Over the past semester, I was fortunate enough take a seminar entitled "The Music of Protest and the Politics of Music." I've attached my term paper for the course, and hopefully it'll be semi-intelligible. Of course, nothing beats listening, so I've included a recording as well.
Tool is an American band, formed in
The band is characterized by brooding, sprawling sound and structure, and this inherent inaccessibility is often cited as a hindrance. However, despite their noncompliance with traditional marketing and conventional songwriting methodology, they have become one of the most successful bands ever, in terms of both sales and critical acclaim. Their studio albums have achieved platinum status, and they have received numerous Grammy awards for their efforts. While the band appears aloof, material is firmly rooted in a relevant social context.
While the band has promoted various perspectives, their overarching agenda is that of general awareness. In a recent interview, Keenan explained, “I only know what I'm told, and I'm not told that much; I have no frame of reference for how to place things in history [that would let me] be a responsible leader…All I can do is say I smell a rat…I think it's more important just to inspire people to wake up one day and pick up a book and start feeling it out for themselves” (Burgess 2006). Therefore, the band’s etymology originates, to some degree, as an instrument of social change. Keenan reinforces, “Use us as a catalyst in your process of finding out whatever it is you need to find out, or whatever it is you're trying to achieve” (Zappa 1994).
Much of this consciousness can be ascribed to Keenan’s personal experience. While instrumental provides the backbone that defines Tool’s sound, meaning is derived chiefly from Keenan’s lyrics. He was born in
The band’s first release was the extended play Opiate on March 10th, 1992. The title is a reference to Karl Marx’s introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Marx stated, “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” (Marx 1844). The latter portion of the quote is often misrepresented as the “opiate of the people,” and the term was adopted for the release.
In the context of Tool’s later works, Opiate represents the band in its infancy, and while the brutal, uncompromising nature of their sound is introduced, the complexity of content is underdeveloped. Guitarist Adam Jones cites the material as the band’s “hardest sounding songs, thinking that that was the kind of edge we wanted our EP to have” (
When considering the Marx quotation and the lyrics of the song, “Opiate” is clearly anti-religious commentary. It is not so much a criticism of the dogma, but more of a rejection of religion as a medium for social manipulation. Keenan adopts the role of demagogue, preaching, “My God’s will becomes me…he speaks through me. He has needs, like I do; we both want to rape you” (The Tool Page). This is the first in a number of songs with religious references, although later allusions deal with the subject with more subtlety.
“Hush” was the band’s first single and music video, and is an anomaly for a number of reasons. It is the only video that displays the band members prominently. (They appear, briefly and distorted, in the video for “Sober.”) The band is depicted nude, with taped mouths and genitals covered by large “explicit parts” signs, a clear reference to censorship (YouTube). The visual aspect of their work, as well as the theme of censorship, would be greatly expanded upon in future instances, and the practice would occasionally affect the band directly. “Hush” also has a brief running time of less than three minutes, and all subsequent singles double or even triple that duration. The lyrics are profanity laced, rationalized by the lines, “I can’t say what I want to, even if I’m not serious…just kidding” (The Tool Page). Thus, in both subtlety and length, “Hush” is merely a suggestion of future work.
Tool’s first full length album, Undertow, was released on April 6th, 1993. Despite the fact that many of the songs were written during the Opiate period, there is a shift in both construction and ethic. Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd are cited as influences as the band explored protracted song lengths, and began to assume their present role of epic songwriters. Jones stated, “When Undertow came out, I think a lot of people who like metal got bummed. But I don't really care” (
This was the beginning of the band’s characteristic artistic pursuit, unfettered by commercialization and indifferent to criticism. It still remains perplexing that such an unconventional band, particularly in an era dominated by a radio-driven market, would achieve success on any scale, particularly one of such vigor and longevity. In a recent commentary, Zak Sally, former bassist of the band Low, reflected, “The fact that a band this persnickety, contrary, and uncompromising has weaseled its way into the mainstream, making virtually zero concessions to ‘the biz’ while managing to sell millions of records in a market filled with much ‘easier’ and more palatable music is amazing, any way you cut it” (Sally 2006).
