Canadian progressive rock band Rush was the voice of the suburban middle
class. In this book, Chris McDonald assesses the band's impact on popular music and
its legacy for legions of fans. McDonald explores the ways in which Rush's critique
of suburban life -- and its strategies for escape -- reflected middle-class
aspirations and anxieties, while its performances manifested the dialectic in prog
rock between discipline and austerity, and the desire for spectacle and excess. The
band's reception reflected the internal struggles of the middle class over cultural
status. Critics cavalierly dismissed, or apologetically praised, Rush's music for
its middlebrow leanings. McDonald's wide-ranging musical and cultural analysis sheds
light on one of the most successful and enduring rock bands of the 1970s and
About the Author
Chris McDonald is an ethnomusicologist who specializes in popular music
studies. He teaches at Cape Breton University.
Read an Excerpt
Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class
Dreaming in Middletown
By Chris McDonald
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2009 Christopher McDonald
All rights reserved.
"Anywhere But Here"
Rush and Suburban Desires for Escape
In 1982, Rush released "Subdivisions," a song that scathingly depicted the suburbs from which the band's members came as a dull, parochial, and stifling environment in which to grow up. The suburbs grip its inhabitants in conformity, and for many of its young, the song asserts, suburbia is something from which to escape. Rush addressed this anti-conformist theme numerous times before and after the song's release, but "Subdivisions" provides a clear and engaging introduction to some of the key mythologies of middle-class identity and the suburbs. In "Subdivisions," Rush portrays the North American suburb as a place where quiet and comfort is privileged in place of stimulation; a place that traps young people in ennui and conformity; a place hostile to "dreamers and misfits." The bureaucratic rationality and "geometric order" of the suburb hold sway over the chaotic, unpredictable, but ultimately creative character which presumably resides in young people who seek escape. The video dramatizes the song's theme through a narrative involving a young, white, male high school student who is studious, aloof, unable or unwilling to conform to the standards of his peers, pursuing any release he can find from the routines and demands of his environment.
The video alternates images of Rush, performing with an urgent and dour seriousness, and aerial images of the suburbs. Residential subdivisions appear in grid-like patterns of concentric boxes, amplifying the geometric imagery of the lyrics. Ground-level views of middle-class suburban houses drift by, showing street after street of dwellings whose architectural designs are remarkably similar. Even though it is the camera that passes them, it seems as though the houses are rolling by on an assembly line, underscoring the song's description of the suburbs as "the mass production zone." As we approach the first chorus, we meet the "dreamer and misfit" mentioned in the lyrics. The camera pans across a high school cafeteria and focuses on a boy with thick glasses and greasy, uneven hair, sitting by himself and reading. Throughout the video, the boy is always alone, his aloofness contrasting with the packs of high school students who hang out in groups. The other students are much like the suburban houses — similar to each other, predictable, and almost indistinguishable as they walk by the camera. The alienation of the boy who plays the outcast is accented by the taunts, teasing, and laughter of his peers, and by his parents' rules, all of which intrude on his escape from the suburbs through reading and music.
Rush's "Subdivisions" illustrates this theme of suburban conformity and alienation primarily through the high school, but the song and video also gesture toward the consumer marketplace and the workplace. Whether the video shows the halls of a high school or the corridors of a shopping mall, the refrain that Geddy Lee sings is the same — "conform or be cast out." Any escape found by young people, the chorus states, is temporary, for the suburbs were designed with bureaucratic efficiency in mind, not creativity or individuality. In the later verses, crushing masses of adult workers and businesspeople are seen, fleeing the downtown core and escaping to their homes in the subdivisions in a routinized daily ritual shared by people who once — as teenagers — dreamed of leaving the suburbs. For these people, the appeal of the suburbs proves too great to resist: the inexpensive and spacious housing, the safety and calm of the neighborhood, provide respite from the stresses of work, as well as the high rents and the turmoil of the urban social landscape.
