Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Humour and Detachment (Rush)

Chapter 4 of Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class focuses on issues of seriousness and detachment in Rush. I looked at how this was apparent in their lyrics, musicianship, and live performance. What emerged was a band carefully positioning itself as a highly disciplined group of musicians, making thoughtful and serious observations about life and society.

This image may be a bit dated now. Late-career Rush seems quite a bit less invested in an image of thoughtful seriousness, and the band seems much more at ease with its public profile. Film and TV cameos have been growing in frequency in recent years (Colbert, Rick Mercer, I Love You Man, Suck, and Trailer Park Boys, to name some of the bigger profile cameos). Peart's recent re-versioning of the old Hockey Night in Canada theme seemed like good fun, as well as a nod towards his native country. Is Rush, contra "Limelight," actually starting to have fun (in the public eye) with celebrity?

To be fair, though, humour has been an aspect of Rush for some time. In some ways, the recognition of that humour, often buried in liner notes, album covers and the odd interview, was something the band shared with its most attentive and devoted fans.

The pun-on-top-of-pun on the Permanent Waves cover is one example. The model on the cover has a permanent wave; the title was a rejoinder to music critics' fawning over "new wave" rock, the storm-surge behind the model at once added more "waves" while also referring obliquely to the introduction of "Natural Science," and the "Dewey(i) Defeats Truman" headline on the Chicago Tribune newpaper, blowing in the wind, symbolized what Rush fans (offended by dismissive music critics) already believed: the press doesn't always get it right! Lots of nudges and winks.

The band let some of its in-jokes become public knowledge, which the fans came to cherish: the nicknames, the droll banter in concert programs, the silly inspirational slogans on the walls of the studio. By the 2000s, when Geddy Lee replaced his bass speaker cabinets with laundry machines and chicken rotisseries, the jokes weren't even so "inside" anymore.

In 1994, Neil Peart commented straightforwardly on the tension between Rush's seriousness and Rush's frivolity. He told Seconds's Stephen Blush, "Our work is serious in nature. But just because we take our work seriously doesn't mean we take ourselves seriously. That's the distinction we make, and that would certainly represent an important distinction. Our concerts are very important to us....Making records is the same way, we apply everything we have to doing it, but it doesn't mean we don't laugh afterwards."

For a band that produces very serious songs like "Losing It," "The Pass" and "Natural Science," the balance provided by a healthy sense of humour makes some sense.

But humour, itself, can also be a gesture of detachment. Irony is a great example of this. The humour of saying exactly what you obviously don't mean is the basis of irony, but this device of speech is also used to say the things we mean, but which we feel uncomfortable saying seriously and outright. ("Yeah, like I'd really love to listen to nerdy band like Rush!...[actually, I would...]) Sometimes, it's more comfortable to say something you mean in jest, because it gives you an out: you are detached from what you are saying.

Peart's quote reminds me a little of this. The music is serious, but the band detaches itself from that seriousness. It's another way of showing distance, which I discussed in chapter 1.

1 comment:

  1. I'm answering this way too late, but I just revisited the question of irony vs. sarcasm. Generally, Webster's and OED definitions of irony are more or less in agreement with how I used it (using words in an opposite or deliberately wrong way).

    From, the relation between sarcasm and irony is summarized thus: "when it comes to the difference between irony and sarcasm, sarcasm is actually a subdivision or part of irony in a way, but it is used more specifically to hurt and embarrass the person personally."

    The idea of "ironic distance" is part of what I was trying to get across in this post, and I thought a lot of Rush's humour was aimed at distancing themselves from the "serious band" image they have had for so long.