Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Rand-Rush Connection: Dreaming in Middletown

Rush has already been discussed in "the scholarly literature," as Chris Sciabarra outlined in his article "Rand, Rush, and Rock." Sciabarra has already discussed the previous books discussing Rush, including Edward Macan's Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture; Paul Stump's The Music's All That Matters: A History of Progressive Rock; Carol Selby Price and Robert M. Price's Mystic Rhythms: The Philosophical Vision of Rush; Bill Martin's Listening to the Future: The Time of Progressive Rock, 1968-1978; and Kevin Holm-Hudson's edited collection, Progressive Rock Reconsidered, which features an essay on Rush by Durrell S. Bowman. The most recent addition to the "canon” is Rush, Rock Music and the Middle Class: Dreaming in Middletown by Chris McDonald.

The thesis of McDonald's book is not about Rush and Rand per se, so this will not be a comprehensive book review; there are other topics discussed, such as musical analysis, that I found interesting, that are simply beyond the scope of this post. Rather, this will just serve to introduce the book into the discussion started by "Rand, Rush and Rock”. There is significant space dedicated to the topic, in the discussion of differing kinds of individualism, the comparison of "2112" and Rand’s novella Anthem, (upon which "2112" was based), heroism, maturity and civility, the “self-made” man, and public reaction towards the band as it relates to Objectivism.The book centers on Rush's embodiment and representation of North American "middle-classness," looking at the complex relationship between the group's music, fandom, and middle-class subjectivity. Of course, Rush, as a rock band, is not unique in its suburban origins, but the case can be made that Rush is a perfect subject for exploring these themes, given the vividness and acuteness with which it represents and wrestles with its suburban, middle-class identity. The author’s own introduction is significant, in that the he wrestles with his own “middle-class identity” in regards to the themes of Rush, Rand, and individualism, as if to simultaneously defend and/or distance himself from those themes:
"I grew up in a politically conservative, secular, middle-class family with a generations-long tradition of small-business ownership, and I picked up a wide range of individualistic biases as a youth, some of which I carry to this day. I am sure that my upbringing as an only child who learned to work and play in abundant solitude only made Rush's (and to some degree, Rand's) individualism more compatible with my teenage worldview. However, as an adult, my training as a musician in the arts and as an academic ethno-musicologist forced me to contend with culture and society in ways that strongly challenged the assumptions that came with my upbringing. By learning how ideologies of many kinds can be deconstructed, I found myself questioning many things that once seemed like the concrete bases of my identity and the society in which I lived. I have come to understand individualism not as a natural, universal, or commonsense truth, but as an important, historically and socially grounded European idea that has led to a variety of both progressive and repressive outcomes in various places and times. My agenda is neither to discredit individualism and Rush's uses of it, nor to defend or glorify them. I want to uncover the social and historical backgrounds that make individualism important to Rush and many of its audience members, and I want to see how it fits into the story of rock music and the middle class. (65-66)
McDonald lays out his thesis:

By critically examining individualism, I am not denying that each of us has an individual consciousness and the agency to make choices….And I am also not suggesting that there is something necessarily wrong with various values (self-reliance, pro-activity, a rigorous work ethic) associated with middle-class individualism, or for that matter with Rush’s lyrics. But I am concerned that individualist ideology (and Rush’s use of it) be understood as part and parcel of a particular social and historical context. Though [Carol] Price…insisted that ‘there are no natural herd members,’ it is equally true that the individual she describes is not natural either; it is a post-Lockean, modern, Western idea, difficult to conceive of outside the history that gave rise to Protestentism, the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, and modern states. Morever, the individualism under discussion is inflicted in a distinctly American way….it is embedded in middle-class and white American identity in important ways. (83-84)
The Rand/Rush Connection