While songwriting and musicianship are paramount, there are additional qualities, particularly of the visual nature, that have brought the band scrutiny, if not outright infamy. Prior to joining the band, Jones worked in
A crimson sculpture of cow ribs adorns Undertow’s distinctive cover, and the motif can be interpreted as a protest of consumerism, particularly that of the meat industry. The back cover depicts a pig, surrounded by forks, another allusion (The Tool Page). Further elements, including underwater, obese nudes and the band members with pins in their heads, caused the packaging to be deemed too offensive (Wikipedia). In the censored version of the album, the cover was replaced by a barcode, and a tongue-in-cheek letter from the band, “It came to our attention recently that many stores across our fine and open minded nation would not stock Undertow because of our explicit artwork. Although we loathe being censored,
we want your money we still want you to hear our music, so we took it out” (The Tool Page).
Perhaps most significantly, Undertow gave the band its breakthrough single, “Sober.” The lyrics are an exercise in ambiguity, the refrain, “Why can’t we not be sober?” The music video pioneered the band’s use of disturbing, gothic, and stop-animation, as engineered by Adam Jones. As suggested by the title, substance abuse is a clear theme, and a humanoid protagonist is depicted returning again and again to a box, displaying the symptoms of addiction (YouTube). In addition to this cryptic storyline, there is a scene in which the protagonist gazes at meat flowing through pipes, yet another reference to the meat industry.
Also of note are the opening lines, “There's a shadow just behind me, shrouding every breath I take, making every promise empty, pointing every finger at me,” possibly a personification of addiction (The Tool Page). Furthermore, the “shadow” may be a specific allusion to philosopher Carl Jung, specifically the concept of the shadow-self. “It often represents everything that the conscious person does not wish to acknowledge within themselves…According to Jung the human being deals with the reality of the Shadow in four ways: denial, projection, integration and/or transmutation” (Wikipedia). These steps are very reminiscent of the various steps in dealing with addiction, although, “Jung emphasized the importance of being aware of shadow material and incorporating it into conscious awareness, lest one project these attributes on others” (Wikipedia). Incidentally, recognizing addiction is one of the key components to treating the disease as well.
Undertow’s second music video, “Prison Sex,” was found to be too graphic in nature, as was quickly removed from most mainstream music channels, including MTV and MuchMusic (Sokal 2001). Again, the title sheds some insight into interpretation, but the song’s lyrics and the anonymity of the characters used in the video give yield a broader range of meaning (YouTube). The opening lines, “It took so long to remember just what happened, I was so young and vestal then,” coupled with doll-like appearance of a figure in the music video, suggest child abuse. Keenan was vocal about his dislike for his stepfather; although the extent of the song’s autobiographical nature is unknown (The Tool FAQ).
In the wake of the video’s censorship, Keenan commented on the hypocrisy of the industry, “Here you have these other videos where Steven Tyler's daughter is stripping in front of old men, or where Janet Jackson is practically having oral sex. I kind of find that disturbing, yet it's something that's just thrown in people's laps and they don't think twice about it. So I guess anything that deals with that sort of ('Prison Sex') subject matter is going to end up hitting road blocks” (San Francisco Chronicle 1994). It is incredible ironic that a song attempting to address sexual trauma in an honest and uncompromising manner is censored, while superficial objectification, particularly of women, is regarded as a cultural norm.
Undertow’s final track, “Disgustipated,” begins with a sample of the baaing of sheep. The November 1994 issue of BAM Magazine contextualizes the practice, “In May 1993, Tool performed at Scientology's Celebrity's Centre, apparently not knowing that this was the home of the cult…Between songs, Keenan, staring first at the lush grounds paid for by devoted [Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard] followers and then into the eyes of his own audience, bayed into the mic like a sheep " (The Tool FAQ). This was not merely an act of antagonism, but an extension of "the band’s ethics about how a person should not follow a belief system that constricts their development as a human being." (Sokal 2001) Hubbard is directly referenced in later work, and he can be interpreted as a stand-in for any overtly religious figure.
