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.

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