In the spirit of Italian literary critic Franco Moretti and his practice of “distant reading,” Generation Bubble offers a series of essays devoted to our attempts to “unlisten” to pop past and present — to consider individual songs in light of how they helped structure everyday life in their moment.
Certain rock bands seem to persist as their own genre. The venerable Canadian band Rush is one of them. Perennially late to broader developments in pop music, Rush has nonetheless maintained a legion of loyalists willing to stick with them as they release album after blandly titled album — Power Windows, Presto, Test for Echo — which defiantly sell in the millions despite little mainstream notice or media excitement. Like the devotees of other cult bands, such as Phish and the Dave Matthews Band, Rush fans tend to behave as though the band’s ostentatious musicianship excuses the often indistinguishable songs of their late period — that tracks from, say, their 1993 grunge-bandwagon disc Counterparts are somehow over the heads of ordinary music fans rather than simply inaccessibly boring.
But maybe the Rush cult is right. Though the band’s music often reflects pop-music trends, Rush seems to deliberately exist outside both the hype cycle and the desperation it fosters in listeners who try to keep up with, or worse, direct it. Much of indie music’s appeal, for instance, depends on an intricate calculus of a band’s relative obscurity and signifying relevance; bands are phonemes in a language of musical taste meant to express an advantageous personal identity, to stake claim to cultural capital. Unreflexive music consumers, though not as overtly invested in status games, still rely on an act’s fashionability, its currency, to shape their listening habits. Such bands get consumed as zeitgeist, not as music.
Such is typically not the case when it comes to Rush, however. The band’s fans don’t seem to feel obliged to advertise their tastes in search of validation. No one is throwing on a Grace Under Pressure tour shirt or air-drumming to “Tom Sawyer” in order to impress anyone.
How did Rush get there, beyond irony, beyond cool and uncool? Originally a Led Zeppelin imitator (with a vocalist far shriller than Robert Plant in the person of Geddy Lee) content to explore the evergreen prolekult themes of working hard, horniness, boozing, and bro-ing down in functional songs like “Working Man” and “Best I Can,” Rush later rejected their manifest destiny as a barnstorming heartland rock act à la REO Speedwagon, Head East, or Kansas and made the genuinely brave choice to junior-high-ify 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 a perfect fusion of King Crimson, banshee wailing, and Piers Anthony novels that they never even would have thought to hope for.
With “Subdivisions,” Rush taught the embryonic meritocrats among its fan base that power, coldly and clinically deployed, is the best way to redeem awkwardness.
The decisive move for the group, however, came after it achieved its greatest success with the 1980 album Moving Pictures. Having built a hardcore prog-rock following and cemented their rock-virtuoso bona fides with a series of hyperambitious concept albums, Rush smoothed the edges just enough to make their sound accessible to the unwashed rock masses. But then, rather than consolidate the popularity of 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 even more synthesizers and sequencers than Tubeway Army. Eschewing the intricate riffing of their classic records, on the 1982 release Signals, the follow-up to Moving Pictures, Rush offered fussy, hermetic soundscapes that seemed directly inspired by the Police and very far from fellow Great White Northern anthem-mongers Triumph or April Wine.
As dramatic as was the change in musical direction, a more pertinent shift occurred in Rush’s lyrical tone. Earlier in its career, Neil Peart’s lyrics were maladroit and generally inscrutable (What is “Tom Sawyer” supposed to be about?), and when they were comprehensible, they tended to offer 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 what would become the stereotypical Rush fan — the lonely gifted kid who found respite from relentless social anxiety in the belief that his irrepressible superiority made others uncomprehendingly reject him.
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 seemed to embarrass rock nabobs mainly because of the pretentious juvenilia its records were saturated with and with which critics were eager to dispense. With Signals, Rush seemed to be making a similar move, putting away childish things and embracing a measured lyrical maturity. Hence “Subdivisions,” the opening track on Signals, 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” 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 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. A clunky abstraction that establishes the analyst’s perspective and the homology between suburban housing tracts and high-school hierarchies, the word just jumps out of the song. The chorus then 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 sadness at those teens who were doomed to the modern order’s either/or: “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.
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