The baaing sample is followed by the spoken lines, "These are the cries of the carrots, the cries of the carrots! You see, Reverend Maynard, tomorrow is harvest day and to them it is the holocaust." This does not merely provide a humorous respite, but reiterate Keenan’s satirical role as a preacher, as well as touching upon many of the themes of the album, including consumerism, power, and perspective. The simple, effective line of “this is necessary” resounds throughout the song, and the listener is forced to consider how the term can be used without resorting to subjectivity. An article in the May 1994 issue of M.E.A.T Magazine mused, "Funny how an ode to carrots could become so damn disturbing and guilt-laden" (The Tool FAQ). While hardly a conventional ending “Disgustipated” effectively reiterates Undertow’s ethos and represents another entry into the band’s growing social commentary.
The band’s influential sophomore release, Ænima, was released on October 1st, 1996. The title is a compound of the Latin word for soul, “anima,” another important aspect of Jungian philosophy and “enema,” or anal cleansing. Thus, the title is collectively interpreted as “spiritual cleansing.” It is widely regarded as Tool’s tour de force, as it references a number of philosophical considerations, while maintaining a relatable social context. In his review, Rob Theakston cites, “Topics such as the philosophies of [comedian and social commentator] Bill Hicks (eloquently eulogized in the packaging [as ‘another dead hero’]), evolution and genetics, and false martyrdom…those listening closely will discover a special treat: a catalyst encouraging them to discover a world around them to which they otherwise might have been blind” (Theakston).
The lead track, “Stinkfist” is one of their prominent songs, and remains popular ten years later. The title and voyeuristic lyrics imply a simple scenario of anal fisting leading to visceral pleasure; however, the song has a far more conceptual quality. “Stinkfist” is an allusion to desensitization, not merely physical, but one that has arisen through aspects of popular culture such as information overload and technological impersonality.
Keenan explores the discrepancy between the investment of experience and the yield of satisfaction, singing, “Boredom's not a burden anyone should bear... [Yet] constant over stimulation numbs me.” He continues, “I don’t want it, I just need it, to feel, to breath, to know I’m alive,” another possible reference to addiction (The Tool Page). There is romantic quality to the piece, as lines are directed to an individual, “Finger deep within the borderline. Show me that you love me and that we belong together. Relax, turn around and take my hand.” This evokes further ambiguity, turning the track into a twisted love song, and it’s conceivable that this explicit nature has made it one of the band’s more popular works.
Again, the music video encapsulates many of these themes, albeit in their trademark unconventional manner. “Sand people” are depicted eating nails, which are not digested, but emerge from the abdomen. Shoulder blades separate from the body and are treasured in glass jars. These are two clear instances of self-abuse, yet the characters are unaffected, as “constant over stimulation numbs me.” In a particularly disturbing segment, a torso wired to a wall is manipulated by a female figure, a distinctly technological reference. Ironically, while MTV was willing to play the video, they found the title offensive and referred to it as “Track #1,” and these mislabeled videos remain in circulation (YouTube).
The following two tracks, “Eulogy” and “H.” deal with false martyrdom. The former is said to be directed at Scientology founder L Ron. Hubert, and the religious imagery is evoked in the line, “to ascend you must die; you must be crucified” (The Tool Page). The short instrumental interlude, entitled “Useful Idiot,” is slang that “originated by the high ranking Soviets, referred to the Soviet citizens whose loyalty to the party was unwavering." (The Tool Page). The fifth track, “Forty Six & 2” deals with transcendence. The title is another reference to Jungian philosophy, as well as philosopher Drunvalo Melchizadek.
