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The Battle of Rage Against the Machine

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De la Rocha does not kid himself about the pace of change and enlightenment – in rock & roll, in politics, in anything. He speaks of what he saw from the stage of Woodstock in July with unmistakable distaste: "Kids just dancing around in a way they saw in so many videos on MTV, beating each other up and tearing each other's hair out, doing this stupid little ritual.

"I also saw Zapatista flags," he says sharply. "And I saw a contingent of people at the front from Tijuana, Mexico, who had driven all the way across country to be at the show. A lot of people who are cynics" – de la Rocha spits the word out – "have completely abandoned the idea that music can effect political change, abandoned it entirely as a product of cultural cynicism. That's completely defeatist.

"Music will always be able to engage people," de la Rocha proclaims with the contagious force of one who has been saved. "KRS-One, Public Enemy – they had as much an effect on me and the way I saw the world as viewing my father's art or growing up poor in a white suburb.

"You know, I think every revolutionary act is an act of love. Every song that I've written, it is because of my desire to use music as a way to empower and re-humanize people who are living in a dehumanizing setting. The song is in order to better the human condition.

"Every song that I've ever written," he concludes without a drip of irony, "is a love song."

This story is from the November 25th, 1999 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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Song Stories

“American Girl”

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers | 1976

It turns out that a single with "American" in its title--recorded on the Fourth of July during the nation's Bicentennial, no less--can actually sell better in Britain. Coupled with the Heartbreakers' flair for Byrds jangle and Animals hooks, though, is Tom Petty's native-Florida drawl that keeps this classic grounded at home. Petty dispelled rumors that the song was about a suicidal student, explaining that the inspiration came from when he was 25 and used to salute the highway traffic outside his apartment window. "It sounded like the ocean to me," he recalled. "That was my ocean. My Malibu. Where I heard the waves crash, but it was just the cars going by."

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