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McDonald, Chris
Rush-Rock Music And The Middleclass-Dreaming In Middletown (Book Review)
June 2012
Released: 2009, Indiana University Press
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: JP

As veteran Rock bands like AC/DC, Aerosmith and Rush enter the twilight years of their career the period between albums becomes farther and farther apart as the artists need to work diminishes. It has been years since the last Rush album and although not a regularly featured band on, there is some respect for the old Canadian dogs. Accordingly, to commemorate the pending release of CLOCKWORK ANGELS in June, I’ve written a trio of book reviews about the band, but there are many more Rush related titles to explore. Feel free to read my reviews of MIDDLETOWN DREAMS (McDonald) CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE (Popoff) and TRIBUTE: MERELEY PLAYERS (Telleria).

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this academic approach to Rush. My good friend and huge Rush fan said he even found the awkwardly titled, RUSH: ROCK MUSIC AND THE MIDDLE CLASS-DREAMING IN MIDDLETOWN, to be a tough read. The book is so good they had to name it twice! Some of these academic books that examine bands can be pretty dense reading and if the reader doesn’t have an academic predisposition a book like this can suffer from it’s self-imposed fatal flaw. Having said that, I found DREAMING IN MIDDLETOWN (my preferred title) surprisingly readable. I guess I’m just a huge 40+ year-old, Rush nerd from the middle class in Canada. This is my kinda book!

Chris McDonald is an ethnomusicologist and teaches at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia. I’m assuming this was his Ph. D. thesis at York University in Toronto. As this is an academic work about 40 pages of this 255-page book are his notes, citations and index. The bulk of the paperback book is divided into six chapters and there are no photos or graphics of any kind. The book is part of the ‘Profiles In Popular Music’ series published by Indiana University Press.

Chapter One is a detailed analysis of escapism (from the middle class) in the music and lyrics of Rush focusing specifically on four songs, 'Subdivisions' and extended musical and lyrical analysis of ‘Red Barchetta’, ‘Cygnus X-1’, and the lesser known cut ‘The Fountain Of Lamneth’ from CARESS OF STEEL. Chapter Two, ‘Swimming Against The Stream’ delves into themes of individuality and he explores the possible myth that Rush are really not as individual as their lyrics and image might presume, as they speak for an entire middleclass generation.

Chapter Three is subtitled ‘Professionalism and Virtuosity in Rush’s style. This chapter left me a little cold because I’m not a musician and the advanced musical analysis and discussions about Geddy’s use of the E Mixolydian mode or how the ‘band metrically modulates into 4/4 time and eight-note pulses’ went right over my head. I did agree about the author’s analysis of the bands complexity but not hyper-virtuosity (ala Vai and Malmsteen) and overplaying for the sake of showing off. Chapter Four, the shortest in the book is somewhat related to Chapter Three and discusses extremism and excess focusing on the live performance as well.

Chapter Five discusses Rush fans and the data was drawn on a number of surveys McDonald used during his research. He discusses class, gender, age, and ethnicity in relation to Rush fans as a group and perhaps by extension the middle-class as a whole. Chapter Six provides a nice counter-point. While the previous chapter talks about the fans, the next discusses the critics and it has been said that despite millions of records sold and massive tours and a career that would leave most bands jealous, the band has never been a critical favourite. McDonald references many examples of Rush’s critics denigrating the band for aiming for the ‘middlebrow’ culture by pretending to be highbrow.

I enjoyed McDonalds interpretations of the lyrics and generally agreed with his position on any number of issues although it was mildly discomforting to confront the fact that despite illusions of rampant hyper-individuality, the middle class is a largely homogenous blob. Damn that mortgage and 2.5 kids that tie me to my white-collar job! I’m a huge fan of Rush and I feel that being intimately familiar with the lyrics, music and videos made this study far more palatable. The average Rush fan may not embrace this book as readily. When I use the term ’average’ I don’t mean to imply that I am ‘above average’ for enjoying this academic treatment of Rush, but rather that some people may not find the same thrill reading about Rush lyrics and how, ‘The interrelationship between discipline, control, spectacle and excess within the middle-class identity can be further illuminated by looking at how attitudes towards emotion and behavior have been shaped historically in North America.” (p. 154.) And here I thought Rush fans just liked to rock! DREAMING IN MIDDLETOWN is an intriguing and thought-provoking read, well thought out and McDonald supports his thesis very well with substantial notations, quotes and examples. I suppose that makes me a believer and a dreamer in Middletown.
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