TL;DR Rush is awesome, and so is its fanbase. I put together a survey to try to figure something out about Rush’s career arc, but the author of the survey (me) didn’t get enough information and didn’t capture the right information to make the survey much more than pure entertainment.
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The survey was initiated by a shower thought: why, exactly, do people prefer the songs and albums they do?
To understand this question, let’s establish some basic information about how Rush’s albums are perceived. This is my view and isn’t necessarily the objective truth, so take it with a grain of salt; if you’re following along and ranting to yourself about how wrong I am, that’s okay.
Rush’s career can be thought of in terms of peaks (not valleys, unless you count “Feedback.”)
Rush, Fly By Night, and Caress of Steel are sort of foothills, with Fly By Night being a really good one, maybe a mountain. If it’s a mountain, then Caress of Steel is another one, but Caress of Steel’s “mountain” is full of potential avalanches and crevasses.
Then you hit an awesome stretch of albums: 2112, A Farewell to Kings, Hemispheres, Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures, and Signals, with two live albums thrown in for good measure. This is the “golden era of Rush,” if you like.
Grace Under Pressure is sometimes included in that golden era, but to me it seems more like a transitional album. It’s great – I love it – but it’s missing something essential that the six studio albums before it possessed.
Then you hit another stretch of albums: Power Windows, Hold Your Fire, Presto, Roll the Bones, Counterparts, and Test For Echo (with another set of live albums in there) – all really good albums, to be sure. The worst of them would be a proud accomplishment for most other bands.
After that you had a long stretch while Neil Peart dealt with family tragedy… and when he finally got back to Rush – which was by no means his duty to the fanbase, but something in his own soul, hopefully – they hit another peak period, with Vapor Trails, Snakes and Arrows, and Clockwork Angels, with an album of covers thrown in and a whole slew of recorded tours (more tours than studio albums!)
In my opinion, these three studio albums had the “it factor” that the “golden era” had, in most ways.
What was the “it factor?”
It shouldn’t be musicianship; if anything, later Rush was even more musically accomplished than the early Rush was. (If you asked me to play bass and sing “Turn the Page” at the same time, from “Hold Your Fire,” I think I’d cry. And I don’t really cry.)
The production values might change – but Rush generally tracked the current best practices, and if the older production was “better” then the industry wouldn’t have changed how it produced music.
Geddy’s voice got lower (at least, he sang in lower registers) and they added the “chorus of Geddys” – but given how many people chose to dislike Rush because of Geddy’s falsetto, you’d think that the later Rush would appeal more. Maybe the chorus of Geddys hurt somehow, but … I doubt it had that much of a potential effect. (I found it annoying in a lot of ways, but … not enough to say “gosh, enough of this.”)
That leaves a few remaining areas: song construction (which stabilized around the time of Grace Under Pressure into a song form of guitar-driven verses and synthesizer-driven choruses, although much of it debuted on Signals) and songwriting (i.e., lyrics).
The song construction might be a significant factor; Rush certainly used standard verse/chorus/bridge construction in their songwriting, but they’d been pretty progressive even so, mixing time signatures and choosing sequences that were often difficult to predict and were musically interesting. In the “lesser period” this seemed to be a trope of the band, so while the playing might be intriguing during one section or another, listeners could easily predict the next time signature or “feel” in a given song.
To my mind, though, song construction wasn’t the problem. After all, popular music (using the term loosely to cover most genres) has used similar constructs for a long, long, long, long time. Hundreds of years, maybe thousands. Rush didn’t create a new song construction; they created art, yes, but not some new way of constructing songs. They still used intros, segues, outros, verses, choruses, bridges, instrumental breaks, etc.
The possible problem, as it seemed to me, was songwriting.
When I think about … say, Hold Your Fire, I think that Rush is telling me how I should perceive things. When I listen to Permanent Waves, I think Rush is telling me how they perceive things. It ends up feeling like the “valley” period – the “lesser” period between Signals and Vapor Trails – is more preachy.
That does not imply that it’s not great music – to the contrary, looking at the lyrics for the “valley” period is an amazing experience, as a writer. Peart is an amazing lyricist; sure, there are a few songs where his effort shines through to the song’s detriment (“Dog Years,” “Virtuality”) but you also have beauties like “Bravado” and “The Pass,” “Alien Shore,” and “Everyday Glory” (a good example of a “preachy song.”) Even “Tai Shan” is a beautiful song even if it’s an awful Rush song.
But to me it felt like I should feel a certain way when listening to much of the music. You could feel Peart’s disdain for some modes of thought, and that feels unusual, when compared with something like Limelight – which should communicate disdain but doesn’t.
So from there we see my hypothesis: Rush’ fanbase preferred music that was less preachy, being a bunch of independent thinkers with fantastic taste.
How to validate that? Well, a survey, of course!
Making the survey was really pretty hard. I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to correlate what people wanted to listen to with their comfort at being told how they should think or feel.
But what does “comfort at being told how to think or feel” mean? How would I tell? And given the broad selection of songs in each era, how would I build a meaningful correlation?
Those are good questions, and I don’t think I answered them well.
What I did is obvious, if you’ve taken the survey; I collected information about “favorite studio album,” “favorite live album,” and political and religious leanings, as well as some very basic demographic data (i.e., educational level and geographical region). I wasn’t sure the latter questions would be worthwhile, but I thought they might be.
