Serious Rock: Bruce Springsteen, Rush, Pink Floyd

By Deena Weinstein, Professor of Sociology at DePaul University, 27 pages, published in 1985 by CultureTexts, Montreal, Quebec, excerpt transcribed by pwrwindows

Transcribers Note: This is an excerpt which appeared in the Rush fanzine, A Show Of Fans; it is reproduced here exactly as it appeared (i.e. with no paragraph breaks). Ms. Weinstein also co-wrote "Neil Peart versus Ayn Rand" which appears in Rush And Philosophy, edited by Jim Berti & Durell Bowman, 2011
Serious Rock, by Deena Weinstein


In Canada reflective rock is best exemplified in the work of the Toronto-based group Rush. Joining the group after the release of their first album, Neil Peart has penned all the lyrics for the group's nine subsequent studio albums. Rush's albums vary in settings from Sci-fi futures to mythic pasts, and focus on issues of technology, politics, relations with others and with oneself. They arc conceptually more-or-less integrated, but they collectively present a coherent social philosophy. Peart's focus is on the authentic individual, with special attention to the possibilities for living an authentic life in civilization. Peart is a partisan of Rousseau's noble savage; but he also does not wish to forego the benefits of civilization. In the state of nature, living without technology or other people, the noble savage has no serious obstacles to realizing his authenticity. His mind and his feelings are his own; he is unconstrained. But Peart sees no prospect, nor does he evince a serious desire, for a return to a state of nature. His problematic is the archetypical Homan tic one: how to be one's own person in the midst of modern society? Being one's own person, being in a state of what nineteenth-century philosopher Max Stirner called "ownness", requires, for Peart, individuals who constantly strain against societal forces. Human action, unlike the movement of machines, is not controlled directly by external forces. Our actions are based upon emotions and reasoning. To get us to conform, society must influence our feelings and thoughts; it must alienate them from us, make them not our own. Many of Peart's songs either describe the alienative condition or are exhortations to he authentic. Peart's major metaphor for our true emotions, our authentic feelings, is the heart. In A Farewell To Kings, lines in two songs urge changes that would allow people to be "closer to the heart." In "The Spirit Of Radio" Peart claims that "making modern music can still be openhearted." The term music can be understood here both literally and as a symbol for expressing ourselves to others. Peart judges contemporary acts of expression to be inauthentic, having only the "illusion of integrity." Our relations with specific others may be "An illusion show/Acting well-rehearsed routines/Or playing from the heart." That is, we have the possibility of being authentic with one another, expressing our true feelings, or we can mouth the words of a script written by society. The conflict between the authentic individual and the societal pressure to conform to an average, and thus to be inauthentic, is ambitiously illustrated by Peart in 2112. The work, is set in a future civilization, one that sees itself as far more advanced than our current one. The set of songs tells a story that is reminiscent of Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor. The rulers of society arc Priests residing in the Temples of Syrinx. They are not merely political authorities who deal with the practical world but me also spiritual leaders who propound and disseminate moral judgments. They combine the practice of science and religion, harnessing together what Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor claims mankind craves: bread and meaning. From their computerized headquarters they provide people with all their needs; they dispense culture: "the words you read/the songs you sing/ the pictures that give pleasure... All the gifts of life." Like the Grand Inquisitor, the Priests rule to create a community of equals among their subjects: "Look around this world we've made/Equality/Our stock in trade." But one person discovers, hidden behind a waterfall, an ancient artifact, a guitar. He learns to play it, to make his own music. He is favorably impressed with how different his music is from that dispensed from the Syrinxian Temples. His music is authentic, it expresses his unique feelings: "Sec how it sings like a sad heart/ And joyously screams out its pain." He equates playing his own music, expressing himself authentically, with life itself, and wishes to share his discovery with the others. The Priests are not amused; they recognize such action as inimical to their order. Expression of individual feelings "doesn't fit the plan." They argue that the earlier civilization, presumably our own, was ruined because of such self-expression. The Priests recognize that the average person cannot handle spontaneous expression, and thus, because equality is their value, conclude that no one should be allowed to make their own music. They smash the instrument to splinters. Having experienced a "different way of life," of taking responsibility for his emotions and expressing his real feelings, the person who discovered the guitar is unwilling to resume the "meaningless," "cold and empty" life under the Priests' domination. Death is preferable. Expressing one's own feelings rather than those which arc socially manufactured is only one part of authentic existence. For Peart, one's judgments, one's mind, must also be autonomous. "In your head is the answer" he proclaims. The Priests in 2112 indicate that the people should not think for themselves, that they "never need to wonder/ how or why" because the Priests' knowledge and wisdom is sufficient and infallible. Tom Sawyer is admired because "his mind is not for rent/To any god or government" One should self-consciously affirm one's beliefs as well as express sincerely one's emotions. Peart is concerned not merely about the authenticity of the intellect and the emotions, but about their relationship to one another. Neither the head nor the heart should dominate the other, though the latter is more elemental. He attempts to wed the enlightenment's glorification of Reason to the nineteenth-century Romanticism that extolled the Emotions. One's mind is a guide, Peart advises, but "let your heart be the anchor."

Much in the spirit of the existentialist Albert Camus, Peart advocates the stance of the Rebel. In "Vital Signs" he argues that "everybody got to deviate/ From the norm." The boy who exuberantly drives his uncle's outlawed Red Barchetta in a dystopia that frowns on such self-expression, sees his drives as committing a "weekly crime" Peart's New World Man is built in the same mold; he is "a rebel and a runner." The complexity and ambivalence of Peart's vision is brought out in the two lines "Everybody got to elevate / From the norm" and "everybody got to deviate / From the norm." It is the dilemma of liberal romanticism: Is all deviation from the norm elevation? Is being unique and being one's own always also to be excellent? At his most optimistic Rousseau would have responded to these questions affirmatively and, perhaps, the same can be said for Peart. But such optimism is belied by the Priests and by the fable of the oaks and maples. If existence, for Peart, is not quite tragic, it is surely not altogether comic.