes, like the band Queens who did not allow President Trump to misuse their music for his intentions.

Different scholars and scientists have worked on the field of popular culture studies and popular music studies. Books like The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest or articles like Protest and Music try to explain the relationship between those to fields. Nowadays popular culture has its permission to be taught at university level and therefore popular music has to been researched, as well.

Both, music and (popular) culture have different expactations to the people. In order to establish an understanding of the terms culture and popular culture, it is necessary to define those and to explain certain theories likewise, for example Gramsci's theory of hegemony. The outcome of this is the structure of this term paper as this introduction is followed by a part that consists of different definitions and explanations that deal with popular culture, identity and hegemony. As the topic of this paper is music, it is necessary to explain popular music within popular culture and its role. This leads to the chapter "The sound of resistance" where this particular role of music - the role of resistance - is described together with some examples that will complement the given keypoints. The focus of this term paper will be the American band "Rage against the Machine" and their performance of the song "Killing in the name" from the Woodstock Festival 1999.

2. Definitions of Popular Culture, Gramsci's hegemony and Identity

Talking about culture and talking about popular culture in particular needs a definition of those terms. But this, in fact, is not as easy as it seems to be because popular culture can be defined in many different ways since it is existing in many different contexts. Saying that popular culture are the practices of everyday life would be to general. It is important to know exactly this, popular culture is heavily connected to the context it is used in and therefore need many different definitions (cf. Storey 1997: 1). The word popular originates from the Latin word popularis which means "of, or belonging to the people". The following chapter tries to give the most important attempts that can be used explaining popular culture.

2.1 Different ways to define Popular Culture

A very first attempt to define popular culture would be saying that popular culture is the culture or are those cultural practices that are favoured by many people (cf. Storey 1997: 7). As mentioned before, this is to general in order to get the essence of what is meant with popular culture. So going a step further popular culture consists of all those cultural texts and practices that failed to be seen as high culture. Therefore popular culture has to be seen as a substandard culture (cf. Storey 1997: 8). Again, the context in which the term popular culture is used might change the definition of the term completely. As an example try to think of the works written by William Shakespeare. Nowadays the works are seen as high culture but back in the time he had written them the sonnets or plays were clearly a part of the popular theatre (Storey 1997: 8).

Another starting point to define popular culture would imply saying that popular culture is a mass culture or in other words commercial culture (Storey 1997: 11). "[Popular culture] is mass-produced for mass consumption [...]. The culture itself is formulaic, manipulative (to the political right or left [...])" (Storey 1997: 11). Mass culture is produced for an audience which is unknown and disparate. Differently from Folk culture where practices have developed over time within a particular community and that has been communicating from generation to generation[1]. Going one step further from this one is able to say that mass culture is clearly identifiable as an imported American culture. Hence, popular culture undergoes a constant Americanization. Looking at cinema programmes, music charts or what to wear next summer, the American culture finds its way in nearly every sector of public life (cf. Storey 1997: 11). Moreover, in mass culture there is always a mass culture perspective that shows political right or political left versions of an argument. Texts and practices of popular culture within the mass culture are seen as forms of public fantasy - a collective dream world. Popular culture provides an escape from or to anywhere. It originates from the people - as the term popular means something that is liked by a lot of people - and is likewise the authentic culture of the people (cf. Sorey 1997: 12). Lastly one way to explain popular culture is with the help of the concept of hegemony by Antonio Gramsci. This concepts describes the relationship between politics and popular culture. Popular culture is seen as a terrain of exchange between the culture of the mass culture theorists and oppositional culture of the people (cf. Storey 1997: 13-14). In the next chapter I will go into detail much more on this concept.

Looking back at what shapes popular culture it is to say that popular culture can be seen from two different perspectives. On the one side popular culture is used by the elites in order to controle and to manipulate the masses below them. On the other side, popular culture is just the opposite, namely that pop culture is a vehicle for rebellion against the perception of culture from the dominant elite groups. Another conflict of popular culture is its defferentiation to the so-called high culture. As I said, popular culture is the culture of the people that is consumed by the masses. High culture otherwise, is clearly not meant to be accessable for everyone. High culture, for exampe fine arts, theatre or opera, belongs to the social elites. It needs a high brow approach, training and of course, reflection to be appreciated (cf. Crossman 2017). "As such, high culture is considered sophisticated while popular culture is often looked down upon as being superficial" (Crossman 2017).