First, let’s look at how McDonald sees their connection:
“2112” and other Rush songs…that made political cases against collectivism and in favor of individualism are challenging to contextualize, because they intersect with both broad and specific contexts. On the one hand, such political statements resonate with the rising tensions of the Cold War during the 1970s and 1980s, which climaxed during the Reagan presidency. The economic crisis of the mid-1970s and the erosion of faith in the welfare state, Keynesian economics, and other progressive government programs are also certainly part of this political turn. But on the other hand, the explicit connections Rush made to Ayn Rand...and the implicit links apparent in numerous other songs….associated the band with a specific marginal political movement forged by Rand and her philosophers, known as Objectivism. Locating Rush between these two guideposts is tricky. Neil Peart’s much-publicized interest in Rand during those years left an indelible mark on Rush’s repertoire and became a frequent journalist touchstone in articles about the band, especially in the British press. This singular focus on Rand’s ideas, however, exaggerates her importance and fails to account for the precipitous decline in her influence on Rush’s lyrics after 1981. (91-92)
McDonald makes the conventional connection between Rand and conservatism (against Rand's protests to the contrary):

The choice of Rand as a literary and philosophical lodestar in Rush’s early years cast the band’s individualism as symptomatic of an extremely conservative political position. By refereeing Rand, Rush seemed to align itself with a politics that emphasized laissez-faire capitalism, individualism, and a decidedly pro-business posture, often associated with libertarianism, neoliberalism, and secular neoconservatism. Rand’s novels and nonfiction provide one of the best known expressions of this philosophy in popular culture, also represented in the writings of philosopher Robert Nozick, economists Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, novelist Robert A. Heinlein, and television journalist John Stossel. (92)

McDonald cites various people like C. Wright Mills, Theodor Adorno, Robert Bellah, Simon Frith, and Adrie Kusserow in his explanations of various kinds of individualism, and applies their theories to Rand and Rush and American/Canadian class values. I think it's safe to say that McDonald is seeing through a Marxist lens, and his sources will be found antagonistic to Objectivists (the first four listed are known for their socialism and/or Marxism; I don't know about Kusserow), but their importance is in the discussion of the very real phenomenon of how the American idea of individualism has shifted from a “rugged” ideal to “softened” one of “interdependence” (as witnessed in a phrase like “kind capitalism” used by businesses such as Ben and Jerry’s.) Two particular theories discussed by McDonald are the “hard/soft offensive from Kusserow, and Robert Belah’s “expressive-utilitarian” theory.

Kusserow’s “hard/soft” offensive has 3 variations of individualism that vary by class (an defensive “offensive” among the working class, a attitude of “upward mobility in the middle class, “soft offensive” among the upper class. (McDonald theorizes that these variations can relate to age.) Bellah’s theory centers on the middle-class. Expressive individualism is explained as “part of the individual’s engagement with culture, leisure, and family, “and the “utilitarian” as “overwhelmingly concerned with material success and attainment of career goals.”
McDonald takes these theories and applies them to the ideas put forth in Neil Peart’s lyrics, based on the group’s collective middle-class upbringing. There is this quote from Frith: "American class experience is mediated through historical images of individual achievement and failure; workers remember their past in terms of mobility rather than solidarity, self-sufficiency rather than socialism. Rock’n’roll accounts of loneliness and rebellion celebrated the conditions that produced them. (75) On this, McDonald says about Rush that their "hard" individualism, then, resonates across class lines in America, where slogans about self-sufficiency can be adapted to working- and middle-class sensibilities.(75)

McDonald goes on to trace the differing kinds of individualism in Peart’s lyrics throughout their albums, noting a shift from the “hard” to “soft” offensive and, ultimately, towards Peart’s current “left-leaning libertarian” position. McDonald denies the “defensive” position in Rush songs (despite the first album song “Working Man,” which was written before Peart joined the band). While not defensive, they are aggressive. McDonald notes the juxtaposition; he believes that Rush were primarily of the “hard, middle-class” offensive. A song like “Anthem” or “Something For Nothing” contain the Rand-inspired individualism, and McDonald also notes the “brash if optimistic expression of individuality” which “is hardly surprising given Rush’s hard rock orientation; such a hard-offensive approach to individualism suggests that Rush speaks of middle-class aspiration from a lower-middle-class or even working class point of view.” (74) But the lyrics reflect the “upward mobility” spirit of the middle class, as opposed to the lyrics of, say, Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan, which dwell on the plight of the working class.