The problem is that I had to balance what I wanted to know with what people would be able to easily identify about themselves. If I asked what I actually wanted, then people might feel that I was being dismissive or intrusive, and they wouldn’t answer (or they wouldn’t answer honestly).
So I chose what I thought were neutral descriptions of political leanings, descriptions that I thought were pretty broadly understood: right, left, center, with right being concerned with upper class concerns and preservation of historical mores, left being concerned with lower class concerns and dismissal of historical mores in favor of change that favored the lower classes or minorities, and center being more independent or favoring middle class concerns.
Put in coarse form, right is conservative and Republican (if you’re in the United States), left is progressive or liberal (and Democrat), and center is more independent or Libertarian, choosing things on a more issue-by-issue basis.
This choice of representation was a mistake.
It’s far too coarse, and the truth is that the individual motivations about which I was concerned are simply too-fine-grained to be exposed through a “liberal/conservative” filter. My hypothesis centered around a core idea that said that the progressives were more willing to dictate and be dictated to, therefore more amenable to the “lesser” period, and the independents and conservatives were more willing to be more independent in thought.
While I was willing to happily concede that this isn’t necessarily a good mapping to political leanings, I thought that it would hold in the general sense, largely because of how I perceive the political parties in the US, which… don’t actually map well to “conservative” or “liberal” even though they might claim those labels.
So… let’s see the results, and then I’ll bore you with my conclusions.
I cannot begin to express how grateful I am to the Rush fanbase. I wanted 500 responses, and hoped for 100. I actually ended up with, at this writing, 436. That is freaking amazing.
However… the responses mostly confirmed how awesome Rush is, and how dominant the “golden era” is for the entire catalog.
298 of the 436 – a whopping 70% – chose an album from the “golden era” as their favorite. Moving Pictures dominated, with 81 (19%) choosing it; Hemispheres came in second place (with 65 votes, for 15%); the “least favorite” of the six albums was Signals (with 6%), and only two albums that were not in this period did better than the worst album in this period. Signals got 5.73% with 25 votes; Power Windows got 6.42% with 28 votes, and Clockwork Angels got 6.19% with 27.
I think it’s safe to say that the “golden era” was, in fact, dominant, despite people on r/java being willing to claim that Caress of Steel was their best album or whatever. The “valley period” only collected 86 total votes, for a whopping 20% of the overall votes despite having eight albums to choose from (poor Test for Echo got no votes at all!) – the “trailer period” starting with Vapor Trails got 49 (11%) votes all by itself despite only having three albums to choose from! (Feedback was the only other album to get no votes, which didn’t surprise me at all.)
(If you’re interested: Rush got two votes, Fly By Night got four, and Caress of Steel got nine.)
The live albums were more “interesting” than “relevant” for what I wanted to know, because I was trying to understand songwriting appeal. But with that said…
Exit… Stage Left is the clear winner. It got 113 votes (26%) for favorite live album; the two behind it in popularity (Rush in Rio and R40) got 50 and 52 votes, respectively. All the World’s A Stage was in fourth place, with 40 votes.
So even live, we see the dominance of the early “golden era,” with a resurgence around Rush’ return from Peart’s hiatus.
Now to the political leanings, where things fell apart badly…
First, the raw numbers. Most of the responding fan base was left-leaning with 43%. Centrists were close: 42%. Right-leaning and “other” were both pretty far back: right got 35 votes, and other got 28, with some identifying as “other” who might better have fit in other categories… but even then, most of the “other” would probably fit better in “left” or “center,” rather than as an even distribution.
The problem here is that everyone loves the golden era, regardless of their political self-identification. I needed to see larger trends, with something in the responses that said “someone who ticks this particular set of boxes is more likely to prefer songs from the later era to the songs from the ‘golden era.'”
I did not get that data; too many people preferred the golden era, regardless of political leanings.
Religion was interesting but not significant; that actually mapped pretty well to an actual cross-section of (primarily American) culture; 51% atheists, 17% other, 27% Christian, with a smattering of others sprinkled around. (I actually should have included agnosticism and “none” as choices here. I tried to add agnosticism, and “none” was wisely suggested by a survey participant, but it was too late at that point to change the survey.)
Education and region were red herrings for the survey as well. If you’re terribly interested in the results, I can write those up too, but honestly, they’re largely a cross-section as well and while it’s possible younger people would prefer the later stuff (with older people having more nostalgia for the ‘golden era’) there just weren’t enough people who liked the later albums to really generate correlations we could trust.
The short form: Rush rocks.
My ability to write surveys… does not rock at all. It doesn’t even swing. Maybe it taps its feet out of time or something.
I don’t know if my hypothesis is necessarily wrong, because the data didn’t disprove it … but at the same time, my hypothesis received far too little data to actually be strengthened at all. So while it’s still my personal opinion that the songwriting got more “preachy” and that (along with nostalgia and a few other details regarding personal preferences) explains why I prefer the golden era to the more modern stuff. I think the bottom line is that Rush managed to resonate with people on a fantastic level during that period, with a noticeable dropoff afterward for a while, but got its groove back with Vapor Trails.
Rush is awesome, y’all, and so are you.