“It ain’t ever gonna happen. Regardless of their success, Rush have never achieved critical acclaim and no one will ever vote for them ... most of it gives me a headache... Technical proficiency is not a valid reason to induct an artist, and Rush really hasn’t done anything unique.”
Tonight, as the class of 2013 is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, via a ceremony at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the air will be filled with many beautiful sounds – from the performers, to the high-profile artists chosen to induct those performers with speeches, to the assembled cheering on their heroes.
But most beautiful of all for some will be the sound of Rolling Stone senior editor and rock hall board member David Wild, who is the man quoted above, eating his words. For tonight, the Canadian progressive rock trio Rush will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
During one of my weekly live chats on BuffaloNews.com, a reader penned an innocent enough question that went something like, “Why do you think so many critics and members of the music establishment hate Rush? It seems to me they are one of the more accomplished bands in rock history.”
I responded with an only slightly abbreviated thesis paper on this subject. Yes, it’s full disclosure time, though I’ve never sought in any way to keep this fact a secret – I am a major, 30-plus-year Rush fan. And as such, it has often fallen to me and others like me to defend this unique band from the onslaught of critical acrimony that has followed it around for decades.
So why would so many music industry types hold such vindictive, nasty and often ill-informed opinions about this prog-rock trio? Indeed, why would a guy like Wild reveal such a startlingly, snarkily biased opinion of the band so publicly? Rush, after all, comes third in terms of most consecutive gold- and platinum-selling albums in rock history – right behind the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. The group has been eligible for induction into the rock hall since 1999, and the band’s legion of devout followers has been clamoring for its induction ever since. Musically speaking, Rush has a nigh-on-flawless track record of ambitious albums marked by virtuosic musicianship, inventive arrangements and inspired, thoughtful lyrics. Its concert performances have been state of the art since the late-’70s.
Why all the haters?
The crux of the issue is the rock critics establishment’s notion of “authenticity” in rock music. Since the advent of serious rock criticism in the late 1960s, the party line has suggested that the only true route to authenticity in rock is the one that leads back to African-American forms – the blues, principally, but also to the general notion that raw, primal, simple music is the heart of rock, and should remain so. Any music that attempts to rise above its station and largely abandon the blues as the bedrock of its work is frowned upon by the critical establishment.
With the exception of its first album, a glorified demo recording of bluesy hard-rock motifs redolent of Cream, Blue Cheer and Led Zeppelin, Rush has not played by this unofficial rule. Its music is grand and complex, and it draws from an incredibly wide array of influences. But to most critics, this music is not authentic, because it is too brainy, too well-played, not raw enough, not simple enough, to be considered “cool.”
Is it a bad reading of Norman Mailer’s controversial piece of hipster prose “The White Negro” that urged so many rock critics to adapt this model of authenticity? Perhaps. It’s my suspicion, however, that the source of this bias – which has been extended to progressive rock in general, in many cases – comes from a deep-set insecurity among rock scribblers. Most of them do not know how to write or perform music, so hearing music that so obviously requires a lifetime of study to be able to play proficiently is surely daunting to them.
Recall too that rock critics love punk rock, often understandably so. And punk rock was all about the full democratization of rock music, to the point where pretty much anyone who could afford a guitar could learn to play it well enough to form a band. This was, at the time, a positive development – punk arrived to tear down the walls between rock music and the fans who loved it, and most of the work it did was both necessary and beneficial. But surely, to suggest that this should be all that there is – that anyone who had worked incredibly hard to become a sophisticated musician should immediately be viewed with suspicion and treated with derision – is absolutely absurd. That the Ramones wrote perfect punk tunes with unforgettable pop choruses does not mean that Rush, or Yes for that matter, is somehow not authentic. There is room for both.
There are more than enough blues artists and punk rock bands around. Neither form is under fire, nor likely to disappear, ever. The blues is the blues, after all. It’s a pure form of expression, and continues to be inspiring to musicians and listeners alike. But if rock music never did anything but rehash blues motifs, or trade in what in many cases are by now clichés, the world would be a far less interesting place.
So when Rush joins the rest of the class of 2013 (Public Enemy, Heart, Randy Newman, Albert King and Donna Summer) in the rock hall tonight, it will be difficult for many of us to view this as anything less than a victory for rock music that dares to be unapologetically itself, regardless of the strictures placed upon that music by the supposed tastemakers. Rush songs have consistently traded in lyrics that celebrate the individual, that honor integrity in one’s actions, that place a high premium on the ability of hard-earned, vigilantly protected dreams to elevate individual existence beyond the pale of the status quo. Tonight, that consistent vision is being honored right alongside the three men who have fostered and protected it for four decades.
How’s it taste, David Wild?