I Hate This Song
I Hate This Band
Don’t Care (Don’t Care)
Inspired by Victor Franko, I’ve decided to take on the 30 Day Song Challenge.
Day 20 - A Song That
You Listen To When You’re Makes You Angry
This question made me angry with its dullness, so I fixed it. I may have found it intriguing when I was 15 and angry all the time and listened to music specifically to get even more angry. Now that I’m all old and mellow, I’d prefer to explore songs that actually tip my annoyance levels into the red zone just by dint of their very existence.
The one thing I despise most in rock and roll is an over-reliance on technical proficiency to cover up an acute lack of soul in the music. I define soul as that underlying current of sexual energy that gives rock and roll both its mass appeal and radical potential. Never forget that rock and roll is about sex and without sex as a prime reason for being, rock loses its agency to act as a catalyst for revolution. As Mark E. Smith mumbled on the first Fall Record: “I still believe in the R and R Dream/ R and R as primal scream.” So do I, maaan.
Musical virtuosity is not a crime, but using it as a singular criteria for gauging the worth of a band is anathema to spirit of rock and roll. I’ve recently been reading Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music and I can’t recommend it more highly. Willis is funny, sharp, and prescient in her criticism. In a 1968 essay entitled “The Star, The Sound, The Scene” Willis argues that focusing on technical ability alone robs rock and roll of its aesthetic imperative. No longer is it an informal art form accessible to the masses, but just another cultural forum infected by snobbery. She writes:
What it means is that rock has been co-opted by high culture, forced to adopt its standards - chief of which is the integrity of the art object. It means the end of rock as a radical experiment in creating mass culture on its own terms, ignoring elite definitions of what is or is not intrinsic to the aesthetic experience.
In other words: roll over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news. A hierarchal system in which being being a SERIOUS MUSICIAN making SERIOUS MUSIC outweighs the soul of the music itself has no place in rock, which is unique among the arts for its adherence to raw principle rather than technical skill. Like I said, rock and roll is all about sex and sex is anything but technical, unless it’s on the set of a pornographic film, I guess.
And that is pretty much why I hate Rush. Boring, pretentious, soulless, sexless Rush, whose popularity is as mystifying to me as their existence. The band’s entire reputation rests on 2 things: they are really, really good at their individual instruments and their guiding ethos is heavily influenced by the ideas of Ayn Rand. They’re often referred to as “musician’s musicians”, as if you need special training in musical theory to recognize a good song and aren’t up to snuff if you fail to see any value in the music of Rush.
This vaguely fascistic aesthetic is echoed in the band’s music, which is about nothing but the arrangement. Every spare second of a Rush song is packed with crazy rhythm changes, endless guitar noodling, synthesizer arpeggios that go on for days, facile lyrics that are emoted rather than sung. Each individual piece fits perfectly into its place within the pre-ordained arrangement and there’s no room left for improvisation, mistakes, or fun. If Tom Sawyer were literally the high art object of Willis’ essay, it would be a shiny alien sphere, flawless in form, that rings absolutely hollow when flicked by a naughty child. Somebody tell me, what is the point of this band?
They’re such douchebags, too. Reading interviews with the band reveals a deep lack of self-awareness, especially on the part of the fabled Neil Peart (who I feel justified in disliking as a person because we share a birthday). His screeds about the freedom of the individual and distrust of mass movements and concentrated power seem patently ludicrous to me. WTF, dude. You’re IN A ROCK BAND. You play to STADIUMS full of people. Popular music has traditionally served as a way to grow and fuel mass movements; in at least one case rock and roll was the impetus for an entire cultural paradigm shift. Why is Peart even in a band in the first place? The hypocrisy is mind blowing.
Rush is antithetical to everything I value in rock and roll music. Whereas I prefer to see rock as a potentially liberating force for social change that can unite the people under one beat, Rush does things a little differently. They take the world’s most collective medium and turn it into a busy exercise in self-absorption without any trace of irony. Think about a song like Subdivisions, which fancies itself a cutting indictment of bland suburban life. It’s not. It’s a song about privilege-denying white boy suburban malaise, while also being the musical equivalent of a subdivision - consciously disconnected from anything real and incredibly boring to be around. The lyrics are fucking atrocious, too. But this one: In geometric order/ an insulated border/ in between the bright lights/ and far unlit unknowns. This one is interesting because it aptly sums up the detached, tedious quality of Rush’s music and also their total obliviousness to it.
But there’s something else that pisses me off about Rush. This is not just run-of-the-mill dislike here. I really hate this band. The more I think about it, the more I realize that all of Rush’s most popular songs are devoted to one overarching theme: the many ways by which the Great White Male is oppressed by society, the government, and God - a breathtakingly adolescent philosophy that divides the world into Ego vs. Everyone Else. They’re like a more misanthropic Pink Floyd, except this time The Wall is a good thing. I suppose the attitude is appealing to some since Rush has a fan base, though I can’t imagine idolizing a band that philosophically should dislike their fans for being, well, fannish.
Apart from being both politically suspect and insufferably pompous, Rush’s music simply leaves me utterly cold in the way that matters most when you’re listening to rock and roll. Though it may be a veritable feast for those of you with the highly trained, finely tuned ears required to appreciate it, as far as fulfilling the basic criteria of rock and roll (it’s about sex, remember?) Rush’s music is far too regimented to inspire passion where it really counts. Led Zeppelin is another band that has been accused of being technical and pretentious in their approach to music; in some moments, I admit, this is true. But unlike Rush, when Led Zep comes on the radio, I start wiggling in my seat. What’s the difference? I told you: soul. Zeppelin records are dripping with it. Rush records will suck yours out.
In yet another excellent essay collected in Out of the Vinyl Deeps, Ellen Willis writes about the “cult of the musician”, a primarily male fixation on technical prowess. She further goes on to say that “the pretension, competitiveness, and abstraction from feeling that go along with an emphasis on technique are alienating to most women.” This prompted me to reflect on the fact that the only Rush fans I’ve ever met have been men. I guess Rush is one band of whom it could be said the girls don’t know, but the little boys understand.