Killing in the Name
by Alec Plowman
“This song is about… the f—king government… and stuff.”
About fifteen years ago, I attended a local battle of the bands competition, and I was moved to laughter when one of the groups started their set with the above quote.
What followed didn’t inspire much confidence either. The song in question was a derivate mix of hard rock music clichés with some non-committal, vaguely anti-establishment lyrics that didn’t actually feel like a “protest” against anything.
Needless to say, they didn’t go through.
In retrospect, I can see why the young group felt the need to include a political number in their set. Protest songs have been a staple of rock ‘n’ roll since the counter-culture movements of the 1960s. But, writing a good protest song is a fine art, and it takes more than just rebellious spirit and loose gestures towards “fighting the system” to do it.
When you get it right, though, a protest song can reach the status of an anthem, resonating for generations after it was first written.
Take Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name,” for example. Since its release in 1992, the track has become an enduring classic, with none of its fiery potency diminished. In fact, I’d argue that it’s the perfect protest song. Here’s why.
It Gets to the Point
When it comes to lyric writing, Rage Against the Machine’s Zach de la Rocha isn’t afraid to use some serious verbiage. For example, here’s the packed second verse of “Take the Power Back”:
“The present curriculum, I put my fist in 'em
Eurocentric, every last one of 'em
See right through the red, white and blue disguise
With lecture I puncture the STRUCTURE of lies
Installed in our minds and attempting to hold us back
We've got to take it back
Cause holes in our sprit causing tears and fears
One-sided stories for years and years and years
Yeah we need to check the interior
Of the system that cares about only one culture
And that, is why we gotta take the power back”
In “Killing in the Name,” however, he pares it right back. Here are the sum total of the song’s lyrics:
“Some of those that work forces
Are the same that burn crosses
Killing in the name of…
Now you do what they told ya.
Those who died are justified
For wearing the badge they’re the chosen whites
You justify, those that died
By wearing the badge they’re the chosen whites.
F--k you, I won’t do what you tell me.”
He’s extremely economical with his words here, which is great for getting them ear worming through the listener’s head. But, as we’ll see, they’re still absolutely packed with meaning.
It Knows its Enemy
Unlike the aforementioned high school band, with their vague allusions to “the government,” Rage Against the Machine has a target here. The song is a critique of police brutality written six months after the Rodney King beating in 1991, which resulted in the L.A. riots. Amazingly, you can pretty much glean all that from the first two lines. By stating that some policemen also burn crosses, de la Rocha evokes images of the Ku Klux Klan and the racial tensions that sparked the riots in the first place.
Protesting a specific incident gives the song a focus. And that focus anchors the lyrics. The problem with generalized sentiments is that they feel insincere. Take, for example, Genesis’s “Land of Confusion.” It’s not a bad song per se, but it fails as a protest song thanks to its vagaries. “There’s too many people making too many problems and not enough love to go around,” Phil Collins intones, not pointing the finger at anyone in particular. The result is a track the feels like it was written to offend as few people as possible, which comes across somewhat cynically as a result.
Have a hook
Rage’s verse and chorus lyrics are very specifically focused on the L.A. Riots. But, in the pre-chorus, de la Rocha expands this to reflect on themes of social control more generally. In a call and response segment, the phrase “Now you’re under control” is met with the reply “And now they do what they told ya.” But, as the song reaches its explosive climax, de la Rocha sings the song’s most iconic (and expletive filled) phrase over the chorus riff.
When he screams that first “f--k you, I won’t do what you tell me” as Morello’s riff thunders back in, it hits like a tonne of bricks. Twisting the “now you do what they told ya” from the pre-chorus into a cry of action, it’s arguably the song’s biggest hook moment. Where the verse lyrics were specific, de la Rocha here goes for a more universal approach.
The listener might feel divorced from the specifics of the L.A. Riots, but nobody likes to feel controlled and pretty much everybody can relate to the sentiments of those words. His delivery emphasizes the feeling of release even further. Where his vocals in the verse, pre-chorus and chorus were contained and brooding, he absolutely pelts those final lines with reckless abandon. It grabs you.
In summary, writing a great protest song is a balancing act. You need to know what you’re protesting against, and enough knowledge on the subject to make the protest convincing. Yet, you don’t want to overburden your listener with excess verbiage, facts and figures. Key to writing a great protest song is getting to the point. Oh, and a great hook is a must, especially if it can stir a strong sense of feeling in the listener.