Rush – 2112: Mythological Narrative Lyrics in Music

Author’s Note: This is a transcription of a college research paper from 1996 on Mythological Narrative Lyrics in Music for which I used the album 2112 by Rush. I received an A-.

It was written as two parts in two different years of study. The first part appeared in the Winter 94-95, Number 11 issue of “A Show of Fans” a Rush fanzine for and by Rush fans.

Music has been a dominate force in communication for many years. The power of music results from it’s popularity. Chesebro, Foulger, Nachman, and Yanneli studied music’s influence through four decades. Music which has a method for creating socially shared understandings is placed within the discipline of communication. Music is directed and supported by a particular audience. People under 30 years of age purchase 80 percent of popular records. Seventy-five percent of those are bought by 12-20 year olds.

Chesebro found, that in the four decades, a substantive theme occurred in popular music. Ironic, Mimetic, Leader-centered, Romantic, and Mythical songs reflected and revealed the persistent or enduring content of popular music between 1955 and 1982 (123).

The late 50s was found to be the decade of innocence. Songs from this period were overwhelmingly focused upon romantic and mimetic. The 60s were described as the decade of exploration. In this decade the percentage of ironic and leader-centered songs increased by 200 to 300 percent while romantic songs declined by 60 percent. The 70s became known as the decade of frustrated idealism. Irony based songs dominated this decade. The 80s became the decade of pragmatism. Irony declined and a return to ideal, if not overtly romantic, conceptions started emerging (124-126).

Lull states that music constitutes a core feature of life in some cultures. Lull says music is communication and music also affects communication. Musical expressions are meaningful symbolic messages. Adolescents use music as a strong influence in their attempt to resist the confines of their social environments. Adolescents use music as a way of identification. Music can be a symbolic weapon against human institutions. Young people give music a central place in the most basic of their communicative activities (363-368, #371).

Desmond explored lyrics in his study on adolescents and music lyrics. Desmond wanted to figure ou whether people understood and remember rock lyrics. Of particular important is Desmond’s claim that questions surrounding the memory of lyrics cannot be directly answered since lyrics are not carefully studied as texts, nor are they listened to with the intention of memorization. From the research Desmond performed, results showed that some memory does occur. The memories are in the subject’s own words, not in the exact recordings. Investigations are difficult to apply because of the confounding variable of airplay and repetition. But even with repetition the unintelligibility of lyrics probably acts to inhibit listener’s comprehension and retention (277, #279-280).

Bloodworth’s study helps to reinforce the Chesebro study. The study of music as rhetoric is fairly new and should be treated with caution. Bloodworth says that there is no way, especially in the case of recent rock songs to determine whether or not a song was originally written with an expressive purpose, instrumental purpose or both. Bloodworth did confirm that music was a major part of communication for youth in the 60s and 70s. The recognition of music as rhetoric may be slow in progress because of the frequent rejection of the youth culture (305-306, #309).

Gow looks at music from a more modern aspect. Music videos promote recordings and the artist. A video maker must account for the type of impression the music will make on the audience since the music is already written and recorded before the video is made. A video maker must determine how particular types of visual images or styles might reinforce or change audience perceptions on the musicians and their work. Gow argues that music video is a mode of impression management. By associating performers and their songs with strategically selected visual images or styles, video makers try to evoke impressions which will lead viewers to desire the recordings produced by the performers, therefore making music video a promotional medium. When an artist appears on video the artist becomes associated with the spirit of commercialism at the heart of American consumer culture. This can become a problem for youth culture, since music, typically rock music, has often been used as a means of expressing dissatisfaction over conditions that consumerism has wrought (318-320, #325).

The younger generation uses music as a powerful resource. Adolescence is a period when many people resist the confines of their social environments. Rock music with its tone of rebelliousness is an effective agent of resistance for adolescence (Lull 365). “Young people use music to achieve their personal and interpersonal goals, to resist authority, to establish their identities, to develop peer relationships, and to learn about the world outside the home, neighborhood, or school” (365). Music can help unify formalized social collectivities and it introduces younger people to themes of “sex, style, and subversion” not communicated in other media (365).

Conceptually, music is viewed as a method of communication. Music creates socially shared meanings by exploring and celebrating in a state of awareness or consciousness which a particular audience identifies with as an expression of its emotional and moral precepts (Chesebro 116). Popular music is directed at and supported by a certain audience. Furthermore, this audience is selective in what they listen to. Instead of accepting all music styles, the audience is composed of many subgroups. Each of these subgroups is unified by the particular type of music they listen to. For each subgroup, the lyrics of the music represent a significant portion of the songs total impact (118).

A study done by Irvine and Kirkpatrick (1972) supports the idea that music is a major part of communication for youths. Results showed that music manipulates a symbol system to react to and modify the dominant trends and values of both general and specific audiences. Music changes a message from its usual speaker-listener form into a form that embodies greater aesthetic and kinesthetic appeal. A song of protest or alienation for example, exhibits the message of protest or alienation but adds the sense and body stimulation that music provides. Music provides a great freedom of expression by the artist than would normally be employed by a speaker (Bloodworth 307).

