Chris McDonald. Rush, Music, and Middleclass: Dreaming in Middletown

Sroka, Bradley

Chris McDonald published Rush, Rock Music and the Middle Class: Dreaming in Middletown in 2009, and, beyond adding to the literature concerning Rush, his is also one of several academic books specifically concerning progressive rock that was published in the past thirteen years. These books include Bill Martin’s Music of Yes: Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock (1996) and Listening to the Future: The Time of Progressive Rock 1968-1978 (1998), Edward Macan’s Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture (1997), and the anthology Progressive Rock Reconsidered, edited by Kevin Holm-Hudson, which includes a chapter about Rush and individualism by Durrell S. Bowman (2002). Even the anthology Understanding Rock: Essays in Musical Analysis opens with an article concerning progressive rock: editor John Covach’s essay”Progressive Rock, Close to the Edge, and the Boundaries of Style” (1997). What makes this burst of scholarship both surprising and remarkable is progressive rock’s relatively low cultural and critical value in the 25 years preceding Martin’s first book. It is perhaps not coincidental that a teenager who listened to Yes or Rush in high school in the 1970s-which was the peak of progressive rock’s popularity-would be between 35 and 40 years-of-age in 1996, a stage of life when he or she could perhaps complete and publish a book about his or her favorite progressive rock band. This would account for the mildly polemical tone that underlies so many of these works, including McDonald’s. Simon Frith argues that there is a place for value judgment in popular music scholarship-that promoting your favorite artists to audiences who are unfamiliar with, or disinterested in, that artist’s music is meaningful academic work (1996:8-9). McDonald’s advocacy for Rush, however, may be too problematic to be justified by this argument. McDonald’s primary goal for his book is to “develop a critical understanding of Rush” using his own musicological training and the “historical and sociological literature on the North American middle class” (2009:5). McDonald is an ethnomusicologist, but his study of Rush reads more like the work of a cultural studies scholar. In his ethnography of Bruce Springsteen fans, Tramps Like Us, Daniel Cavicchi writes that cultural studies “is concerned more with fandom as a concept or social force, locating its meaning in institutions and ideologies;’ whereas an ethnography”is concerned more with fandom as a practice or experience, locating its meaning in fans’ own accounting of their activities” (1998:7-8). Though McDonald does poll and interview Rush fans for his study, a majority of his arguments are supported with his own interpretation of Rush’s music and lyrics, and with scholarship concerning middle-class institutions and ideologies. Unfortunately, this makes McDonald’s argument cumbersome when he expands his study to encompass the lives and thoughts of both Rush fans and the musicians responsible for the music itself. When McDonald attempts to bridge the gap between the academic literature on the middle-class and the actual experiences of middle-class Rush listeners, his argument becomes fractious.


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August 18, 2022