Friday, February 5, 2010

"Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class: Dreaming in Middletown" (and my Rush lyrics)

Chris McDonald’s obvious enthusiasm for his fellow Canadians, the Ayn Rand-influenced rock band Rush, does not stop him from making some very astute, scholarly observations about the ways in which the band perfectly embodies what might be called suburban ideology. This tome does a good job of making manifest things that are almost too commonplace to be noticed, such as the regularity and comfort of late twentieth-century suburban living and the way in which a band esteemed for its unemotional dryness, technical precision, and ostensibly rootless, regionless individualist themes perfectly expresses the values of that mode of living.

Rush rocks the bourgeoisie, as I happily told ostensibly anti-bourgeois conservative Helen Rittelmeyer when she gave me the book (the most recent books I’ve given her being noirish crime novels and a book on the tragic century-ago Massachusetts molasses flood, given to me to give to her by Boston-area-dwelling Jake Harrison and Holly Caldwell, who lean more punkward than Rushward — and Rush did indeed feel threatened by the rise of punk, after all the hard work the band had done mastering precision and musicianship). Despite Rush’s emphatic embrace of modernity and capitalism, though, they are surprisingly conflicted about the predictability and blandness that these things can produce, at least as typified in their middle-class, North American, largely white surroundings. After all, the song “Subdivisions,” — which I would unashamedly argue is one of the best poems in rock history — is, despite its air of mathematical calm, as negative in its description of the suburbs as any angry punk screed (“Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone,” etc.).

Even the acceptable avenues of escape from the suburbs (to put it somewhat paradoxically) are often embarrassingly feeble (and ones well known to countless late twentieth-century nerds like me): fantasy and sci-fi, immersion in some arcane technical discipline, car rides to somewhere else, “the shopping malls,” etc. McDonald even anticipates the desperate escape gambit of conservatives of Helen’s sort: fantasizing about medieval-style aristocratic traditionalism or working-class/ethnic solidarity, things that do not come naturally to the white middle class.

Don’t get me wrong: In the end, I think the suburbs may be the greatest achievement in human history, and it is almost indecent ingratitude to lament their existence, after the millennia of toil and savagery humanity endured to be able to live in such predictable, comfortable conditions. “Subdivisions” now leaves me worried that Rush — like so many things — is in fact not capitalist and bourgeois enough (drummer-lyricist Neil Peart is quick to note that Rand is merely one of his many influences and that he does not necessarily embrace everything she does). Rush recommends the same avenue of escape that seemed natural to suburban youth like me, though: Don’t start a revolution but rather try to excel, and, when relaxing, retreat into fantasy about far less predictable and mundane environs.

For a Canadian academic, McDonald does a good job of avoiding the usual presumption in cultural studies that simply identifying a pattern of thought is synonymous with exposing and debunking it. He’s subtly impressed by and supportive of most of the elements of suburban ideology he identifies: individualism, a solid work ethic, emotional self-discipline, detachment, cleanliness, abstraction, etc. The book isn’t quite the celebration of suburbia that I now find myself thinking the world deserves (especially when you consider the sci-fi-like improvement in our lifestyles over the past two centuries that made the suburbs possible, industrial plenty tripling the population of Europe in the nineteenth century while America went from a land of freehold subsistence farmers to a land of big corporations), but the book is far from a Marxist lament. McDonald admits he is essentially a libertarian whose views have been somewhat complicated by years of ethnographic analysis and culture studies that lead him to see his values as rooted in a certain culture instead of objective abstraction (perhaps he’d get along well with libertarian multiculturalism-analyst — and former rock radio station manager — Jacob Levy at McGill). Suburban philosophy seems eminently possible, even while suburban radicalism seems a contradiction in terms.


Rand once said that she’d know her ideas were having an impact when they had trickled down even into comic books — and by the time she died, they had in fact found their way into comic books by Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko and, thanks to Rush, into the lyrics of one of the most popular rock bands of all time — that epithet being based on album and concert ticket sales more than singles, since, despite having released numerous very memorable singles that dominated Album Oriented Radio stations in the 80s and continue to be played on classic rock stations, only one Rush single actually made it into the Top 40, believe it or not, that being “New World Man.”

As a reminder of how many great songs they had that were, so to speak, just under the radar back then, though, rewatch the videos for “Distant Early Warning” and the slightly more obscure “Red Sector A,” both ominous and perfectly suited to making audiences of mostly-male, mostly-white, sober-minded sci-fi fans swoon. An interesting trivia note about “Distant Early Warning”: the fuzzy noise that seems so clearly to be rocket exhaust at the beginning of the song, I recall the band once revealing in an interview, was actually a sound-mixing static error, but they decided to keep it in. That makes it one of my favorite serendipitous art accidents, right up there with the sudden series of jump cuts at the climactic moment of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, when David Bowie kisses the prison warden rather than succumb to anger, an effect caused by an unintended camera jam but approved on the spot by the director when he watched it back.

Little about Rush is serendipitous, though — not for nothing have they spawned imitators who call their subgenre “math rock.” Two other bands in a similar vein I’ve seen in concert are the even older (unintentionally hilarious yet brilliantly technically skilled) prog rock act Van der Graaf Generator and the fairly recent geeky-but-powerful guitar virtuosos Trans Am (I saw the former with J.R. Taylor and the latter with one of the only left-wing punks I ever went on a date with, Caroline Pozycki — I think she may have soured on me around the time she revealed both her parents worked for the government).