The sharp divide between the working and middle class, as it relates to musical matters, was on display in Rush’s interview with Barry Miles in the New Music Express in the late 70’s. McDonald discusses the Objectivist angle, which I discuss here. But McDonald also mentions another article highlighting the divide:

Rush’s evocation of Rand in the early albums garnered relatively little attention in the American press, but in 1978 an article in the Canadian magazine Maclean’s positioned Rush at the vanguard of a new, more conservative, self-centered generation of rock fans. Entitled “To Hell with Bob Dylan-Meet Rush: They’re In It for the Money,” the article probed the band’s affirmative posture toward Rand, her version of capitalism, and the band’s self-congratulatory assessment of its perseverance and hard work ethic. As reported by Roy MaGregor, Rush "held no kindred love for the social conscience of a Bob Dylan or Phil Ochs, for that matter not even the street justice of a Mick Jagger. Rush was, on the average, a full decade younger than the ruling class of modern pop music. They found themselves speaking for a large group of young rockers without spokesman–a group who, despite their love of loud, violent music, were themselves non-revolutionary, highly conservative, and certainly self-centered." (93)
The members of Rush were so shaken by the “fascist” accusations by Miles of the NME (as McDonald notes, Geddy Lee’s mother was a concentration camp survivor, after all), and they started to distance themselves from the Objectivist label, illustrated by Peart, who claimed the Randian influence was “grossly overestimated”: “Most of us are independent enough to take a selection of different people’s ideas and meld them together into something of our own. It was just the simplistic labeling at the time, and thankfully it’s diet out.” (49) One could take issue with Peart for the term “simplistic labeling,” when he not only wrote a song called “Anthem,” but dedicated "2112" “to the genius of Ayn Rand.” But whether or not it was this incident or, as the theories claim, the “maturing” process, Peart’s emphasis began to shift from the “hard” offensive to the “soft offensive” on individualism.

That emphasis on middle-class values becomes more pronounced on the mid-80’s albums, which also reflected the musical shift away from hard rock towards more synthesized, new-wave rock. McDonald notes the shift from aggressive independence to a softer “interdependence” as well:

“Grand Designs” (1985) articulates the myth of personal uniqueness and “Mission” (1987) deals with individualist artistic expression, while “Open Secrets” (1987) and “Hand Over Fist” (1989) switch the emphasis from self-reliance to interdependence. This shift in register may reflect Peart’s advancing maturity as well as the band’s confidence following what had been more than a decade as a successful band. I suspect that Kusserow’s hard-offensive and soft-offensive individualism may be not only an effect of class but also of age, younger people seeking to prove themselves might adopt a relatively hard sort of individualism; more mature, established people might adopt a more nuanced, interdependent and softer form.” (75)
The above theory would also ring true with Peart’s interest at the time with Carl Jung’s ideas, which explore that evolution from independence to interdependence. (I deal with those ideas in relation to Objectivism here, while offering my own criticisms of Jung's hero cycle here.) Jung’s analysis of the hero cycle, for example, details a journey from adolescent discovery and independence to either a re-integration with society or the evolution into a monster or tyrant, the very thing the hero set out to fight in the first place. This idea influenced Peart, and can be seen in his lyrics concerning heroism. McDonald notes that “Heroic displays of virtuosity became obligatory on Rush’s albums”, but describes the difference between songs like “Tom Sawyer” and “Nobody’s Hero” as a maturing away from the Randian hero. Peart confirms in his own words:

“Nobody’s Hero,” as it existed in my notebook and in my thoughts, was really just about, ‘what is a hero, what is the Western idea of a hero, and is it good?’ And ultimately I decided that our idea of a hero is a superhuman being, whether it’s an athlete or an entertainer or a politician or whatever. …And I decided no ,it isn’t a good thing. It’s not good for people to think they are trying to measure themselves against perfect superhuman deities. Much better they should measure themselves against role models or the type of heroes that I outlined in the chorus, which are ordinary people doing extraordinary things…but at the same time in our Western way, they were nobody’s hero. (52)

