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.


  1. You've delved deeply into the socioeconomic side of the song, but the biological side is not so straightforward. Any modern view of a mid-continental forest with oaks overtopping maples is just a snapshot. In pre-settlement times, an occasional low or mid-level fire would sweep through and thin out the maples (thinner bark compared to oaks). So over the long haul fire keeps oaks dominant, at least under most climatic conditions. But since settlement, fire suppression has allowed maples a safer course. In many forests as Neil describes, if fire suppression continues the maples will slowly come to dominate because most oak seedlings need a lot of light, which is scarce under mid-size maples. Thus, as older oaks die, maples come to dominate under fire suppression.

    Sociological and biological situations are never as simple as they seem!

  2. Or how about a more logical explanation? Instead of "class", which is an alterable condition (for better OR worse) during one's lifetime, the song is actually a metaphor for RACE. This song was written well past the times of feudal England, where one's birth pre-determined one's future sucess in life. Like races of man, tree species are INALTERABLE. No matter how much we may wish otherwise, shorter-stature trees (on average) don't grow to the average height of taller species. The gap can't be closed by "raising from the bottom", because even the "best" environment cannot alter the shorter trees' DNA.

    The only way to equalize the trees (in the song) was therefore a political solution, forcing the mutilation and reduction of the oaks to the size of the smaller maples. Since God didn't design the oaks that way, its safe to assume that human meddling to "force equality" was an overall failure. The taller trees were essentially "dumbed down", so the smaller trees' feelings wouldn't get hurt.

    It also plainly stated that "the oaks can't help their feelings, if they like the way they're made". Neil is a man of great wisdom AND common sense. God forbid if he were to write such blasphemy today! He'd likely be facing jail time for advocating "oak privilege", a clear violation of Orwellian Hate Speech laws. Let's hope the loony Leftist egalitarians don't make such "laws" retroactive, as they seem to have already succeeded in doing with flags, monuments, and national anthems.

    1. "For a person of my sensibility, you're only left with the Democratic party," Neil Peart's words. He considers himself a "bleeding heart libertarian". He's changed since then. I bet you think he's not so wise anymore just because he believes in equality. You're a massive racist if you think lighter skinned people are born better than darker skinned people. Get out of here with that crap.

    2. Well looks like you and I agree. Just listened to the song for a long while. I thought the same gist of the song that it was about race and there have been problems for a long time. I doubt that it doesn't happen in every country race or religion are dividing factions.

  3. You all could be quite right. I see it as the difference between blacks and whites. I am white and over the last 55 years Alot has got better and then recently it got worse. I live in the USA .I think the maples could well represent the blacks and the oaks a lighter color wood could mean the whites. Never really thought about it that way before listening to the song tonight for the 1000th time