The Politics of Regressive Listening

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Scholars analyzing representations of global capitalism through music and visual culture must contend with their mediated rhythms of politicization (i.e., when they are received as political) as well as the tensions inherent to their mediation (i.e., how the medium affects the representation and vice versa). As a case in point, Rage against the Machine’s (RATM) sound, lyrics, videography, and album art critique the ideological foundations of criminality within global systems of capitalism and cultural justifications for the American-led police order. Their anarchic performativity-as-protest and protest-as-performativity synthesizes rap, hip-hop, funk, punk, and heavy metal political aesthetics to formulate a critical response to the circulation of hegemonic cultural commodities, ideologies, and identities manufactured by the culture industry. It has been more than two decades since the release of Rage against the Machine’s self-titled debut album, and their return to popularity leading up to the 2016 presidential election reflects the reiteration of historical contradictions in the global political economy due to a public affect of rage caught up in the rise of American capitalism that resonates with the band’s anarchic, revolutionary aesthetic. However, the populist, inverted anger of the American reactionary Right has succeeded in no small part because it made itself, like RATM, directly legible. Hillary Clinton promised to repair and refine the globalized neoliberal machinery; Trump ran on a platform of raging against that machine and won, despite also serving as a guarantee of the corporate status quo. By turning to performance studies methods applied to the RATM scene, we might better understand the affects characterizing political subjects that resist the police order via aesthetics, and how those sounds can be regressed by various kinds of listeners within the current ethical regime of sound. The musical practices of RATM echo the emergence of new forms of resistance to the dislocations and displacements that produce globalized environments in the transnational era through appositional critiques of exploitative social relations.