Geddy Lee is even quoted in this book expressing a nerdy, unhip, robotic sentiment that I recall feeling myself when I first went to concerts: disappointment that live bands don’t sound exactly like their albums. Rush basically does in concert. Live or recorded, long may they reign.

In fact, if they run out of material, I here offer a suggestion for a song literally taken from one of today’s nerdiest and most scientifically-baffling news stories, which they might consider recording:

Pluto is a-changing colors
Planet’s getting redder just like blood
Nitrogen ice sheets shifting, moving
Color of a molasses flood!
Can’t blame industrial gases –
So will the greens think it’s good?


Dwarf planet! Dwarf planet!
[shrieking] They cast you out of the Nine
[ominous] Cold but now you’re getting redder
Bold ’cause you won’t toe the line
Dwarf planet! Dwarf planet!
It’s a nitrogen-ice-sheet panic — yeah, rock on, rock on, rock on, rock on

(Twenty-minute drum solo)


Todd Seavey said...

Addendum: no hard feelings toward the lovely aforementioned Ms. Pozycki, by the way, but I will note, in a purely friendly way, that had she chosen to see me again, things might at least have worked out better than the incident that led to her being a sob story halfway down this Lisa Carver column (note: it’s often a bad sign if you’re a sob story in a Lisa Carver column — and Carver is herself a sob story now, since, last I heard, she claimed had dropped her column due to its promotion of erotic urine-drinking, which you wouldn’t think would phase Nerve, but I don’t pretend to know the details):

Xine said...

Todd, the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth.

Tim Watson said...

Alarming short quote from the NYT:

“In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration

is considering banning caffeinated alcoholic drinks”

david said...

Bourgeois? Funny – they call me the working man. I guess that’s what I am.

cb said...

Now, now. Much of the time the working man is closer to the heart, and even more often solitary marathons are the mission, but they’re nothing if a band whose topic areas did not evolve with times that would not stand still.

In more recent “math rock” developments, the big wheel has spun more around to Jonhathan Coulton and others they call a “nerd core” movement. The creative bell has been tolling for Rush since at least Test For Echo (some might say longer), though they are still amazing in concert for “bobbling geezers” as their recent light shows have called them.

Todd Seavey said...

And, much as I hate to offend a commenter or two here, is it so hard to understand the leap from the above to…this:

Gerard said...

Ryan’s rehashed plans are nothing new or different than what he has been peddling since GWB appointed the Wall Street hack to draw up a plan to dismantle Social Security. With that said, there is an insidiously evil element buried within all of Ryan’s roadmap novels. They are all based on marketing a brand of Randian individualism that attempts to shame people away from the success of collective power. Aptly demonstrated by Bob’s comment “get this done is with a campaign to senior citizens telling them that their grandchildren are at risk,” presupposes the notion that our grandchildren’s future relies heavily on whether each individual senior will kill themselves, rather than let the collective (government) do it for them. Pure evil. Pure Rand.

Entitlement Reform Or Logan’s Run?

The unparalleled success of collectivism. Care to counter?

Todd Seavey said...

Looks like a couple respondents in that AmSpec thread have it under control, pointing out capitalism catapulting us from near-medieval lifestyles to near-centenarian life expectancies and comfort in only a couple centuries while socialists murdered 100 million people and impoverished billions more.

People who think capitalism is the problem — including those on the right who think commercial society merely lives parasitically off religious/traditionalist morals — have nothing more rational to say for themselves than do the UFO conspiracists and Bigfoot hunters.

The challenge now is quite literally just getting people to listen to reason instead of being satisfied with their slogans, favorite folk songs, sarcastic leftist comedians, warm-hearted but economically clueless sermons from the Pope and others, and petty partisan jabs. The time for treating that sort of abnegation of reason and moral responsibility as cute, hip, and tolerable has passed. You’re either working to end the state’s predation or you’re the moral equivalent of a jackal trying to get one piece of meat to yourself before the entire carcass is rent asunder. Choose accordingly.

Todd Seavey said...

[...] Nor did things go well with the film’s original release — released (in two parts) with the approval of the authorities in Italy during WWII because it was anti-Soviet, it was yanked after a few weeks when the authorities realized its individualist message was anti-fascist as well (Mussolini’s goons apparently having been as slow to figure out that individualist messages are incompatible with fascism as were left-wing British rock critics who condemned Rush as proto-fascist). [...]

john said...

“Math rock” – that’s a good one! Amusing blog, my friend.

I am reading Prof. McDonald’s book and I have some problems with. First, I think he missed the point on “The Red Barchetta” in that he didn’t cite the source of the story. To me, “Red Barchetta” isn’t really about escapism; it is about an overly-intrusive government that has regulated pleasure out of existence. Second, I think his analysis of “Working Man” is a bit of stretch. Remember, that was a jam session by three 19 – 20 year olds on their first album. The words were probably just an afterthought. Third, I am not crazy about the good doctor’s writing style. It is superficial. Those are just some thoughts som far…

By the way, Rush saved me from the endless hours of Kiss, Sweet and Grand Funk Railroad. I owe Rush a debt of gratitude!

Take care.


Jeff said...

You’re either working to end the state’s predation or you’re the moral equivalent of a jackal trying to get one piece of meat to yourself before the entire carcass is rent asunder.

False alternative. That is all.