It has been said that music is the most elusive of all art forms: either it grabs you or it doesn’t. The same can be said for any art form, but there’s just something different about music that sets it apart. Maybe it’s because the emotional expression through one’s own voice and the physical manipulation of musical instruments adds a personal touch to it all. For those who like said music, any criticism of it can also seem intimate. Some people take this as a personal affront; as if saying when someone doesn’t like Rush, then they’re insulting me. Not true for myself, but I’ve seen it all too often in others.
I wasn’t always this way. In my teenage years, during my narrow-minded focus on heavy metal and little else, I too became offended if someone didn’t like my taste in music. Being a guitar, bass, and keyboard player, and one who does their own vocals, I felt closer to this than I perceived others were. In time I came to ignore what other people thought or said and just enjoyed what I liked. It’s not my loss if others fail to understand. I think this is a natural part of growing up. The adolescent in all of us is far more easily offended than the adult.
The problem is, some people never grow out of this thin-skinned view.
Here’s an example: I used to be a Metallica fan. Over the years I got sick of their music, though. When you hear something too often, it grates on you. Personally, I’ve never heard a positive song from this band; everything’s always presented in a dark, pissed off manner. And believe me, I can appreciate dark music. Even now I still consider Master of Puppets a thrash metal masterpiece, so I’m not dissing these guys’ talent. Just not my thing anymore, ya know? No big deal.
Well, I’ve had people tell me that Metallica has sold this many million albums, had this many hit singles, played this many tours, and so on. This is all presented as if they’re rattling off the achievements of a sports team. And always this is compared to artists I listen to, like Rush. Who cares? I don’t listen to a band because of their popularity or album sales. Sex doesn’t sell to me, either—if that were the case I’d have all of Britney Spears’s albums. Yeah, I think Alison Goldfrapp is smoking hot, but her voice turns me on as much as her face. Britney could never do that for me. So ultimately, it’s still about the music.
That’s the competitiveness I referred to earlier. ‘My rock band has sold more albums than your rock band’ is no more than a low-brow pissing contest I won’t engage in. It becomes a form of tribalism, like sports. Wear the t-shirts, slap on the bumper stickers, have their tunes for your cell’s ringtone. Maybe it’s no mistake that I don’t wear musical t-shirts anymore. Belonging to (or advertising for) one tribe doesn’t appeal to me.
Then there’s the infantile ‘that music sucks’ routine. I’ve done it too—when I was a teenager. Expanding my musical horizons, I’ve come to understand that music is personal expression. I may not like it, but I’m not going to criticize it in that way. Sure, there are vocalists and musicians I prefer to hear over others. But I’m too old to have such a narrow-minded view. A good example was Nirvana back in the early 1990’s. I hated them back then, because I thought heavy metal was cooler than anything. Years later I came to respect what Nirvana accomplished, and can listen to their material now without preconceived prejudices. Even up until a few years ago I disliked bluegrass. Now, it still isn’t my favorite musical genre, but I’ve come to appreciate what it can offer and the rich history behind it.
Now back to Rush. Many critics despise Geddy Lee’s high-pitched vocals. Yet, there’s one thing you can say about his singing: you always know it’s him. A unique voice is hard to find in the music industry. Hell, I like his voice. I’ve never heard (serious) people criticize the musicianship of Rush. Geddy’s bass playing is great, featuring fretboard activity most bass players never push for. Alex Liefson’s textured guitar riffs and arpeggios, plus his odd-ball but beautiful solos, mark him as one of my favorites. Neil Peart’s polyrhythmic drumming is flawless and makes all Rush fans play air drums while listening to the band’s music. Yeah, I’m biased here, but even in guitar magazines I’ve never seen their skills put down. Even Eddie Van Halen once remarked about them ‘that’s musician’s music’.
A Rush fan once told me they thought Rush’s music was only suitable for people ‘of a certain intelligence’. What a crock. Music, regardless of complexity, can appeal to anyone. Look at the longevity of Beethoven. But just because his 9th Symphony is such a grand, complex musical statement, doesn’t mean everyone has to like it. With that sort of logic, you fall into the same competitive approach as mentioned above. Yeah, Yngwie Malmsteen can shred 32nd notes all day long on his custom Stratocaster, but these days I’d rather hear Jens Gad play his single-note insertions on an Enigma album.
Neil Peart’s song lyrics have long spoken to me, more than almost any other musical act out there. Intelligent and varied, you either love it or hate them, I suppose. One of the verses from Tom Sawyer has been my personal anthem for well over a decade:
No his mind is not for rent
To any god or government
Always hopeful yet discontent
He knows changes aren’t permanent
But change is
In other words, think for yourself. Sometimes I think the individuals who brag about how many albums sales their favorite band has, or how millions of fans can’t be wrong, or other such mindless blather, fail to grasp this.
Let me say it plain: I don’t give a shit about statistics, dollar signs, or stadiums filled with screaming followers. All I care about is how the music in question moves me. What it makes me see in my mind’s eye, what emotions it evokes. Harmonies and melodies become moods and colors that often say what we ourselves wish to say, but can’t. The sounds through that speaker, through those lips, bridge an invisible gap that brings people together into a greater human experience. As I’ve said before, art is the sharing of ideas. There is no need for those ideas to compete with each other when the canvas is as expansive as the universe itself: the human imagination.