"Subdivisions" expounds on widespread postwar American myths about the suburbs. As far back as the mid-1950s, the stereotype of the American suburb as the epitome of middle-class cultural uniformity was becoming well established. Sociologist William H. Whyte's 1956 book The Organization Man played a large role in asserting the conformist image of the suburbs, which has become widely known (characterized partly as "harried commuters, their frustrated wives and spoiled children").Folk singer Malvina Reynolds helped to entrench this image in the public imagination when she released "Little Boxes" in 1963, a song which describes the suburbs as cookie-cutter housing mirrored in a cookie-cutter suburban mentality: "And the people in the boxes / All went to the university / Where they were put in boxes / And they came out all the same." Neil Peart captured a similar sentiment in "Subdivisions" when he wrote, "Growing up, it all seems so one-sided / Opinions all provided / The future pre-decided." Alongside conformity, the suburbs were identified with boredom, repose, and inactivity. Symbolically, the suburbs became the feminine counterpart to the myth of the masculine urban center. As Susan Saegert observes, the city became associated with the masculine virtues of assertiveness, adventure, individuality, the intellect, and activity. The suburbs, in contrast, became associated with the traditional feminine stereotypes of domesticity, repose, family, mindless consumption-on-impulse, and safety. Despite the fact that they were supposedly designed for raising a middle-class nuclear family — with parks, schools, and shopping malls conveniently available — the stereotype of the suburb was typically that of the cultural and economic wasteland. Gainful employment, arts, culture, interesting cuisine, and other opportunities were associated with the cities, while the suburbs remained simply a place to sleep and shop. More troubling, the suburbs socially reflected a continued desire for exclusivity among the American white middle class, who used the suburbs to create new pockets of socioeconomic and ethnic homogeneity, while the cities buzzed with diversity and multiculturalism but also grappled with problems like inner-city decay, caused in part by middle-class emigration. A recent Canadian documentary on the suburbs, Radiant City, rearticulates many of the key suburban critiques, showing how the suburbs achieve a "disaggregation" of urban life, a retreat into the isolation of the family home, and the production of monocultures where people are grouped into large pockets of similar age, lifestyle, and income brackets. The retreat into private space, the documentary claims, erodes feelings of community and engaged citizenship, the very things that stave off social alienation. Some sociologists have critiqued such perceptions of the suburbs as oversimple and unfairly stereotyped, noting that various kinds of suburbs (middle-class, working-class, industrial, and so on) currently exist, and new theories of the suburbs as economically lively "edge cities" have entered the sociological literature.
The growth of the suburbs after World War II was expected to herald a more prosperous, halcyon time in American history. The GI Bill in the United States gave veterans access to postsecondary education after the war as well as cheap mortgages, both of which swelled the suburbs and the white-collar middle class. By the 1960s, almost 40 percent of North Americans lived in suburbs, making it the most populous residential category, exceeding even the cities themselves. These kinds of suburbs were an anomaly of the British ex-colonies, springing up primarily in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom itself. Kenneth Jackson suggests that there is a peculiarly British dislike of the cities manifested here, and notes that this residential and socioeconomic pattern is quite unique. In continental Europe, Asia, and Latin America, the cities' fringes are most commonly the home to the most destitute, not to middling and affluent property owners. The idea of moving up the social hierarchy and out of the city was a distinct process in the English-speaking world, making these suburbs a privileged socioeconomic belt.
Nonetheless, the image of the suburbs as the American Dream-turned-nightmare continues to have a lot of cultural power. For Grossberg, rock music arose in large part because the suburbs were dull, and young Americans turned to edgy, exciting forms of popular culture to alleviate boredom. Grossberg invokes the myth of suburbia's failure, stressing its detachment and isolation: "The result was a generation of children that was not only bored (the American Dream turned out to be boring) and afraid, but lonely and isolated from each other and the adult world as well. The more the adult world emphasized their uniqueness and promised them paradise, the angrier, more frustrated and more insecure they grew." In the imagination of some, the picture of the postwar suburb was painted in harsh and dismissive terms: it was no place to live, no place to work, and no place to dream. This is a remarkably grim way to aestheticize privileged lifestyles, but as Lorraine Kenny argues, middle-class suburbanites seek ways to "in-fill" their lives with exaggerated dramas and stories that make mountains out of molehills. Imagining the suburbs as restrictive, pathological, tragic, or desolate provides a suitably dystopian starting point for fantasizing about escapist journeys.
