The solace of sociological distance in the music of Rush
Certain rock groups persist as their own subgenre. The venerable Canadian band Rush is one of them, maintaining a legion of loyalists willing to stick with them as they release album after blandly titled album — Power Windows, Presto, Test for Echo — that defiantly sell in the millions despite little mainstream notice or media excitement. Like the devotees of other cult bands (Phish, Dave Matthews Band, etc.), Rush fans seem to believe that ostentatious musicianship excuses indistinguishable songs — that tracks from, say, Rush’s 1993 grunge disc Counterparts are somehow over the heads of ordinary music fans rather than simply being inaccessibly boring.
But maybe the Rush cult is right. Though the band’s music often belatedly reflects rock trends, Rush seems to deliberately exist outside the hype cycle and the desperation it fosters in listeners who try to keep up with it or, worse, direct it. Bands and songs can easily become phonemes in a musical-taste language meant to express cultural capital. Unreflexive music consumers — if such people can even exist in a Spotify universe — may not be invested in the status games that often enshroud pop music, but their listening habits are still shaped by the zeitgeist, which constrains what is possible and what gets circulated. The appeal of Rush, however, is that being a Rush fan seems to exempt one from such constraints and anxieties, from feeling required to validate tastes by advertising them. No matter how counterintuitive or ironic things become, throwing on a Grace Under Pressure tour shirt or air-drumming to “YYZ” isn’t likely to impress anyone.
How did Rush get there, beyond irony, beyond cool and uncool?
Originally the group was a Led Zeppelin imitator — with a vocalist far shriller than Robert Plant in Geddy Lee — that seemed happy to turn out functional songs like “Working Man” and “Best I Can,” exploring the evergreen prolekult themes of hard work, horniness, boozing, and bro-ing down. But then Rush rejected their manifest destiny of becoming a barnstorming heartland rock act à la REO Speedwagon, Head East, or Kansas (or fellow Canadian anthem-mongers Triumph and April Wine) and made the genuinely brave choice to dorkify their music, serving up increasingly intricate sci-fi fantasy opuses like “The Fountain of Lamneth” and “Cygnus X-1,” and supplying socially awkward boys with that perfect fusion of King Crimson, banshee wailing, and Piers Anthony novels that they never even thought to hope for.
The decisive move for the group, however, came after it achieved its greatest fame, with the 1980 album Moving Pictures. Having built a hardcore prog following and cemented their virtuoso bona fides with a series of hyperambitious concept albums (1976’s 2112 featured a sidelong epic about an oppressive race of techno-priests who obliterate rock and roll), Rush smoothed the edges just enough to make their sound accessible to the unwashed rock masses, crossing over into massive AOR success with “Tom Sawyer” and “Limelight.” But rather than consolidate their popularity by reprising Moving Pictures, the band members suddenly became enamored of moody, atmospheric new wave. They jettisoned the roman-numeraled, Ayn Rand-inspired suites they were known for, cut their hair short, swapped their Chinatown junk-store kimonos and hooded robes for New Romantic–style suits, and began using more synthesizers and sequencers than Tubeway Army. On their next album, with the aptly sterile title of Signals, Rush offered fussy, hermetic soundscapes that seemed inspired by bands like the Police and the Fixx.
As dramatic as the change in musical direction was, the change in Rush’s lyrics was more significant. Previously, the lyrics, written by drummer Neil Peart, were maladroit and generally inscrutable, and when they were comprehensible, they tended to offer the sort of libertarian life lessons you might get from an accomplished member of a high school debate team: “I will choose free will”; “Live for yourself, there is no one else more worth living for”; “The men who hold high places must be the ones who start to mold a new reality, closer to the heart.”
Such ideas had an obvious appeal for those who would become the stereotypical Rush fans: the lonely gifted kids who found respite from relentless social anxiety in the belief that their irrepressible superiority was what made others reject them. Initially, Rush didn’t pander to this audience so much as epitomize it: asexual nerds, always obsessively diligent about their work and ostentatious with their learning, always seeming to try too hard, and always with a tendency to invent grandiose escapist fantasies. The band embarrassed rock critics because the pretentious juvenilia its records were saturated with was precisely the sort of thing the critics were struggling to distance themselves from.
With Signals, though, Rush seemed finally to be attempting a similar move, putting away childish things and embracing a measured lyrical maturity. Hence “Subdivisions,” the album’s opening track, assumes a distant, Olympian tone toward the suburban milieu it describes, patronizing the teenagers suffering within it:
Growing up it all seems so one-sided,
Opinions all provided,
The future predecided,
Detached and subdivided
In the mass production zone.
Whereas Rush once brought solace to the outcast “dreamers” and “misfits so alone” that “Subdivisions” mentions by being manifestly one of them — looking gangly and hopelessly unfashionable, quoting J.R.R. Tolkien and perpetually practicing their instruments — the band now suddenly came across like well-intentioned guidance counselors surveying their core fan base from a sociological distance. The video adopts this perspective as well: cutting clips of the band’s passionless performance with some establishing aerial shots of freeways and tract housing and grim scenes from a teenage Rush fan’s miserable life.
The song’s chorus begins with a voice intoning “Subdivisions,” a word so uneuphonious that they didn’t bother to rhyme it or set it to melody. The word just hangs there: a clunky abstraction that establishes the analyst’s viewpoint and the homology between suburban development and high-school hierarchies. It’s followed by an inventory of the sites where conformity is constructed: high-school halls, shopping malls. Then the chorus concludes with a dismal diagnosis:
Any escape might help to smooth the unattractive truth,
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth.
The implication was clear. Rush had escaped this grim fate and now looked on with realist detachment at those teens who were doomed to the modern order’s either/or, summed up in the song as this: “Be cool or be cast out.”
Though it seemed that Rush were abandoning the misfits it once celebrated, the band was actually offering a new mode of escape, a better solution for the brainy teen’s alienation, something that, more than role-playing games or math metal, could prove legitimate in the eyes of outsiders. The detached, transcendent point of view of “Subdivisions” points toward a technocratic future for those analytically minded teens, toward a successful place in the universe of research consultancies and policymaking think tanks. They need not become bogged down in high-school popularity traumas as long as they can take the long view, can see them clearly from the outside, and can assume the ability to comment on them neutrally, as if they didn’t affect them personally at all. This subtle refinement catered to the nerdy teens’ sense of innate superiority in a new — and arguably dangerous — way. With “Subdivisions,” Rush taught the embryonic meritocrats among its fan base that power, coldly and clinically deployed, is the best way to redeem awkwardness.
An early version of this essay originally appeared at Generation Bubble