Rage Against the Machine - Debut
The disturbing detail on the cover of Rage Against the Machine’s searing debut is hidden in plain sight. It’s obvious what the cover depicts, yet the image is so shocking that most peoples’ minds won’t let them see it. Despite the clarity of the image, I'd owned the CD for years before I saw anything but an abstract grayscale mass. But once you accept that there’s a human figure in the image, the horror of what it shows falls into place. The image is of a man on fire. Of course, one may still believe it’s a mannequin or a professional stunt performer, but sadly, this is not the case.
The man is Thích Quảng Đức, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who self-immolated in 1963 to protest the treatment of Buddhists under South Vietnamese president Ngô Đình Diệm. The album cover is a close-up detail of a photograph taken by Associated Press photographer Malcolm Browne.
Rage Against The Machine probably felt that the record cover was their image in a nutshell, shocking, visceral, and politically engaged, a visual manifesto that announced to the world who they were as a band. The problem is that appropriating and commodifying a deadly act of rebellion is something that RATM would be fervently against if they weren’t the ones doing it. The album went three times platinum in the United States alone; regardless of the anti-commercial attitude espoused by the band, they sold for profit the image of a man dying for a cause that had nothing to do with making a million-selling rock record.