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What is anti-X Factor song Killing In The Name all about?

Classic pop, reappraised by the Magazine

Burning crosses, the "chosen whites" and an unholy refrain of repetitive rudeness. What is going on in the song likely to be at least this year's Christmas Number Two?

Detractors of X Factor are buying Rage Against The Machine's 1992 single Killing In The Name in the hope of beating the talent show's winner Joe McElderry to the top spot in the Christmas charts.

Rage Against The Machine and Los Angeles
Written by Rage Against The Machine (frontman Zach de la Rocha, left)
First single by LA-based band (1992 LA riots, right)
UK #25 (February 1993)

While anyone who has heard it will be able to describe how the song ends, it's less clear what's going on beforehand - other than that it's very, very angry.

"Some of those that work forces," it begins, "are the same that burn crosses." The band is from Los Angeles and the single was released shortly after fierce riots left parts of the city in flames.

Ku Klux Klan

It started with a crowd storming the police headquarters chanting "Guilty! Guilty!" - referring to the acquittal by an all-white jury of the four white officers accused of kicking and clubbing black motorist Rodney King.

In that context, it's impossible not to hear echoes of the racial tensions around the trial when frontman Zack de la Rocha links policemen to Klansmen. But it doesn't sound like a news report - it sounds like a sermon.

And religion is there in the next line too, a shouted "Killing in the name of!"

'Chosen whites'

In early-90s America, that phrase was most often followed by "God", "freedom" or "democracy" - all sardonic references to the then-recent war in Iraq.

Buddhist Monk Quang Duc sets himself alight in a suicide protest over the alleged persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnamese Government
Not the normal subject matter for a Christmas record sleeve

Add in the sleeve's image of Vietnamese monk Quang Duc setting himself alight and we see that the enemy is our old friend the military-industrial complex, justifying killing for the benefit of, as the song puts it, "the chosen whites".

If you wanted to clean up the line repeated in the final chant, you could try something along the lines of: "Since I believe police officers and law-makers to be institutionally corrupt, I see no need to follow their instructions."

De la Rocha wants to know what you - yes, you - are going to do about all this, and he's not shy about getting your attention.

'Awful' in Asda

The song has since provoked various desired reactions. As well as being a favourite at political rallies, a Philadelphia police union called for a boycott of the band and its promoters, claiming: "This outfit has openly advocated violence against police officers - this is a hate group, not a music group."

Some of the other mayhem the song has caused, though, has been much milder.

Last year, Asda apologised after playing the track in a Preston branch, prompting a shopper to complain: "It was awful."

Bruno Brookes and Dave Lee Travis
Brookes (right) made a schoolboy error

This week, BBC Radio 5 live apologised after broadcasting a live performance that included four renditions of the line with the swear word - an echo of the trouble caused in the 90s when Bruno Brookes played an unedited version on Radio 1. The band never issued a cleaned-up version of Killing, but American radio stations concocted their own.

And the band's musical legacy is also perhaps not what its members would have wished. Foremost among the groups to devise a more commercial version of Rage's rap/rock template was Limp Bizkit, whose less-focused song of rage, Break Stuff, played as fans destroyed the stage and injured passers-by at the 1999 Woodstock festival. And you can listen to Killing In The Name as you carry out similar rampages in the video game Grand Theft Auto.

Irritating Simon Cowell

So this Christmas is not the first time that this song has found itself in an arguably incongruous context.

Biffy Clyro

Now the "you" that "I won't do what you tell me" refers to is X Factor, while some are trying to suggest the music industry has been assimilated into the military-industrial complex, most seem to want to have a laugh and irritate Simon Cowell.

However, the most unlikely episode in the life of Killing was when it was reported as being among the songs played at maximum volume during the interrogation of detainees in the "War on Terror".

Rage's guitarist Tom Morello decried American soldiers "playing music for 72 hours in a row at volumes just below that to shatter the eardrums".

"The fact that music I helped create was used in crimes against humanity sickens me," he added.

Given that, it's less of a surprise the revival of the song in a light-hearted festive prank, exposing new fans to its ferocity as well as making a bob or two, has elicited from the group less of a restive "f" you and more of a festive "thank you".

Smashed Hits is compiled by Alan Connor.

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