2.2 Antonio Gramsci and the concept of hegemony

As the term hegemony has its origin in Greek language and comes from the word hegemonia which means 'leadership' or 'rule', the Italian writer and philosopher Antonio Gramsci modeled the term 'hegemony' in the sociological sense that leads to the term 'cultural hegemony'. Originally, the question of hegemony emerged from the historical analysis of the rise of the ruling class of society - the bourgeoisie - in the 19th century. In this context in particular, Gramsci was interested in the relation between leading and ruling in political context. Within a society one of these two classes is "leading" towards like-minded classes and "ruling" towards opposed classes. So, before one class is able to reach political power, it has to be the leading class, in other words, in possession of the political hegemony (Langemeyer 2009: 74). These observations that Gramsci made in political context can easily be transfered into a cultural context. According to Gramsci, the state contains the political society and the civil society. The civil society equals the public sphere and consists of a number of institutions like church, science, education system, family, trade unions and media. These sub-sectors are described as “hegemonic instruments“, because within their sphere, the struggle for cultural hegemony takes place. Here, the ruling class tries to implement their leadership onto the other social classes. Keeping the leadership of the ruling class stable is only possible when firmly establishing this leadership in the culture of a society (cf. Langemeyer 2009: 75). As I said before, culture describes the peoples’ view of the world, the ideas of what is “normal” and of how we should act and interact in society. Hence, Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony means to firmly establish the ruling class’ ideas in people’s minds by representing them as right and normal. Those ideas turn into culture, they become the consensus the society is based on. Within a social class, the intellectuals are responsible for creating these rules or patterns of behaviour and to communicate them to the masses, the so-called „subordinate classes“. Intellectuals does not necessarily have to mean educated people, but those how are in charge of an organizing function within their group. They could be described as “leading personalities“ (Langemeyer 2009: 75). Consequently, when these ideas and rules are successfully spread over mass media or other hegemonic instruments, they will become social norms. In this way, the ruling of the leading class is legitimized and secured. Therefore, the concept of cultural hegemony describes a power relationship, in which the power is based on the broad approval of the ruled ones, since, according to Gramsci, ruling only, on the base of violence is not possible. It has to be supported - consciously or unconsciously - by the subordinate masses (Langemeyer 2009: 75). During the 1920s, when Gramsci worked on his revolutionary image of the state, the capitalist state was made up by two overlapping spheres: first, a political sphere (the state), and second, a civil society (private people). Gramsci's hegemony goes further than propaganda as hegemony works by getting people to consent values. It is about letting the people believe that their consent is natural. Consent is manufactures through media and universities. Popular culture is intensly involved in manufacturing consent but at thte same time creates counter-hegemony[2]. Finally, cultural hegemony is a process of domination, in which one set of values and ideas undermines others, this means the interests of one group are supported over those of others. In consequence, one class exerts leadership over all others (cf. Storey 1997: 126-127).

3. Popular Music as a part of Popular Culture

Just as popular culture has its origin within a social framework, music is also made within the very same framework. Music, and especially popular music, is a cultural expression and at the same time it is a business (Pattie 2015: 310). Where culture and music strongly work together can be seen especially in social movements or political movements. Music is used for social changes as it has the ability to bridge boundaries (Roy 2010: 1-2). Social or political movements use music, art, drama, dance or any other cultural material to recruit new members (Roy 2010: 7).

But how does music enter into social interaction? There are three possible fields that give answers to this question. First of all, we might look at ontology; what is music?, Second, we find answers in terms of meaning; How do people create meaning within music? And lastly, function; What does music do in social relationships? Starting with the field of ontology, music is an object or a thing. Music as an object has a moment of creation, characteristics and a relation of cause and effect. Pieces of music can be named, as they are called songs. Music production can be labeled and organizations like record labels, critics or publishers render music as an object (cf. Roy 2010: 10). Music as a product is there to be sold as a commercial object. Everything what is needed to produce music and to sell or advertise music belongs to the music industry (cf. Roy 2010: 10). But music is not just an object, it is a process, as well and can be seen as something unbounded and open. Music always develops and is shared by many different people who adapt, elaborate and unfold music again and again (Roy 2010: 11). Therefore music is not just a thing but an activity that people do and it is a part of social activity. For axample a random song can be used as a hymn which identifies a certain group of people. "Music helps order the pace, feel, and energy of interaction that makes the events 'really' what they are" (Roy 2010: 11). The second field that helps understand music as social interaction is the function of music. Meaning within music can not only be found in the lyrics but also in the sonic qualities or in the context music is used in. Roy gives a definition on how music and meaning relate with each other:

Meaning is the system of symbols by which people make sense of the world in the context of interaction [...]. Meaning is fundamentally sociological insofar as it happens through interaction and makes interaction possible (Roy 2010: 12).


[1] Taken from my notes from the masters course "Pop Politicized".

[2] Taken from my notes from the masters course "Pop Politicized".


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University of Bonn – Institut für Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Keltologie
Pop Culture Popular Culture Music Rage Against The Machine Resistance Opposition




Title: Rage Against The Machine or the Sound of Resistance