In an interview in Leading Edge on December 1995, Melchizadek stated, "There are three totally different kinds of humans on the Earth…the first kind of human has a chromosome composition of 42+2. They comprise a unity consciousness that does not see anything outside themselves as being separate from themselves…These are the aboriginals in
The seventh track, “Hooker with a Penis” is another example of nominal misdirection, and, superficially, it seems to reference male prostitution. In some ways, this is the case, as Keenan clarifies, “That song is…the fear that some kid thinks that we sold out. You and I both know that that's such a silly term, so it goes a lot deeper than that. The album is about evolution and change” (Makin 1996). The ninth song “Jimmy” is perhaps the most autobiographical, with the telling line, “Under a dead
The pseudo-title track “Ænema” shows the band’s distaste for their hometown of Los Angeles (“One great big festering neon distraction”), particularly its materialism, as described in the lines, “Fret for your figure and…latte and…hairpiece and…lawsuit and…Prozac and…pilot and…contract and…car.” In addition, the ubiquitous “L. Ron Hubbard” as well as “hip gangster wannabes…junkies…[and] dysfunctional, insecure actresses” are cited as examples of the city’s superficiality (The Tool Page).
Keenan fantasizes, “I'm praying for rain, and I'm praying for tidal waves, I wanna see the ground give way, watch you flush it all away.” The line “Learn to swim, see you down in
The album’s closer, “Third Eye,” also begins with a sample of Bill Hicks, in which he concludes, “It’s not a war on drugs; it’s a war on personal freedom.” The title of the song is a literal reference to the pineal gland, which has been concluded to secrete melatonin in relation to exposure to light. Further studies in mice have indicated that it influences both illicit drugs such as cocaine and anti-depressants such as Prozac (Wikipedia). However, it is more important as a symbol than a scientific object, as there is much cultural significant attached to the object; Rene Descartes called it the "seat of the soul." The third eye is a recurring motif in Tool’s work, particularly in the latter artwork, and it can be interpreted as a medium of transcendence.
In the wake of Ænima success, a contract dispute with the band’s label, Volcano, essentially brought activity to a standstill. During the prolonged hiatus, Keenan began a side-project, a band he founded with Billy Howerdaal named
Their first album, Mer de Noms (French: “sea of names”) was released on May 23rd, 2000. It is a highly personal album, with track names compiled from various individuals that Keenan knew personally. However, there is a trace of social commentary, particularly in the prominent single, “Judith.” The title is a reference to Keenan’s mother, Judith Marie Garrison, who was a devout Catholic and paralyzed by a brain aneurysm. The track is rife with religious imagery, “Oh so many ways for me to show you how your dogma has abandoned you…Choke on a lie, even though [Jesus]'s the one who did this to you, never thought to question why.” Keenan has called the track a condemnation of extremism in the commentary in the DVD aMOTION, although it most immediately references his mother.
Tool’s live album Salival was released on December 12th, 2000. While it was in some ways a method of quelling rumors of Tool’s breakup (the title can be interpreted as fans “saliva[ting]” in anticipation of its release), there is some social content, stemming from the crowd interaction that occurs in a live setting. In the live version of “Third Eye,” a sample of Timothy Leary, a proponent of LSD and social commentator, supplants that of Bill Hicks. His "Think for Yourself, Question Authority" monologue from the video, "How To Operate Your Brain" is sampled.
He speaks, “Throughout human history, as our species has faced the frightening, terrorizing fact that we do not know who we are, or where we are going in this ocean of chaos, it has been the authorities, the political, the religious, the educational authorities who attempted to comfort us by giving us order, rules, regulations, informing, forming in our minds their view of reality. To think for yourself you must question authority and learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable, open-mindedness; chaotic, confused, vulnerability to inform yourself” (Wikipedia). While a bit heavy-handed, this is a clear reiteration of Tool’s ideology and the extension of awareness.
The band’s belated third album, Lateralus, was released on May 16th, 2001. It constitutes another step in the evolution of the band. While Ænima was ambitious, it was still grounded in real-life context, as in its depiction of
Perhaps as a response to this growing detachment, Keenan released an album with
Tool’s most recent album was entitled 10,000 Days, and was released on May 2nd, 2006. The lead single, “Vicarious” can be interpreted as a reprise “Stinkfist.” As the title suggests, it reiterates the themes of impersonality and detachment, particularly as a result of mass media. The lyrics, however, are far blunter than that of its predecessor. They shift from the personal, “Eye on the TV 'cause tragedy thrills me…That's my kind of story; it's no fun ‘til someone dies” into a broader theme, “The universe is hostile, so impersonal; devour to survive, so it is, so it’s always been.” (The Tool Page). The effectiveness, particularly when considering the impact and complexity of the band’s previous work, seems to be diluted.