Anthem vs. "2112"

Actually, when Peart discusses “ordinary heroes,” as opposed to "Randian supermen", it seems to supports his complaint about the “overestimation” of Rand’s influence. In McDonald’s comparison of Rand’s Anthem and Rush’s "2112", he points out that Unlike Equality 7-2521, the protaganist in “2112” is not distinguished from his peers in any particular way; in fact, in the extra narrative provided in the liner notes, he is portrayed as an average citizen who is happy with the status quo." (88)

The contrast is that the protagonist of
Anthem was already defiant, or born different, one of Rand’s elite “prime movers”, while the hero of "2112" was one of the masses who experienced an “awakening,” via the discovery of the guitar and the rejection of his gift by the Priests. It could be argued that it’s a superficial comparison in light of the larger case of the theme of the individual versus the state. (It also ignores that Rand’s heroes are not supernatural, and she had made a comment that “In America, the common man is most uncommon.”) Two different heroes with different awakening circumstances, but both reach the same conclusion. And yet, it could be argued that the difference is substantial, if one considers just how Rush would move away from the Objectivist version of individualism; again, in 2112’s hero we see something closer to Jung’s analysis of the hero cycle, whereas in Rand’s stories, the heroes do not re-integrate themselves into an old society, but pave the way for a new one.

Unfortunately, I do have to take issue, at this point, with another part of the Anthem/"2112" comparison. McDonald claims that

Anthem was an alarmist work of fiction, best understood as part of the red scare of the 1930’s, when socialism was gaining political favor in the midst of the Great Depression…Rand’s polemic was clearly aimed at communism; “2112,” in contrast, casts a wider critical net. Peart’s society of the future is also collectivist, but the central control of the society is held through an elite body called the Priests, adding a theocratic element to the narrative. Their control of society is maintained through high technology…with their computers maintaining surveillance over the population and providing all aspects of culture, including literature, music, and art. (88-89)

McDonald reiterates this difference:

In contrast to Anthem, “2112” is not simply an anti-communist or anti-socialist polemic; Peart brings together in his dystopian future three things that have the capacity to massify: religion, technology, and ideology." (90) The problem with this distinction is that it is simply not true; Anthem is not simply an "anti-socialist polemic." Yes, those elements are there, but Rand made a point of explaining that her books were not simply aimed at communism, or fascism, but went to something deeper: "the meaning of man's ego." Besides, Rand made it a point to not define her work by the negatives, but by the positives, by what she stood for, hence the word "anthem" as a "hymn" to the self and life on Earth.

Regarding the “technocratic” regime in "2112", I will say that that McDonald is correct in noting the difference, because this is telling clue that Rush would depart from their Randian influence, since Rand made it a point in Anthem to differ that story from the use of technology by the dictatorships in the oft-compared 1984 and Brave New World, claiming that tyranny eventually leads to an “anti-industrial revolution.” (I’d add that the current “green movement,” and the recent “Climate-Gate” debacle supports that theory.)

McDonald goes on to read more into the themes of "2112", while continuing to stress the “limitations” of

This interpretation, of course, does not exhaust the political criticism articulated by “2112.” The piece also treats political ideology as part of the massification of the society….The presumption that all the citizens are the same-that the same ideas and culture will suit everyone-is what makes the society so deadening and black. Thus, the piece retains the antisocialism that Peart drew from his Randian inspiration, and the red star emblem that adorns 2112’s album cover is no doubt the red star of communism….Just as Anthem reflects its 1930s red scare context, “2112” updates the anxiety about communism for the late Cold War period by merging political collectivism with an ominous, threatening technology (a reflection of the fact that the Soviet Union had beaten the United Stated in the first round of the space race, and had kept pace technologically with the capitalist West, at least until the 1980s). Peart’s collectivist state, with its priestly elite and malevolent, all-seeing technology, is a perfectly menacing threat, penetrating the physical, mental, and spiritual world of its subjects. (91)
This begs the question of why McDonald’s interpretation of Anthem should exhaust that book’s critique, while reading so much into a side-long song cycle. It would be superficial, at that, to call Rand’s philosophy “anti-social,” and indicates a lack of a deeper understanding (or simply ignores) her ideas that ideal social relations were best established not only on a voluntary basis, and not possible in a system that ignores or violates individual rights, but only the rationally selfish, as seen in this quote: “To love is to value. Only a rationally selfish man, a man of self-esteem, is capable of love—because he is the only man capable of holding firm, consistent, uncompromising, unbetrayed values. The man who does not value himself, cannot value anything or anyone.”

