After almost thirty years of being one of the world’s biggest cult bands, the Canadian progressive rock band Rush is finally getting mainstream recognition. Although the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has yet even to nominate them for admittance, the band in recent years has appeared on The Colbert Report, received a feature-length story in Rolling Stone—a magazine that had once shunned them and gave their highly innovative albums poor reviews—had member Alex Lifeson named as one of the one hundred greatest guitarists of all time in Rolling Stone, and released a popular documentary film, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage. The November release of the career-encompassing CD and DVD Time Machine 2011: Live in Cleveland provides an opportunity to reflect on the Canadian power trio’s oeuvre and, most importantly and perhaps surprisingly, its political relevance.
The starting place in discussing Rush and politics has traditionally been the Russian-American novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. Neil Peart, Rush’s drummer and lyricist, cites Rand as a key influence on the song “Anthem” (1975’s Fly By Night) and the mini-rock opera “2112” (1976’s classic 2112). In the liner notes of 2112, Peart himself credits the “genus of Ayn Rand.”
To understand properly Rush’s political importance, one must learn about Rand’s political philosophy. Of course, Rand’s philosophy, which she labeled Objectivism and professed in novels such as Anthem (from which Peart got the title of the 1975 Rush song), The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged, has been in the news a lot lately as one of the inspirations of the ultraconservative Tea Party movement. But it’s essential to remember that the Tea Party has based elements of its platform only on certain aspects of Rand’s Objectivism, including mainly its opposition to collectivism and statism, support of laissez-fare capitalism, and advocacy of rational self-interest. Interestingly and probably discomforting to members of the Tea Party, however, Rand disagreed with the militaristic expansion of the American empire (she condemned both the Vietnam War and the military draft), supported abortion rights, opposed all forms of theocracy, and advocated that all laws against gay rights be repealed. All of this is to say that Rand remains a complex figure, whom some progressives in the 1960s and 1970s embraced as a fellow proponent of social liberty and current Tea Party members roundly support as a philosophical touchstone in their staunch defense of the free market.
With Rand becoming so closely aligned with the Tea Party and rightwing causes in recent years, it’s no wonder that Rush and Peart in particular have been labeled by such journalists such as Dan Greenberg as “Republican” rock stars. But Peart has distanced himself from Rand’s staunch trust in the corporate power intrinsic to capitalism. In a 2005 article at Jewsrock.org, Bob Cook quotes Peart referring to himself as a “‘left-leaning libertarian,’ distrusting mass movements and concentrated power.”
It is precisely Peart’s distrust of power in all forms that sets him and the rest of Rush apart from the Tea Party-influenced right wing of the Republican Party. The evidence for Peart’s disavowal of strict Objectivism and Tea Party values, of course, lies in Rush’s music itself. Take, for example, Rush’s song, “Far Cry,” which originally appeared on the band’s 2007 release, Snakes & Arrows. Peart’s opening verse is as follows: “Pariah dogs and wandering madmen / Barking at strangers and speaking in tongues / The ebb and flow of tidal fortune / Electrical changes are charging up the young.” The verse criticizes the cultural dominance of two major elements of the Tea Party: Evangelicalism and the mass media that propounds its views. “Far Cry” demonstrates Peart and Rush’s commitment to revealing the pariah-like nature of the Tea Party and its interest in maintaining corporate control through the false promises of rightwing Christianity.
Peart, in many ways, is closer to the leftwing French philosopher Michel Foucault, whose work explores the historical manifestations of power and the way in which they contribute to the construction of the individual self, than he is to Rand. Rush’s song “2112,” which, as I mentioned above, Peart dedicated to the “genus of Ayn Rand.” With its seven movements, science fiction-based narrative, time signature changes, and power-trio pyrotechnics, “2112” is, first and foremost, progressive rock to its core. The story’s protagonist—whom the liner notes identify simply as “Anonymous, 2112”—lives under the control of the Solar Federation’s Red Star, which has used computers since 2062 to control the lives of the citizens from his home planet of Megadon. In actuality, the Red Star of the Solar Federation is a theocracy, dominated by the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx. The Priests promote a fictional “Brotherhood of Man,” tricking the populace into believing that the Federation and the Priests work in its best interest. All of this changes, however, when Anonymous, 2112 discovers a guitar in a cave, which allows him to develop a subjective sense of self-worth through the power of musical creativity. When Anonymous, 2112 presents this guitar to the Priests they reject it, prompting him to kill himself so that he can leave the control of the Federation and enter another world of creativity and individualism, about which he had once dreamed. “2112” ends with the ultimate victory of the Federation, which proclaims in a computerized voice, “We have assumed control.”
The narrative of “2112” does indeed owe a lot to Rand, especially in its championing of the individual and opposition to the controlling force of a theocracy. But Foucault is at work here to a greater extent. In using a specific date for the title of the song, Peart historicizes the narrative and, accordingly, the subjective experience of Anonymous, 2112. Whereas Rand’s Objectivism is ahistorical in the sense that it advocates individualism through the strict observance of laissez-fare capitalism, Peart’s story posits a return to an anti-capitalist and even Romantic stance against theocratic power. In this light, it is crucial to understand the correct meaning of Peart’s liner-note dedication to the “genus of Ayn Rand” and not the “genius of Ayn Rand (my italics).” Rand metaphorically gave birth to Peart’s story, perhaps inspiring its genesis, but her ideas didn’t function as a philosophy that the characters simply mouthed. In contrast, Peart, like Foucault, understands that historical discourse constructs individual subjectivity and, in the case of Anonymous, 2112, actions typically associated with Romanticism—a melancholy disposition, the favoring of an irrational dream state over an objective, rational, and self-serving participation in a theocratic dictatorship, and the liberating potential of imagination and artistic creativity. It goes without saying that Peart’s understanding distances “2112” and Rush from some of Rand’s and the Tea Party’s major beliefs. While Rand has been influential on some of Rush’s music, they ultimately part ways with the Russo-American novelist and philosopher’s firm belief in the liberating potential of capitalism.