Dissertation – synopsis

Durrell Bowman:  Ph.D. in Musicology, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), 2003

“Permanent Change: Rush, Musicians’ Rock, and the Progressive Post-Counterculture”

This study explores a particular musical-cultural ideology by interpreting and contextualizing the music of a specific popular music artist.  The progressive/hard rock band Rush exemplifies what Dr. Bowman calls the “post-counterculture.”  This involves individualism, libertarianism, entrepreneurialism, technique, and an unusually large sub-community of fans who were, or are, musicians themselves.  Rush’s music also inscribes an interest not in rock music’s reactive-revolutionary tendencies but, rather, in its adaptive-evolutionary potential.  Geddy Lee’s countertenor singing style and virtuosic bass playing, Alex Lifeson’s precise-yet-tuneful guitar playing, and Neil Peart’s elaborately constructed drumming and “middle-brow” lyrics comprise the central features of Rush’s music.  The band’s music often includes aspects of progressive rock, hard rock, heavy metal, and individualism.  However, as the band evolved, it also increasingly engaged with other musical styles and lyrical themes (e.g., post-punk, society).

Rush’s “progressive” stylistic/thematic approach played an important pedagogical role for many individuals within the post-industrial, technique-oriented reconstitution of the working and lower-middle classes in the 1970s and ’80s.  Ralph Whitehead identified “New Collars” (i.e., updated blue-collar employees) and “Bright Collars” (i.e., updated white-collar employees) as central, large communities within that substantially modified socio-economic context.  The vast majority of rock critics denigrated Rush’s album-oriented rock as “pretentious boredom,” but the band’s “New Collar”/“Bright Collar” fans—especially musician-fans—frequently argued that it taught them to “grow and improve themselves.”  Also, despite the fact that the band had only one U.S. Top 40 hit, it sold over 40 million copies of its various albums from 1974 to 2003.  Thus, conflicting ideologies and contrasting reception histories figure prominently in this study.  Rush’s lyrics often provide important meanings, but so does its music—through stylistically varied approaches to melodies, harmonies, rhythms, tone colours, textures, rhetorical effects, formal structures, and the use vs. non-use of music technology.

Sustained, single-artist studies are still quite rare in popular music studies.  However, in pursuing a combination of interpretive issues surrounding specific pieces of music, Dr. Bowman’s approach engages with wider discourses about society, culture, and music.  On the whole, the study contributes cultural musicology to a relatively new discourse involving a technique-oriented post-counterculture.

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