Despite the contrasts in the analysis, McDonald seems to criticize the band when they are at their most “Randian,” challenging the image of Rush as an “uncompromising” band bent on preserving their artistic integrity against overwhelming odds. In one example, McDonald says that “Peart portrays Rush’s career as built on integrity. Rush’s artistic freedom at this time may have been due partly to the record company’s distraction and internal structural problems, not simply to Rush’s dogged tenacity.” The point is not to deny that Rush did fight, but that they received more support than the myth may convey, which would support an argument against “rugged individualism” and make the case for “interdependence.” (And this is a criticism often lobbed at Rand herself, who claimed that “no one helped her,” despite the support of her family in Russia and Chicago, or the break given to her by Cecil B. DeMille.)

Throughout the book, the most critical eye towards Rush is cast over their “hard offensive” period (meaning, at their most “Randian”, while their later lyrics are met with approval for their “maturity.” Ultimately, to the consternation of those Objectivists who are prone to cite the lyrics of Neil Peart, McDonald shows just how far Rush has come from the influence of Ayn Rand and the “virtue of selfishness” espoused by Objectivism:
“Through the 1980s and 1990s, Peart’s explorations of individualism become less Randian and idealistic, and more pragmatic and critical. As early as 1980, Rush came out with a song, “Natural Science,” that criticized the blind, solipsistic pursuit of individual agendas…Using tidal pools as a metaphor, the song describes people becoming so narrowly focused on themselves (their pool) that they forget that they are part of a bigger picture (the sea.) “Time after time we lose sight of the wave/our causes can’t see their effects,” Lee sings, in a song that markedly contrasts the “live only for yourself” ethos of “Anthem.” In “Open Secrets,” Peart deals with a similar theme, only in the context of a personal relationship. The song describes the inwardness and isolation that results from hiding feelings and keeping private secrets from one’s intimate circle; the relationship described is full of miscommunications and irritation, because the other parties are distracted by their own concerns, even as they try to open up to each other: “I was looking out the window….I should have looked at your face instead.” (97-98)

Again, I take issue, because Rand, who argued against solipsism, wouldn’t deny this, and it ignores her arguments in The Virtue of Selfishness that if one values another person, it would be in that person's selfish interest to do what one can for a loved one, as seen in the earlier quote. [This also continues on in Peikoff’s work, who quotes the Hegelian maxim that “the true is the whole.”] The band themselves, though, in distancing themselves from Rand, through various comments, seem to agree. For example, the previous quote from Peart about the “gross overestimation.” But Peart undercuts of his own understanding of Objectivism via a quote like this: …”it may sound a little ego-centric, but it’s not. It’s just dedication to values…” (107)

