Politics of 70s Prog Rock

Last night Josh, Dave and I watched two rock music documentaries: “Classic Albums: Dark Side of the Moon”, and Rush’s “Beyond the Lighted Stage”. I was astonished at the different ways the two bands reacted to their own success, and how this manifested a different politics.

In short – Pink Floyd was damaged by its success. Fame and riches drove the band apart, and the great work they did after Dark Side was largely about that trauma and the possibility of empathy. In their own words – a major theme from Breathe on was “is it possible for humanity to be human”. Rush, on the other hand, took their success in stride and spent 20 years progressing, constantly moving onto new themes and new musical styles. Rush has never exhibited a sustained interest in empathy in their music – unsurprising considering their allegiance to Randian libertarianism. Their classic song Anthem makes this clear:

Live for yourself — there’s no one else
More worth living for
Begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more

Well, I know they’ve always told you
Selfishness was wrong
Yes it was for me, not you, I came to write this song

Compare this to some classic Floyd lyrics (from “Echoes”):

Strangers passing in the street
By chance two separate glances meet
And I am you and what i see is me
And do i take you by the hand
And lead you through the land
And help me understand the best i can

A closer comparison can be made, in fact, by contrasting these Floyd lyrics with a passage from Rush’s song “Entre Nous” (“Between Us”)

We are secrets to each other
Each one’s life a novel
No-one else has read.
Even joined in bonds of love,
We’re linked to one another
By such slender threads.

The conception of otherness expressed in Rush’s music finds itself centered on the lack of possibility of coming into communication, or getting ahold on, another. Ironically, it’s a bit Levinasian – although the Randian turn was not something I would normally associate with ethics of the face.

Personally, I prefer Floyd’s emphasis on empathy to Rush’s individualistic drive, which translates into hatred of cooperation, cultural sensitivity, and the poor. Floyd’s query: can humanity be humane” is all the more relevant in a world where the species is threatened with nuclear or ecological destruction.


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