Rush: Rock Music and the Middle Class: Dreaming in Middletown
(Indiana University Press)
US: Nov 2009
I loathe academic criticism. That’s a heretical statement in many parts, particularly if you announce it during grad school, as I did, to my professors. It seemed to me (and still does) that academics in need of publication, either to gain tenure or move to a more prestigious position at a more prestigious university, take what is to hand—here, the music of rock band Rush—and mangle it until it fits their chosen theoretical bias. Et viola: a densely written missive with a University Press imprint.
I don’t for a moment, however, question ethnomusicologist Chris McDonald’s immense regard for Rush. As he notes, scholarly works devoted to singular bands are becoming popular now (read: academically acceptable topics), so he chose his favorite, and eagerly sets out to prove his point: Rush, both band and music, reflect their “middle-classness” (his term). In turn, this “middle-classness” is reflected in their fan base.
McDonald tortures himself defining “middle-classness”, for the book’s purposes, dragging out Marx and Adorno. Despite his efforts, “the middle class” is a tough group to get a handle on, particularly when you are attempting to so in both the United States and Canada. McDonald does his level best, but the vast differences in Canadian and American societies make this impossible. Canadians have nationalized health care, unemployment benefits, and legalized Gay marriage. One may legally buy Codeine from a pharmacist or purchase—and smoke—marijuana in Vancouver.
Overall, Canada is safer and more civilized (NB: my spouse is Canadian) than the United States. (Until the hockey sticks come out, anyway.) When MacDonald writes of suburban flight from cities, the best reasons he gives are noise and pollution. These problems are nearly laughable when compared to the drugs, crime, unemployment, and generally horrific living conditions many Americans inhabiting cities endure. Further, if the suburbs are, as McDonald notes, havens of dulled conformists excoriated by Rush’s music, then what of American inner cities, where pressures to join gangs, affect certain dress codes, and listen to certain musicians can literally mean life or death?
Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neal Peart grew up in Willowdale, a suburb of Toronto that sounds like a Canadian Levittown. But Lee, born Gary Lee Winerib, and Lifeson, born Aleksandr Zivijinovic, are children of Eastern European immigrants. Lee’s parents survived Dachau and Bergen-Belson; Lifeson’s family emigrated from Serbia. That the Wineribs escaped a hell most of us can only imagine made theirs a very unlikely “middle class” household. Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson’s mothers probably never served jello molds or hot dogs for dinner; they probably did not attend Tupperware parties. It’s also pretty likely their sons heard languages other than English at home: Serbian, Yiddish, Polish. Arguably, this set Lee and Lifeson (both of whom Anglicized their names) apart from their fellow Willowdale suburbanites before they ever left home. They had already “deviated from the norm”.
McDonald tries, though, gamely writing that Rush’s early records, with their long, radio unfriendly song cycles, offer “escape into interiority”, with correspondent feelings of individualism transcending the high school halls and shopping malls. Agreed. But listening to Dark Side of the Moon or Yessongs or Bach also does this. It is possible to live in the suburbs whilst being subversive
This is not to say McDonald isn’t an avid, expert Rush fan and musician. He clearly is. But Rush fans know the band prizes their privacy. They also know Neal Peart doesn’t like fan letters analyzing his songwriting: he knows what he wants to say, thank you very much. McDonald does respect the band’s personal privacy, but has a heyday with their lyrics. “Red Barchetta” is important because of the car’s “gendering”, that is, it’s a one-person performance machine, not a minivan. It’s a guy car intended for a virile, estrogen-free journey. Do we need a book to tell us this?
Academese is deployed like a weapon (okay, it is an academic treatise). McDonald doesn’t want to “reinscribe prejudices” against the middle class. Rush’s music makes a lot of “gestures”, including one at “postmodern decenteredness”. Ayn Rand’s Anthem, the influence behind 2112 is “a short novella”. The rest of the writing is dry, tough going unless you are a student of semiotics or critical theory, in which case you might enjoy this book. But bear in mind novellas are short by definition.
So here is what I’d say. If you are the sort who is a Rush freak, a musician, and a fan of academic writing, you’ll enjoy this book. McDonald works like hell to lay out his argument, and though I don’t buy it, you might. If, like me, you’re a plebe who doesn’t go in for this sort of analysis, go put on Permanent Waves and crank up “The Spirit of Radio”. Really loud. The record is 30 years old (!) and remains a gift beyond price.