Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What Does "The Trees" Say About Class?

Well, I'm having a little author's regret about not talking more in depth in Dreaming in Middletown about Rush's "The Trees," an enduringly popular song from Hemispheres (1978).

I addressed it briefly while talking about the political meanings of individualism as Rush used it. But this song, which is told a bit like a kid's fairy tale or fable, bears a lot more discussion from the standpoint of class.

Above all, it's the one Rush song that specifically and literally is about stratification.

Neil Peart transposes this issue to the forest: the Oaks, by virtue of naturally growing the tallest, get most of the sunlight; the Maples, shorter in stature, get less. The Maples demand an equal share of the sunlight, but the Oaks balk. The Maples form a union, protest loudly, and a law is passed that light shall be distributed evenly. The result is that the forest is cut down to stumps.

What view of social stratification does this song provide?

The lyrics seem fairly straightforward on this: stratification is considered an inevitable, perhaps natural, aspect of society. Some have more access to wealth and resources than others. Attempts to alter the existing arrangement (e.g., by unions) are unwelcome in this story: more equitable distribution results in catastrophe.

Anyone who cares already knows that Peart was influenced by Ayn Rand at this time, and the influence of her philosophy on this song is so obvious as to make comment unnecessary. I’m not really interested in literary influence here, anyway: I’m much more interested in thinking about how social positioning makes this story desirable or relevant.

Clearly, it’s a song that flatters conservative sensibilities: it cautions against changing the status quo. Existing inequities are deemed natural. The perspective seems at least middle class: the idea of lower classes banding together and making demands is portrayed as catastrophic, and perhaps this view is fuelled by middle-class status anxiety. I certainly don’t see how working-class interests are at all served by the song’s rhetoric, whatever my critics might say.

"The Trees" may be one of Rush's most perplexing songs.

Not musically, of course -- it's quite nice. The classical guitar intro is atmospheric and attractive. The rock sections are quintessential Rush -- odd meters, open chords, intense vocals -- as is the bridge, with its gentle arpeggios, unusual percussion items, and mysterious synthesizer. In less than five minutes, it pretty near captures the best in Rush's classic 1970s style.

The lyrics have been a weird sticking point. Rush's biographers have been pretty coy about what the song is really about. The British rock press, says Rush author Brian Harrigan, pilloried the band for making a sweeping conservative statement with the song, but Harrigan demurred, saying that "it can be read as a union-bashing song but I think that only diminishes what Peart is saying -- peaceful co-existence and live and let live are all" (1982). But in a review of Exit...Stage Left a short while later, Harrigan admitted that he found "The Trees" "jarring" politically.

I’ve seen this in a number of reviews of Rush, where the pro-Rush writer either avoids discussion of this song’s message or diverts from the (plain) message as Harrigan did. Reviewers who dislike Rush will raise this song as an example of band’s bafflingly strident defence of class privilege (see reviews of Rush in the NME, or Paul Stump’s summary in The Music’s All That Matters).

On the one hand, it’s interesting that the song evokes such reactions, since it reads like an almost simple-minded cartoon. But it tells a story about the important matter of social stratification, and it hits a nerve.

The middle class is conflicted on this topic, and this is where middle-class political sympathies get complicated. Some of us (maybe parts of us) identify with the Oaks: we deserve what we have, we see ourselves among the upright in society, we think what we do is important, etc. Some of us identify with the Maples: stratification is not fair, merit is too often confused with chance or birthright, we are slipping from “haves” into “have-nots” as the elite grows taller, and so on.

But that still doesn’t quite get at it. As I discussed in Dreaming in Middletown, the position from which Rush writes is mostly petit-bourgeois, lower middle class. This is the small business class, the freelance professionals, the shop-keepers -- the people who are politically and economically in-between -- who end up equally resenting unionism and corporate elites. They are told that they are the engine of the “real economy,” and they believe that, in a more laissez-faire world, they would be the Oaks. Stratification would work fine for them, if not for all the rule-changing, lobbying, and politicking that goes on and gerrymanders the system.

That’s my take on why something like “The Trees” portrays stratification as it does. We really need a good social history on movements like libertarianism and objectivism: so much discussion of them is either political (aimed at persuading or dissuading) or is abstractly philosophical. But so much of the story lies in who these movements appeal to, what needs or desires they address, and what historically accounts for their peaks and ebbs of popularity. Their role in debates over social stratification is ultimately a huge part of their raison d’etre.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Disciplinary Divides, Social Divides? (II)

The New (Ethno)Musicologies, a collection edited by Henry Stobart, was published recently, and has a number of contributions that speak to the issue I wrote about a few months back.

The idea of a specific discipline catering to particular social categories, and hence certain musical topics, could be extended to further issues. The book features contributors from a number of different disciplines, many discussing how ethnomusicology and musical ethnography looks to them.

Fabian Holt, writing from popular music studies, notes that his discipline is focused on an Anglo-American pop canon where almost no ethnography is done. Ethnomusicology, when it focuses on popular music, looks almost entirely outside that canon, and does approach its topic ethnographically. He notes that many "American musics" not well-covered in popular music studies -- that of Asian-Americans, or Latin-Americans -- are far more likely to be picked up by ethnomusicologists.

Popular music studies, says Holt, sees its musical field as defined almost entirely by a dialectic between African- and Euro-American culture, gives Latin American music just a little attention, and Aboriginal and Asian-American musics almost no attention at all. The disciplinary lines in these inclusions and exclusions are clear for Holt: "To this day, there are deep differences in the core conventions of what is studied and how in popular music studies, musicology, and ethnomusicology" (p. 42).

I was happy to see an acknowledgement of how social class plays into this. Holt notes:

Academic culture has largely been centred on the white middle-class male subject, and middle-class values have defined the status of individual musics. Western, especially German, art music was the single privileged domain of early musicology, and it still dominates in...prestige. Conversely, stereotypes of "non-Western" musics and popular musics have worked to the disadvantage of scholars in ethnomusicology and popular music studies. Middle-class dominance in the latter is evident in almost complete ignorance of a working-class rural music such as country music.

I generally agree, though as my previous posts indicate, the sense of what is canonically acceptable middle-class or working-class music to a hip middle-class gaze bears much further interrogation.

Michelle Bigenho, an anthropologist who studied musical culture in Bolivia, writes about why she refuses the designation "ethnomusicologist." What I found interesting here is her refusal to assume that music is a unique or autonomous category in culture. In her experience, anthropology treats music as a part of larger cultural themes and practices, while in ethnomusicology, the centrality of music as a topic tends to edge out (or overdetermine) other considerations. She blames the departments and institutions that structure our disciplines: music departments expect ethnomusicologists to play music, teach ensembles, teach area studies and genres, so that's what gets studied. Anthropologists would never do this; music is not always so isolatable, and indeed, this would be seen by some as a counterproductive way to understand a culture.

I'm just starting on Nicholas Cook's essay on musicology vis a vis ethnomusicology, but it looks like more promising insights on this are to come.