Editorial: Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and the Fallacy of Demanding That Socially-Conscious Musicians/Entertainers ‘Stick to Music’

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The ubiquity of social media over the past decade-plus has led to one inescapable truth: Everybody can express themselves no matter what, all the time. This includes musicians like guitarist Tom Morello, who posted something over the weekend that should really give pause to anybody thinking of shouting at him to ease up on the political commentary.

On its base, such a claim is inherently absurd for the reason that Morello first became a big deal as the lead guitarist for Rage Against the Machine — a band that does not exist at all in a world without politics, given every aspect of the band’s music and thematic approach.

Morello has *always* had politics in his veins, musically or otherwise, and he’s been as vocal as ever these past few weeks with the Black Lives Matter movement and protests sweeping the nation in the wake of the May 25 police killing of George Floyd.

But, in posting as much as he does on social media and saying what he says in interviews, Morello, like most entertainers who use their platform to make a statement about something going on in the world, gets talked down to in the comments and replies or told to “stick to music,” as if his views of the world don’t matter because he’s famous.

But there’s an issue with that: Tom Morello holds a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University’s Committee on Degrees in Social Studies.

This exchange originally dates back to 2017, when Morello posted an image of himself with his guitar, which featured a decidedly pointed barb at President Trump and a relevant Pink Floyd shirt:

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The specific background of Tom Morello is somewhat unique given his educational experience, and gives him a bit of an advantage when dealing with strong reactions to his political activism.

Harsh online reactions in the form of internet comments made to public figures in the entertainment realm are representative of a trend that has emerged on social media during the hyper-polarized times of the past few years. The idea that Morello, or LeBron james, or Brad Pitt, or anybody should just “shut up and sing,” or “shut up and dribble,” whether from random fans on the internet or cable news anchors and commentators (many of which are also “millionaires” like those they criticize for speaking out-of-turn, a topic for another time), is laughable.

Such critiques are made as if those in the cross-hairs are entertainers first and foremost — rather than tax-paying citizens with opinions just like the rest of us who are also famous entertainers.

It’s especially curious to see someone like Tom Morello get this kind of attention for his posts, considering all of his music, whether from Rage, Audioslave or his solo career (and beyond) is “political” in nature. Those reacting to his comments with indignation … have they ever actually LISTENED to the lyrics and themes of the music he’s made?

The same goes for someone like Bruce Springsteen, who’s used music to comment on the world for decades, but still receives irate comments from former fans renouncing him whenever he says something overtly politically charged (obviously landing on the ‘left-wing’ side of the discussion).

Have they actually ever “gotten” his music at all?

System of a Down vocalist Serj Tankian is another example of an artist who has to deal with this sort of thing … despite a very consistent track record of “getting political” with his music.

Speaking on a recent podcast, Tankian brought up the messaging of his music and how it has somehow missed the ears of the fans critiquing his speaking out on things:

“But what I don’t understand, and a lot of other people that follow the music say the same thing. They’re, like, ‘Have you not listened to the fucking words in 20 years? He’s been saying all this stuff through his music all this time. What are you, just dancing to it because it’s groovy? You’re not really getting the message?’”

Jason Isbell, another socially conscious singer/songwriter, summed up the artists’ perspective with a succinct tweet last week:

Even commenting on the very phenomenon of stirring up online controversy:

Truly unafraid of the blowback, Isbell, Kacey Musgraves and David Crosby continue to use their platform as they see fit, not taking the criticism too personally:

The more that musicians speak out in support of movements such as Black Lives Matter, the more they’re willingly taking that chance to alienate fans — and they know it.

Paul McCartney recently issued a heartfelt message supporting Black Lives Matter, relating it to the Beatles‘ decision to refuse a gig in 1964 that was to be performed to a segregated audience.

His messaging has resulted in comments of support as well as those who take offense at such a statement — and that’s that aforementioned “risk” in full display.

McCartney recalling an event from almost 60 years ago to illustrate a point about 2020 is powerful — and indicative of his personal stake in things as an elder statesman of music, decades of experience under his belt.

Telling artists such as Tom Morello, Paul McCartney, David Crosby and Serj Tankian, among countless others, to “shut up and entertain me!” demonstrates an obvious lack of understanding of the art they’ve created for years and the legacies they’ve created with their commentary on the world.

If that offends you now, but didn’t before, you just weren’t paying attention.

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