McDonald quotes Geddy Lee to further illustrate the divide:
Geddy Lee pointed out in some interviews that the interest in Rand he shared with Peart mostly involved drawing on her inspirational themes of self-esteem, unlocking of creativity, and moral integrity: “I found Ayn Rand’s work at a certain time in my life­…to be a great liberator and a great relief because he artistic manifesto was so strong and inspiring. Her views on art and the sanctity of individuals were very inspiring to young musicians in a band, fighting for their own identity.” In the long run, it seemed that [Rush’] interest had ltitle to do with Rand’s hard-line capitalist economics and politics per se, and Rush’s repeated forays into the mass-culture critique suggested a great deal of suspicion toward music as big-business, a suspicion Rand likely would never have endorsed. Rush’s individualism, to the extent that it was conservative, sought to uphold and defend an old, entrepreneurial model of the individual,…Thus, the kind of individualism Rush and similar rock bands espoused looked back to a romantic, nineteenth-century entrepreneurial model, sustained as an alternative to a more postmodern, ideologically flexible, and other-directed self. (97)
Despite the support Rand had for business in general, she had plenty to say against the marriage between business and the state, and how businessmen are not immune from corruption (aptly dramatized in a chapter from Atlas Shrugged called “The Top and the Bottom.”) I would mention here that Rand may have sympathized with the band and their fight for artistic integrity versus “big business” (see her attitudes towards Hollywood, something McDonald doesn’t mention). This, I submit, is an important omission when coupled with the description of Rand as “conservative” (or “to the extent that she was”). McDonald does, however, touch on the important point in his last sentence, that the Rand/Rush connection was always tenuous, at best, for reasons similar to the Rand/Libertarian connection. These reasons are outlined already in my review of Jeff Riggenbach’s In Praise of Decadence, and in my post on Peart’s 1996 interview in Liberty magazine. While Rand did have an impact on the hippies, student protesters, and what would become the Libertarian party, the differences kept each from embracing the other fully, as Rand was seen as too “rigid” and the Libertarians “decadent,” or, eclectic “hippies of the right.”

McDonald summarizes the band’s break with Randian with seeming approval:

When viewed in the context of Rush’s…career, individualism stands as an important theme in its repertoire, but other themes and concerns became dominant as the band’s career progressed. Moreover, when the Canadian government awarded the members of Rush the Order of Canada in 1996, the dedication credited the band not with embodying Rand’s ‘virtue of selfishness,’ but quite the opposite: ‘these veterans of the stage have raised over a million dollars for charities such as food banks and the United Way. Their efforts have enhanced an awareness of the plight faced by society’s less fortunate, inspiring and awakening the social consciousness of an entire generation.” This strongly suggests that, in public perceptions of the band, Rush had managed to balance its ideology of individualistic self-interest with one of civic duty and responsibility. (188)

Again, based on various comments from the band members, this attitude is shared by the band themselves. Despite the reassurance that McDonald is “not suggesting that there is something necessarily wrong with various values (self-reliance, pro-activity, a rigorous work ethic,” both the McDonald, in the quote above, and the band members continue to qualify charitable actions as “unselfish,” and stress “interdependence” over independence, and seem to view individualism as “practical”, rather than moral in itself. Depending on which side of the fence one is on, it could be seen a band maturing into a “progressive” ideology, or a “compromise” by a band who couldn’t take the heat. (And I have to wonder if they would be getting such "academic" attention, had they not renounced the Objectivist influence.)

As for McDonald’s book, does he fulfill his thesis? If his agenda was neither to discredit individualism and Rush's uses of it, nor to defend or glorify them,” it doesn’t mean that his own opinion doesn’t come through (though I credit him for a better separation than what was achieved by Jennifer Burns, who made a similar claim in her Rand bio Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. For a specific example, McDonald does a better job of keeping separate his views from the quotations of the fans interviewed and quoted than Burns does.) Regarding his intent to “uncover the social and historical backgrounds that make individualism important to Rush and many of its audience see how it fits into the story of rock music and the middle class”: because of the “leftist” theories used to back up his thesis (after reading Saul Alinksky’s Rules for Radicals, I wouldn’t trust them to tell me the time of day), and what I see as misinterpretations of Rand coupled with telling omissions, the best that I can grant him is the benefit of the doubt that he sincerely believes in the progressive ideology that mixes individualism with altruism. He does lay out the history of these different ideas well enough; and the introduction of the differing kinds of individualism is of note, even if they are at odds with Objectivism. That said, while my criticisms aren't aimed at the book as a whole, I can’t grant McDonald my agreement on his interpretations and conclusions. Where I can grant him unequivocal success is in the documentation of Rush as a band whose connection with Rand was tenuous at best, and for providing, in microcosm, a document of the philosophical and cultural divide of our world today.

Conclusion- Pt. 8 of 8: "Coda" 

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