CW for the lyrics; swears, allusions to police violence
The next video in the chronological random grab bag of songs I want to analyze is Killing in the Name, by Rage Against The Machine.*
This song is originally from the early 1990s (I saw 1991), but the message is unfortunately still relevant. In hopes of someday being able to perform live again, I have been researching punk musicians for my Dr. Kit CelloPunk project, for inspiration and to possibly do some covers later. (I don’t know if I’ll ever do a cover of this, because I’m better at singing than the spoken style RATM has, but I like the song, and so I’m going to analyze to see how it works!)
The form of this song is mostly determined by the lyrics, which is pretty normal for songs that have words. I’m going to name repeating sections with letters, so that it doesn’t take the whole page. Lyrics from here.
A: Some of those that work forces
Are the same that burn crosses (x4)
B: Killing in the name of (x2)
C: Now you do what they told ya (sometimes with a “but” or “and”)
D: 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 (x2)
C’ variant: And now you do what they told ya, now you’re under control
E: Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me (x17)
We end up getting a form of ABCx11DABCx4C’x7CDguitar soloE with an instrumental intro/outro that are based on one idea and some interjections of “come on”, “uh”, and “yeah”. Each of the lyric chunks has a different repetitive pattern I’ll call a groove underneath it. Each groove has a distinct rhythmic pattern in addition to specific notes, and sometimes textures. I’m not going to completely analyze each part of the groove, but enough to differentiate it from other grooves.
The intro is based on a large leap (minor 9th) in a drag triplet feel after a few opening power chords (no third) to set the key/mood. Over this gets a layered a mostly stepwise guitar lick to lead into the A section groove.
The A section groove is the most melodic of the various grooves. It has a little leap (minor 3rd) and then a half step before falling back to the tonic. This is then mirrored by a similar movement in the bass line before repeating. The groove is established before the words start, and then the texture thins out a little so the words are easier to hear.
The B groove is starts on tonic then leaps up, with the higher note in a descending pattern. The B section is the shortest, and the pattern only repeats twice. The text comes in at the end of the pattern. This is the name of the song, so the shortness of the section actually helps highlight it.
For the C section, the groove is a rhythm. The notes don’t change. I hear it as 1& & (two eighths, eighth rest, eighth note). The second half of the bar is the words. The volume/texture comes down at the beginning before gradually increasing. After about half of the C repetitions, the rhythm guitar has more eighth notes filling out the bar in addition to the main accent pattern, noise guitars enter and then increase, the vocalist gets louder and more rough. So even tho there’s no pitch change, there’s a feeling of anticipation.
The D section feels like the answer to that anticipation. The groove pattern becomes more melodic, but retains some of the C rhythm. The notes that move are stepping up to the tonic in the lower instruments in the back half of the groove, so it feels a bit like the second half of the A groove inverted. The texture simplifies a little, the noise makers stop, so all we have are singer, drums, and all pitched instruments in unison.
The repeat of A and B are pretty much the same, but with some guitar embellishments in A.
The second C part is a big long crescendo in a similar fashion to the first, slowly adding more textures, a second vocalist. It’s the about the same amount of time, but with the addition of “now you’re under control” it feels like a bigger texture growth. The second D section is about the same as the first, but the D groove continues several repetitions to leave space for a guitar solo.
Section E is another crescendo. The anticipation is built with a constant fast bass rhythm, increasing noise, vocal dynamics, lots of drum flourishes, and a single pitch slowly stepping up in one of the guitars. Then D section groove comes back while section E text continues to repeat, confirming the D section as the resolution to texture crescendos. We get some added rhythm guitar, and then to end, 6 notes of the intro return, leaving the song on a not-tonic pitch and vaguely unsettled.
To me this song has tonic (home) and dominant (anticipation of tonic) but in texture, not pitch. If you played and held the opening chord throughout the song, the drone would work the whole time. Chords aren’t really happening, all the interesting musical techniques are in texture, really. I have a theory that sometimes, if the words are complicated or emotionally charged, it’s easier to get the impact across to an audience with simpler musical elements so as not to distract from the message.
This song definitely has a challenging message, so to me it makes sense that there aren’t that many chords, the texture drives the musical motion, and all of that is sensitive to the message:
The texture lightens up as the vocalist originally comes in, so as not to cover him. When there are long texture crescendos, the text repeats the most, so the listener gets the feeling of waiting for the next thing. The most important lyrics in section D, justifying innocent deaths because the murderer wore a police badge to “protect” white people, come after these anticipatory builds, and the D section groove is fairly simple and a combination of previous grooves, so that the band under the singer feels stable while the words are at their most challenging.
I think the juxtaposition of the section E text “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” over the D groove at the end helps underscore the resistance to police violence, promising civil disobedience to unjust laws. That the song ends on the intro, and not a tonic note, on the one hand brings the song full circle back to the opening, but on the other hand leaves us a little bit uncomfortable, waiting for the minor 9th (octave plus half step) to resolve in pitch. I don’t think that RATM wants you to be comfortable. What are you going to do next?
*I also really like the Brass Against cover.