This chapter explores the desire for escape from the suburban context and the means Rush provided for such escape. I consider a representative selection of Rush's repertoire from 1974 to 1981 which can be seen as "escapist," and discuss how the kinds of escapism Rush provides reflect middle-class values, priorities, and experience. In the latter part of the chapter, I look at how the different forms of Rush's escapism are implicated in the middle-class aesthetic disposition itself, drawing from the work of Pierre Bourdieu. The central themes of the suburban myth which Rush emphasizes — conformity and isolation — present an intriguing contradiction, juxtaposing regimented sameness with loneliness and isolation as some of the most urgent problems with the suburban context; and this chapter looks at how Rush mediates these themes as it critiques the suburbs. Though I discuss the theme of escape with respect to the suburbs and middle-class youth, this theme obviously applies broadly across the social spectrum. The idea that rock, pop, rap, disco, or rave music provides escape for young people from a variety of social milieus is a truism that need not be rehearsed here. But I show how the kinds of escapism Rush provides are situated in the values, desires, and anxieties of a predominately middle-class, male, and suburban audience.
The desire for escape was established on Rush's first album, prior to the arrival of Neil Peart. One of the most popular tracks on Rush was called "Working Man," an ominous, lumbering, heavy rock piece in which the band, ironically, takes on a blue-collar viewpoint. The song centers on the repetitious drudgery of working a day job and describes how work gets in the way of living. The traditional working-class separation of labor from life is dramatized: work is an economic necessity but a personally meaningless, alienating activity, while leisure provides meaningful personal space. The end of each verse makes clear the desire for escape from the workaday lifestyle, when Geddy Lee sings, "It seems to me I could live my life / A lot better than I think I am," delivered during the song's most intense dynamic build-up. The song presents hope for upward mobility or a more personally satisfying way of spending one's time, though without a great deal of certainty or expectation. Isolation is a key theme in the song as well, as the "I" persona comes home, pours himself a beer, and wonders "why there's nothing goin' down here." The home context seems removed from life as well; working is not living in this song, and leisure time at home is an inadequate respite, empty and inactive.
Rush's sympathy with the working class on its first album is interesting given the group's strong middle-class identification on nearly all its later records. To some degree, Rush's discarded proletarian posture on its first album might itself be understood as something of an escapist gesture, revealing a desire to identify with working-class others. Simon Frith notes that the "middle-class use of rock ... has been [seen] as a way into working-class adolescence. What is on offer is the fantasy community of risk." Dressing down, slumming, taking on a bohemian identity — these are all well-known strategies that have been used by some in the middle class as a way of escaping, critiquing, or negating their class origins. This had been done by middle-class jazz fans in the 1930s, the "beatniks" of the 1950s, the folk revivalists of the early 1960s, and the hippies of the late 1960s. In each example, middle-class youth take on the jargon, music, aspects of lifestyle, and sometimes the appearance of underclass groups as a way of placing a claim on a rebellious identity, and articulating a separation from parental standards and expectations. Hard rock and heavy metal in North America provided one such avenue of escape through marginality for middle-class youth. Studies of heavy metal found that the genre's appeal was difficult to map along class lines — its audience was not clearly dominated by working-class or middle-class fans — but this does not mean that the uses made of this genre for the formation of identity were identical across class lines. The potential of hard rock's working-class defiance and machismo for use in reclaiming — if only vicariously and temporarily — a sense of masculine and rebellious vitality for middle-class, suburban boys is certainly part of the genre's appeal.