Popular music has frequently been discussed in terms of decades (Cheserbo 123). The 1970s has been discussed as the decade of frustrated idealism in the music world. Irony dominated this decade and this irony is predominately linked to the forms of authority revealed in leader-centered songs and the idealism conveyed by romantic music. Ironic music made up 34.9 percent of all popular hits, mimetic had 14.3 percent, leader-centered took 24.6 percent and romantic accounted for 22.6 percent. The lowest was mythical, only having 3.4 percent of top-selling singles (125). The content of mythical songs dealt with four alternative themes: The Power of Fate; Dreams as a Meaning Referent; Graphic Depictions of Superheroes, Gods and Nonhuman Creatures; and Celebrations in Conditions possessing no time or spatial dimension or a temporal or spatial condition yet to occur (123).

As the 1970s evolved, popular music slowly started a shift away from leader-centered songs to an interpersonal orientation. By the end of the decade popular music was exploring the meaning loneliness, broken and destroyed relationships and nostalgia (125).

One band took a mythical narrative approach to their fourth album and beat the odds the 70’s offered. Rush dedicated one whole side of their album 2112 to a narrative story about a mythical man. Lyricist Neil Peart took a fascination with writer Ayn Rand and put his ideas into the band’s songs.

At the time, Rush was going through a very difficult time. They had just completed, “The Down the Tubes Tour” and were discussing their future. Their previous album Caress of Steel also has a mythological narrative take up much of the album and the album flopped. The band decided against doing a hit single and doing what was popular at the time and decided to do whatever they wanted to do. “We had worked very, very hard,” said Alex Lifeson, guitarist for the band, “and all of a sudden we weren’t getting any support. By the nature of the way our deal was set up at the record company we had freedom to do musically what we wanted. When after Caress there was that lack of support…we had to decide whether we were going to say…okay, we give up. We either break up, or we try to make another first album, or we…do whatever we want. We decided on the third choice. We talked about the whole thing, and got really fired up between the three of us to really push on and not worry about what anyone else thought” (Banasiewicz 24). They went with the mythical narrative approach again. A big reason for this was Ayn Rand’s depictions of heroic men and women fighting for their creative freedom against a hostile society was very similar to what the group was going through and it took on a personal meaning (25).

2112 concerned a time in the not too distant future when a galaxy-wide war results in the rule of all the planets by a caste of priests who maintain control through a massive system of computers. All art and expression is channeled through the computers into a bland unified whole. One man in this future-gone-awry accidentally rediscovers a guitar, slowly teaches himself to play the instrument and gradually learns that he can make music himself. A music that expresses his individuality and implicitly rejects the orthodoxy of the priests. The man, only wishing to do good, rushes to tell his rulers of the discovery. The priests listen to the new music and tell him it has no place in their world. The hero returns dejected to the place where he found the guitar. he then falls asleep and dream that an oracle shows him the way to paradise. When  he awakes, the man realized that the beauty he has seen was only a dream. After several days reflection, he comes to the conclusion that he cannot continue. So he takes his own life, with the hope of moving on to a better one. Then in Neil’s words, “As he dies another planetary battle begins – with the outcome to be determined in the mind of the listener” (24-25). Geddy Lee, singer and bass guitar for the band said, “the piece was a combination of everything the band wanted to say at the time” (25).

Rush realized that 2112 would have to be a “make it or break it” album. There would be no turning back with the new album. Rush would have to become Rush. The band members quickly saw how the lyric’s concept related to their own problems. This inspired them to go for a more focused sound and this new material gave them a sound they could call their own (25).

2112 helped  achieve Rush’s personal and interpersonal goals and it helped establish their identities as Rush. The band also resisted going with the mainstream music of the era. This is what kids relate to. As stated before, “Young people use music to achieve their interpersonal and interpersonal goals, to resist authority, to establish their identities,…” (lull 363). Rush became their listeners. Rush rebelled, went out on their own and did what they wanted to do. Peart says of making the album “… we were talking about freedom from tyranny and meant it (Banasiewicz 25). This is exactly what James Lull says in his article, “Adolescence is a period when many young people passionately resist the confines of their social environments” (365).

Lull says, “Music is communication in the sense that recorded or publicly performed music speaks directly to society as a cultural form” (364). Music helps to create a culturally binding consciousness among adolescents who develop an awareness of things they are motivated to learn about (365). Music provides an alternative perspective on abstract topics. Music provides cultural alternatives to the values and lifestyles of the dominant culture that are already represented in the popular media. In addition, people use music as a basis for forming impressions of each other. Musical taste is a strong basis for friendship (367).

Sillars says culture is defined by the themes developed in the story (158). Rush took present day themes of the society and put them in their songs. When growing up, children begin to assume some control of their growing complex socialization. Music exposed alternative perspectives o topics such as international politics, human and civil rights and energy development. Music also introduces activities involving interpersonal behavior that is not endorsed by authoritarians close to home. Music legitimizes an opposition that speaks to the adolescents. “Music introduces themes that are ignored, refuted, or displayed by ‘mainstream’ institutions of social control” (Lull 367). 2112 is about the rule of priests who maintain control. 2112 is about social control and Lull says that it is this oppression that music fights against.

