It’s disorienting for a Rush fan—someone who was patronizing and defending them when it wasn’t just not cool, but the opposite of cool—to watch the bien-pensants struggle to cram them into the canon in the year 2010. Especially since it’s been twenty years since their finest work, and arguably more like thirty.I wasn't aware that there was a time when Rush was the opposite of cool. Is it possible?
I started university at almost the exact moment Nirvana broke, and I still remember exactly where I was standing the first time I saw Kurt Cobain on the cover of a guitar magazine. I don’t play, but for years I’d been devouring the rhetoric of high-performance musical gear and modal theory as a fan, incapable of appreciating it as anything but a species of foreign-language poetry. In that world, the members of Rush were (and are) senior deities. It was instantly clear to me that Cobain, who had duct tape on his guitar neck and probably thought the Mixolydian was a brand of food processor, was going to annihilate the universe we had known. This was a lot like being Michael Corleone in Godfather II and watching that Cuban guerrilla blow himself and the cops to smithereens. “Uh-oh.”
But the last revolutionary flowering of romanticism in pop music ended up being the best possible thing for Rush’s reputation. Intellectuality and musicianship were purged from the radio, but this left the generations that followed hungry for a little classicism, a little ambition and ironic pretension. (How else do you account for Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness?) Grunge provided an opportunity, as punk had before, for separating the wheat from the chaff—annihilating acts that had truly been predicated on nothing but hairstyles and codpieces, and allowing reconsideration and critical filtering of arena rock, metal, and prog that might have been burdened with excessive pompousness and trippy kozmik imagery, but still possessed enduring value. (You don’t want to hear my lecture on how Iron Maiden has introduced more teenagers to literature than anybody in Britain not named J.K. Rowling.)
Granted, I’m not actually sure that “classicism vs. romanticism” is the best metaphor for thinking about the tension between artfulness and sincerity in popular music. The three-chords-and-the-truth types are arguably the real classicists, self-restrained as they are by a musical version of the Aristotelian unities. But self-imposed limitations have been part of the fun of listening to Rush, too. It’s not really natural for a band to insist on doing what Rush has: being a three-piece outfit that will, as an inflexible rule, only make music in the studio that it can eventually replicate without additional help on stage.
Cosh's whole article is excellent: there's good reason he's now on the Arts and Letters Daily blogroll.
Previously: Rush, Red Barchetta, and the anticipating of Peltzman's seminal article on offsetting behaviour...