The musical-stylistic transition Rush made between 1974 and 1976 on its first four albums reveals a shift both in what kind of class identity the band was putting forward, as well as a shift in what kinds of escapism it chose to offer its audience. Rush's early style construction was keyed to an understanding of hard rock as rough, streetwise, and decidedly blue collar, yet the band gradually drew away from this conception toward the end of the 1970s. This is especially apparent in the changes that developed in Geddy Lee's vocals. On Rush and Fly by Night, Lee's pronunciation tended roughly toward a working-class and southern American dialect. This included, for example, the tendency to truncate "ing" suffixes to "in'" (e.g., "workin' man"), to leave off /r/s from the ends of words or after vowels ("bee-uh" for "beer"), and the tendency to replace /ai/ diphthongs with /a/ ("Ah" in place of "I"). In his study of the sociolinguistics of pop song pronunciation, Peter Trudgill discusses the tendency among postwar popular singers to imitate southern and working-class American linguistic tendencies even when they are not part of the singer's regional and class background. Trudgill notes that singers may use different pronunciation habits when singing, as opposed to speaking, in an attempt to identify themselves musically with a different social group. Rock drew from southern, black, and working-class roots, and it followed that many singers in this genre would modify their vocal style to sound closer to the perceived social, regional, and ethnic roots of this music. But Lee's vocal pronunciation changed following the arrival of Neil Peart as drummer and lyricist. The band's growing efforts on its second, third, and fourth records to move toward a progressive rock style (discussed in detail in chapter 3), as well as Peart's tendency to write in a less conversational and more formal poetic register, conflicted with Lee's previous vocal style, propelling Lee's pronunciation toward an urban, northern U.S./central Canadian, middle-class dialect by the time of 2112 (1976).
These vocal and musical-stylistic changes also coincided with the shift in thematic material that Peart's lyric writing brought to Rush, as fantasy, swords and sorcery, and science fiction tales replaced working-class angst. Between 1975 and 1978, Rush established its reputation as a high-concept, storytelling rock band, and song suites, rock operas, and extended song forms lasting beyond ten minutes were now a noted part of the group's repertoire. Rush's oeuvre was never dedicated exclusively to epic science-fiction and fantasy songs, but these stood out to the point that rock critics frequently remarked upon this aspect of the group's repertoire, even after the early 1980s when it abandoned such themes. I discuss three representative examples from Rush's escapist repertoire, the fantasy-based song suite "The Fountain of Lamneth" (1975), the science-fiction-based epic "Cygnus X-1" (1977), and Rush's unusual, futuristic take on the archetypal rock 'n' roll theme of fast cars, "Red Barchetta" (1981). There are certain commonalities among these pieces: all three take the form of quests and describe wanderlust, and in each case the journey is undertaken in an imaginary world usually set in the remote past or future. However, each piece illustrates different strategies for providing escape and raises different analytical issues. Moreover, each provides an opportunity to discuss different facets of middle-class and masculinist values.
Excerpted from Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class by Chris McDonald. Copyright © 2009 Christopher McDonald. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction1. "Anywhere But Here":
Rush and Suburban Desires for Escape2. "Swimming Against the Stream": Individualism
and Middle-Class Subjectivity in Rush3. "The Work of Gifted Hands": Professionalism
and Virtuosity in Rush's Style4. "Experience to Extremes": Discipline, Detachment,
and Excess in Rush5. "Reflected in Another Pair of Eyes": Representations of Rush
Fandom6. "Scoffing at the Wise?": Rush, Rock Criticism, and the
NotesWorks CitedSelected DiscographyIndex
What People are Saying About This
McDonald makes an important contribution to our understanding of the middle class as a force in North American rock culture, and at the same time offers a pioneering look at one of the most idiosyncratic and influential bands of the past four decades. This book should be welcomed not only by those with an interest in hard and progressive rock, but also by anyone who wishes to understand the role of social class in recent popular culture.
A well-researched, provocative glimpse into one of the most popular, yet oft-overlooked bands in the history of rock.