The Kennedy Center Honors always present an odd spectacle. One of the hottest tickets in town, it brings D.C.'s elites together to sit in black tie and cheer for old rock stars (among others). It's hard to imagine FDR mumbling along to Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love," an arm slung around Eleanor. But that's the world we live in today.
As the Kennedy Center honors more and more aging rockers—Led Zeppelin last year, the Who in 2008—we'll have to get used to such scenes. But this year's induction was perhaps the strangest scene yet. Not because of who was inducted—i.e., Carlos Santana, whose decades-long career is responsible for "Oye Como Va" and "Smooth," among other crimes against humanity. Rather, this year's Honors should be remembered for who performed in Santana's honor: Tom Morello, guitarist for Rage Against the Machine.
Now, to be fair, Morello's skill as a guitarist is beyond question. He's probably the most innovative electric guitarist since Eddie Van Halen. And he tends to wear his Harvard education on his sleeve, with quotes from Orwell (He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past) and offhand mentions 1990s-era leftist causes like the WTO and Mumia Abu-Jamal. The band's 1996 album, Evil Empire, came with a full list of recommended readings, from Abu-Jamal to Che Guevara. And, of course, Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.
But Rage's broader appeal probably owes less to their literary tastes than to their musical tributes to wanton violence. The band's recording career is bookended by songs about killing cops, beginning with "Killing in the Name Of" (Those who died are justified, for wearing the badge, they're the chosen whites), and ending with a cover of Cypress Hill's "How I Could Just Kill a Man" (How do you like my chrome then I watched the rookie pass out / Didn't have to blast him but I did any way, young punk had to pay). Vocalist Zack de la Rocha reiterated the point in a 2000 solo effort, explaining to Mayor Giuliani, "to the mayor, may I say I endorse the wholesale murder of your force of course?"
Rage broke up in 2000, not long before the band's web site was engulfed in controversy for its message board's ramblings in support of the 9/11 attacks. (Morello urged, perhaps ironically, that the band was "diametrically opposed" to acts of "horrible violence committed against innocent people.") But the band reformed a few years ago and continues to tour sporadically on its back catalogue—sort of a left-wing anarchist version of Hall & Oates, introducing new fans to songs such as "Guerilla Radio," "People of the Sun," "Bullet in the Head," and "Year of tha Boomerang."
Morello still carves out time to perform solo tours, playing left-wing folk songs under the moniker, "The Nightwatchman," to support conventional left-wing causes, such as protesting Wisconsin governor Scott Walker or protesting NATO. But perhaps his single most iconic moment of activism was the band's burning of an American flag at the 1999 version of Woodstock.
One trusts that the Kennedy Center Honors' organizers and audience were completely ignorant of Morello's body of work when they invited him to perform, even if it's not the first time that Morello's graced the Kennedy Center's stage. (Last time, he managed to out-activist an entire Woody Guthrie tribute show, interrupting "This Land Is Your Land" to hector the audience with the usual revolutionary bromides.) But before the Kennedy Center invites him again, it might want to give a listen to Rage's "Tire Me," which culminates with a bizarre spoof of JFK and Jackie: I wanna be Jackie Onassis / I wanna wear a pair of dark sunglasses / I wanna be Jackie O / Oh oh oh oh please don't die!
Still, the scene of President and Mrs. Obama cheering Morello's fret work among the rest of the assembled celebrities, echoes Tom Wolfe's Radical Chic: "Shootouts, revolutions, pictures in Life magazine of policemen grabbing Black Panthers like they were Viet Cong—somehow it all runs together in the head with the whole thing of how beautiful they are. Sharp as a blade."
One wonders what Morello himself made of the whole scene. He's spent years railing not just against Republicans like George W. Bush ("son of a drug lord") and Paul Ryan (a professed Rage fan himself), but also the Democratic Party. One of Rage's most popular songs, "Guerilla Radio," denounced Al Gore in the run-up to the 2000 election; the band later went to Los Angeles to protest the whole 2000 Democratic National Convention. More recently, he's accused President Obama of committing "drone murders" and other "war crimes," and responded to a Democratic party fundraising appeal by promising to donate money to Edward Snowden instead. The only politician that Morello actually likes may well be Ron Paul (naturally), who got Morello's thumbs-up.
And Morello's aim is leveled not just at politicians, but at elite classes more broadly. He's made this clear in songs like "Down Rodeo" (Yeah I'm rollin' down Rodeo with a shotgun / These people ain't seen a brown skin man / Since their grandparents bought one) and "Calm Like A Bomb" (These vultures rob everything / Leave nothing but chains).
So perhaps Morello's view of the Kennedy Center audience was not far from that of Panther lawyer Leon Quat in Lenny Bernstein's living room, who "knows a Radical Chic audience when he sees one." That would be fitting, given that half of Rage's lyrics seem paraphrased from Wolfe's account of the Black Panther speeches at Leonard Bernstein's cocktail party. (Not to mention the fact that both the Kennedy Center event and Wolfe's essay featured Harry Belafonte.) At the Kennedy Center, as in Wolfe's essay, "everyone in the room" drank the performance "like tiger’s milk, for the ... Soul, as it were."
In their preface to What So Proudly We Hail, Amy and Leon Kass and Diana Schaub describe "the soul-shaping powers" of popular music. "Song—the singular combination of moving speech set to stirring music—is everywhere employed in shaping hearts and souls, and the capacity of song to inspire is part of its power." Moments like these, when we see presidents and cultural leaders on national television, applauding left-wing anarchists brought to perform in honor of long-stale pop stars, illustrate that point all too well.