Plato: ‘Rush Non in Forma Petra Musica’
[Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of essays that looks at selections from Rush and Philosophy (Open Court Press: 2011), edited by Jim Berti and Durrell Bowman. The book came out in March 2011 and looks at Rush’s music through different philosophical lenses.]
Anyone who’s taken a college-level philosophy class will be familiar with Plato and his Forms. These are standards of objective perfection for everything that exists in life. Take a car. A car is excellent not just because you think so but because it embodies qualities of excellence that are universal and objective. These qualities might be the way it handles, how smoothly it accelerates and decelerates. and so on. No car can match exactly the objective Form of the car, because no car is perfect, but those that come closest we call excellent; those that are furthest away we call pieces of junk.
For much of its career, Rush’s music has been called pieces of junk: pretentious, humorless, dull. In short, it’s a long, long way from the standard of perfection, the objective Form of rock.
In fact, if you were to create a chart depicting the albums closest to and furthest from the objective Form of rock, you would probably put Radiohead’s OK Computer and something by Led Zeppelin at the top of the chart and pretty much everything by Rush at the bottom.
Thus, when critics slam a Rush concert, in their minds they’re not just saying, “Oh, God, this is sooo bad,” they’re saying, “Anyone who knows anything about rock understands what makes truly good rock, and Rush is different from that.”
What are those standards that signify excellence? No one really knows, of course, but if you ask critics they would probably say something like, “Good rock is played with emotion and heart, not mathematical precision, and its about girls, parents, and school and doesn’t take on big philosophical ideas.”
But this whole idea of objective standards doesn’t really make any sense, says Northwestern philosophy teacher George Reisch in “Rush’s Metaphysical Revenge.” Reisch is also the general editor of the Popular Culture and Philosophy series for Open Court Press, which includes Rush and Philosophy.
Whenever a piece of music comes out that critics widely laud for its excellence, such as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it assumes an iconic status and is held up as a benchmark against which other pieces of music are measured.
But did Sgt. Pepper create a new standard or simply meet the existing Form of rock?
Reisch says critics tend to grab onto a great new album like Sgt. Pepper and treat it as if it actually embodies the existing Form of rock, making it impossible for anything that takes a different approach to measure up. Thus, music like Rush’s, which doesn’t follow critics’ views of the rules of rock, can’t measure up by definition. Rush’s music is automatically considered “corrupt, illegitimate, or somehow offensive to the status quo,” he says.
But once we dispense with the whole notion of objective Forms, it’s perfectly legitimate for rock bands to do things differently. If Rush wants to talk about the categorical divide between cognition and emotion, as it does in “Closer to the Heart,” than it can do that without being considered an illegitimate form of rock, because there’s no such thing as a legitimate or illegitimate form of rock.
When we “kick away the platonic metaphysics” of objective Forms, as Reisch puts it, the only standard of excellence by which we judge rock is our own. Reisch points to a comment once made by Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins that fans over the years have consistently overruled critics by voting for Rush in popularity and music magazine polls and contests. With these votes, fans are in effect saying, “Rock belongs to the people, not to the critics.”
And that’s just another way of saying there is no objective Form of rock.—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault
Check out Reisch’s lively and thought-provoking Culture and Philosophy blog.
More on kicking away platonic metaphysics.
Read the first essay in this series: “Philosophy of Mind has a Headache; Cygnus has Aspirin.”
Read the second: “It’s Just Chemistry: Rush Try to Make Sense of Reality.”
Read the third: “Is Rush Helping Humanism Out-maneuver Religion?”
Read the fourth: “The ‘Rand’omness of Rush’s Libertarianism.”
Read the fifth: “Rush’s Table of Virtues.”
Read the sixth: “Rush’s Rosier Shade of Reality.”
Read the seventh: “The Trees: More Than Meets the Eye?”
Read the ninth: ‘Rush Music: Spontaneous as a Baroque Jam Session’