It was on April 13, 1996 that Saturday Night Live gave us one of its strangest host/musical guest combinations of all-time. Your host? Billionaire Steve Forbes, who had just dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination for President. Your musical guest? Rage Against the Machine. Yeah, a pretty awkward choice when a man who more or less embodies “the machine” is hosting. It went about as well as one might expect; the band only played one song, in which they hung an upside down American flag over one of their amplifiers to protest Forbes’ hosting. An angry Lorne Michaels chased them out of the studio, and they were subsequently banned from the show. Really, it was a quintessential Rage moment.
Throughout their original run in the ’90s, Rage were the voice of left-wing politics. They fought class warfare on “Down Rodeo,” combated racism on “Killing in the Name,” protested the imprisonment of Mumia Abu-Jamal on “Voice of the Voiceless,” and in general, gave voice to one political cause or another on just about every song. The band found a huge fan base, becoming one of the most decidedly non-mainstream bands to get regular airplay on rock radio. When considering the band’s fiery political rhetoric, along with the current political climate, one can’t help but wonder how people would react to the band if they were to come along now.
While the band’s pissed-off lefty politics certainly found a lot of fans, they came along at a time when the average liberal was far more comfortable than usual. It was the Clinton administration, and the country was in the midst of a budget surplus. Admittedly, several parts of Bill Clinton’s presidency are frowned upon by liberals now, like the Defense of Marriage Act, which effectively banned same-sex marriage at the federal level, and the 1994 crime bill against gangs and teenagers who were labeled “super-predators,” which Hillary Clinton is currently facing scrutiny for. At the time, however, Clinton was quite popular among liberals, and only the more hardened leftists were complaining about his policies. With that in mind, Rage’s righteous anger might have seemed a tad anachronistic. But right now? It would have fit right in with much of the national mood.
In the video for their 1999 single “Sleep Now in the Fire,” the band unintentionally called Donald Trump’s presidential run, who, at the time was nothing more than a wealthy blowhard, and not exactly an immediate threat. You could understand the band’s anger at, well, any incredibly rich person, but it was probably hard for most people to get super-enraged at the sight of the Donald. He was larger than life, and self-aggrandizing, but that was about it. Now, as he mounts a presidential campaign where he has targeted Muslims and Mexican immigrants, while making several misogynistic comments, he seems like the scariest person in America, and Rage’s video can’t help but seem a tad prophetic. The targets of Rage’s vitriol that might have seemed inconsequential at the time now seem just as threatening as the band proclaimed them to be nearly two decades ago.
Additionally, the American left is far less complacent, and far more divided than they were at the time. Now, there is a stark divide between Hillary Clinton supporters and Bernie Sanders supporters, as the campaign gets increasingly volatile. Boosters for Bernie view Hillary supporters as those who have yet to evolve from her husband’s presidency during the band’s heyday and see the state of modern liberalism in need of a major overhaul. With that in mind, Rage would’ve been the perfect band to soundtrack the Sanders movement, which is being led by leftists who no longer see the Democratic party as representing their beliefs and interests. The number of people on the left who are dissatisfied with modern politics is a lot higher than it was when Bill Clinton was President, and as Bernie pushes Hillary to the brink, it feels like if Rage were still together in 2016, they would fit right in with the current conversation.
Since their official breakup in 2000, no act has really filled the void. Green Day expressed their contempt for the Bush administration on American Idiot, but that was 12 years ago, and the band has become far less political in the interim. We could possibly look to punks like Rise Against or rappers like Killer Mike as acts full of left-wing ire that could voice the modern movement, but they’ve never made the same impact that band like Rage did. At the time, Rage’s ultra-lefty politics might have felt both heavy-handed, as well as out of place when considering how content most liberals felt at the time. But when we see the split between Sanders supporters and Clinton supporters, as well as the growing fear of a Trump presidency (the one thing that unites the left), the band feels as relevant ever. It’s hard not to think that if they were together now, they would be providing the hellish current political landscape with a fitting soundtrack.
They certainly would be welcomed back to SNL decades later, even with host Donald Trump.