That is not to say that the album does not contain other redeeming factors. The title sequence of the album, “Wings for Marie (Part 1)” and “10,000 Days (Wings Part 2),” spans an epic seventeen minutes and is a poignant dedication to Keenan’s mother, who passed away after “Judith” was written. The title is based on the twenty-seven years that elapsed between her aneurysm and death, “Ten thousand days in the fire is long enough, you're going home” (The Tool Page)
The sequence represents a massive shift in tone from the bleak nihilism of “Opiate,” the satire of “Disgustipated,” and rage of “Judith,” as Keenan demonstrates outright piety in the verses, “You're the only one who can hold your head up high, Shake your fists at the gates saying: ‘I have come home now!’ Fetch me the spirit, the son, and the father. Tell them their pillar of faith has ascended” (The Tool Page).
Granted, he is unable to completely eschew cynicism, “Ignorant fibbers in the congregation, gather around spewing sympathy, spare me, none of them can even hold a candle up to you, blinded by choices, hypocrites won't see” (The Tool Page). However, as he has said, music has been a cathartic release and a healing medium, and the song is far more positive in outlook and personal than any previous work. In many ways, it is the next step in Tool’s never ceasing evolution, but it is also a personal revelation, as Keenan has exposed an unprecedented amount of his own individuality.
In his review, Rob Theakston praises this development, “In a way, it's voyeuristic to listen to someone working out family issues on disc, but Keenan does it in a way that's sensitive and honest without ever treading the careful line between melodrama and sincerity… if you're looking for the Tool whose passion and introspection is complemented by intense emotion, brutal honesty, and musical maturity, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better metal album in 2006” (Theakston).
Unfortunately, a band can never be completely free of commercial limitations, and the second single was instead chosen to be “The Pot,” which yielded the band’s first Billboard chart-topping track. Again, innuendo exists in both title and the lyrics, “You must have been high.” However, drugs are merely a medium for hypocrisy, as there are also references to the famous parable of the kettle calling the pot black, as well as the lines, “Liar, lawyer, mirror, show me. What's the difference? Kangaroo done hung the guilty with the innocent” (The Tool Page).
A few days ago, Tool was nominated for two more Grammys, in the “Best Hard Rock Performance” category for “Vicarious,” and for the “Best Recording Package” for 10,000 Days (Grammy Nominations). The latter is understandable, as the album is an elevation of their already considerable aesthetic skill. It contains stereoscopic lenses, which cause a number of the various images to appear three dimensional.
Most significantly, each of the four band members is depicted clearly, without any distortion or ambiguity. Sally notes, “Tool has generally stayed away from images of themselves, maintaining a steely and purposeful distance from the personality cult… and I doubt that I could pick any one of the members of Tool out of a crowd. Isn't cultivating anonymity a rotten idea if you want to get famous?” (Sally 2006).
As visuals were always a part of Tool's distinction, this shift in methodology can be seen as the most drastic of all. Their previous inscrutability promoted an aura of mystique around the band, and this change seems to go against their philosophy as pure enablers. However, this injection of personality is merely another level of evolution in the band's development. Tool has demonstrated that change is crucial to maintain longebity and relevance, and thankfully, they are willing to practice what they preach. Tool remains one of the most unique, fiercely creative bands, but also one of the most socially conscientious. This fusion combined with virtuosity both musically and visually, makes them one of the most vital bands in our generation.
23. YouTube. “Hush”
25. YouTube. “Sober”
Here's their first Coachella set, recorded on October 10th, 1999.
1. (-) Ions
3. Hooker With A Penis
4. Forty Six & 2
5. Spasm (Peach Cover)
6. Prison Sex
10. You Lied (Peach Cover)