Saturday, February 27, 2010

Music/Class/Suburbia: Revisiting Burlington in the 1980s

Growing up in the 1980s in south Burlington, Ontario, there was quite a wide range of social class living in a fairly close radius. Upper and upper-middle-class families lived frequently along the shores of Lake Ontario (with even larger and more expensive homes going up in that area now than when I was young). Just back from the lake, there were a lot solidly middle-class areas, particularly around the downtown, with lots of professionals and white collars who commuted either to Toronto or Hamilton. There were also a lot of war-era bungalows around, where lower-middle-class and respectable working-class families lived. There were some lower-income apartments dotting the area, especially near the Mall, but the land-use was clearly biased towards single family homes. Burlington had fast become a suburb, after all.

The high school I attended reflected this mix. It's probably a function of my own petit-bourgeois background that I wasn't always sure where I fit in. The upper-middle-class kids seemed a world apart to me; I had some working-class friends, but I remember some of them being taken aback when it turned out that I lived virtually inside the affluent Roseland neighbourhood.

Rush fandom, aside from being almost exlusively male as far as I could see, was similarly class-confusing at my high school. Most of the upper-middle-class kids had no use for Rush; they were as declasse as Iron Maiden, Styx and Judas Priest, and any other such metal or FM-oriented arena-rockers. Some headbangers loved Rush, but so did some of the kids in the chess club, and they frequently weren't part of the same constituency. If there was a centre to Rush fandom from which it radiated, it seemed to be in the lower middle class.

It's hard to remember much now about how musical taste and class identity aligned (or didn't align), but among the male constituency, different types of rock seemed to have their place among certain groups or cliques. The preppier guys seemed to like artier, more ironic kinds of music, like new wave and some technopop. Some of them were into jazz. The preferred types of rock seemed to get "harder" as you moved into the more lower-middle-class and working-class groups. However, genres like hardcore punk were hard to place, especially since (in North America) this type of music was heavily associated with college radio and the university circuit -- it wasn't "dole queue rock" as it was sometimes called in the UK.

The late 1980s was also the time when eclecticism was picking up as a new sort of highbrow stance, and I remember the "I like everything but country" cliche starting to circulate around this time. This was a stance I took with my musical taste late in high school; it was now part of middle-class identity to treat the whole cultural field as a big smorgasbord.

But the fact that country and sometimes rap were excluded from this declaration of broad taste definitely showed how divisions of class and other kinds of social distance were still clearly operating.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Reconsidering the Middle Class

Now that Dreaming in Middletown is published, I want to briefly touch on the road I could have taken, and didn't.

I am fully aware that my conception of the North American middle class, which operated throughout the book, is open to the challenge that what I described as "middle class" may be understood from a different perspective as just a "higher" echelon of the working class.

I remember discussing this with a colleague of mine at York U -- a lifelong Marxist -- who disagreed that the suburbs were middle-class. These were some questions he put to me after I described my ideas for sketching North America's middle class. Do you have to be at least middle-class to own your own house? Does earning a salary rather than an hourly wage automatically admit you to a different class? Is white-collar labour really so different (in principle) from manufacturing and service-sector jobs? When I said "middle class North Americans," was I really talking (mostly) about embourgeoised workers?

These are good questions. Excluding the small entrepreneurs and self-directed professionals who are best described as petit-bourgeois, many of the white collar guys who grew up in suburban environs and might recognize themselves in the teenage protagonist in the "Subdivisions" narrative may think of themselves as middle-class while working under conditions that befit an upper-working-class definition in much classic Marxist sociology. At best, they might be described as society's "middle layers," but not middle class, per se.

Nevertheless, I chose to thow my lot in with an eminent American sociologist (C. Wright Mills), certain American historians (Burton Bledstein, Peter Stearns) and American cultural critics (Rita Felski, Lorraine Kenney) and call these white collars, professionals and entrepreneurs part of the "new middle classes," as we've known them since the late 1940s.

It seemed to me that there was a cultural ethos among the middling sorts that had a distinct, bourgeois flavour, even if it didn't fit Marxist models.

It doesn't hurt that the middle class is such a North American catch-all. A band like Rush can attract fans from across the social spectrum with their middle-class-inflected music because so many of us -- white collars, blue collars, new collars, no-collars -- think of ourselves as middle class, living the American dream.

But it remains open to the challenge that middle-class identification is really some kind of false consciousness. We think we're middle class just because we aren't poor. Or because we've grown up thinking of our position in society as unique, or a product of merit or maybe accident.

It's hard for North Americans to "think straight about class," as Rita Felski writes, because we talk so little about it, we have almost no sensible language for it. Race and gender are so much easier, and so visible; but class is almost a taboo. It's also bloody complicated: an auto worker may earn more than a high school teacher, but teachers have to have a university degree, and some teachers have more than one. Meanwhile, artists, classical musicians, and others who produce "high culture" sometimes live close to the poverty line. Class and social position aren't just about wealth.

There's so much to consider, and so many ways in which class is lived and performed. And there's so much to think about where it intersects with music: a whole history is there, waiting to be written.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Welcome to the Middletown Blog

I am Chris McDonald, author of Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class: Dreaming in Middletown, which was published last fall by Indiana University Press.

This blog is intended as an informal sounding board for developing new ideas and new research into the relationship between music and social class, with a special emphasis on the middle class. I welcome input from those interested in topics related to popular music, the middle class, and (of course!) Rush.

I'm not intending for Rush to be the focus of this blog, but I expect to be blogging about them periodically.

New musical topics that I'm becoming tentatively interested in as "middle-class culture" include progressive rock, singer-songwriters, folk revivalism, and musical eclecticism.