Sillars also mentions peripeteia. This refers to the change of fortune or the reversal of circumstances that occurs in every drama (162). Just like 2112, the mythological man discovers something new and gets excited about telling others about it only to be rejected. This oppression is what music can be a weapon against. Music can alleviate the burdensome structures that accompany adolescents in everyday life – parents, teachers and other authority figures (Lull 368).

“Contained in those lyrics and in the playing that accompanied them seemed to be a condemnation of all the compromises that others wanted Rush to make” (Banasiewicz 25). “We started headlining small places on the Caress tour,” says Alex, “and we didn’t really do that well in the majority of the halls. With 2112 it seemed to change. We would go back to these same halls and do a lot better. In many cities we were going the next step up on the ladder, headlining 5,000 seat arenas.” 2112 was released in March of 1976 and within a week 100,000 copies had been sold. By the end of March, sales of 2112 had surpassed Rush’s first three albums combined (27).

In consideration of the previous material reviewed and the results and findings, this research question is posed: “What narrative factors allowed the album, 2112 by Rush, to succeed?”

In order to answer this question a method must be employed to determine the extent of any factors and to determine if there were indeed any factors that will help explain why the album did so well. The method employed is described by Bennett. Bennett states that stories organize information in ways that help the listener to perform three interpretive operations. The method used to perform the analysis on 2112 will be adapted from those three interpretive operations. Narrative music organizes messages in ways that help the listener to perform four interpretive operations.

  1. The listener must be able to locate the central message, the key behavior around why the music was written.
  2. The listener must construct inferences about the relationship among the surrounding elements in the music that impinge on the message, The connections among this cast of supporting symbols literally creates the interpretive context of the message which is in the music.
  3. The network of symbolic connections drawn around the messages in the music must be tested for internal consistency and descriptive adequacy or completeness.
  4. The listener can then decide whether the message in the music is relevant or relates to the listeners own life.

I employed these four interpretive operations to answer the research question. Just as Bennett says for stories, the first thing to do is find the messages around social behaviors. The “point” of the music can  be found by associating the social behaviors interpreted in the music to the actual social behavior.

After the listener has found the message in the music, the relations between the message and the surrounding social elements must be established. The point of the music emerges from these relations. The grammatical, temporal and causal regulations in music set up connections among pairs or clusters of symbols in music set up connections among pairs or clusters of symbols in the music. These structural connections guide the process of substantive interpretation.

In evaluating the interpretation, music facilitates more than the identification of the message and the connection of relevant symbols in support of an interpretation. The listener must also be able to constantly refine the conception of the message and compare it against emerging alternative interpretations for the point of the music. The listener must be able to know implicitly when enough connections have been established to make a consistent and confident interpretation. The listener must also know what particular bits of information would be needed to complete the message if it is found lacking.

Neil Peart wrote his lyrics for 2112 from direct experience with the writings of Ayn Rand. From here, listeners can piece together the story that occurs in 2112 not from actual facts but from information given in the lyrics. Reading the lyrics can help interpret what the message the writer is trying to get across. To make judgements, a listener must work through norms, emotions, emerging alternative interpretations and use common sense to see if the message is relevant or relates to their own life.

When listening to 2112, the first interpretive operation can be performed. There is definitely a central message, however, it is not possible to find the key behavior to hwy 2112 was written. When listening, it is very apparent that a main character in the music lives in a controlled world. The lyrics say: “We’ve taken care of everything/The words you read/The songs you sing/The pictures that give pleasure/To your eye.”

As the music progresses, the listener can identify that the character discovers a guitar and then learns to play it: “What can this strange device be?/When I touch it, it gives forth a sound/It’s got wires that vibrate, and give music/What can this thing be that I’ve found.”

The character then takes the guitar and music to the priests who control the world. The priests emphatically deny the new discovery: “I know it’s most unusual/To come before you so/But I’ve found an ancient miracle/I thought that you should know/Yes we know/It’s nothing new/It’s just a waste of time/We have no needs for ancient ways.” The accompanying music to the words is superb and helps create a visual image in the listeners mind of this character finding a guitar, learning to play, and sharing his discovery only to be rejected. The singer plays both parts of the character and the priests.

Once the character is denied, he goes home and falls asleep to dream of how the world used to be. Once he awakens, he feels that since he has experienced what it is like to have freedom, he cannot continue on living, so he kills himself. “I don’t think I can carry on/This cold and empty life/My spirits are low, in depths of despair/My lifeblood/Spills over.”

The central message of being controlled by a higher authority appeals to many younger listeners who have to deal with the pressures of growing up. However, the second interpretive operation is the one that probably produces the widest appeal. The music is performed in a way where the listener can easily identify inferences in the music that impinge on the message. As said before, the band provides superb visual images. When thew character finds the guitar, the background music is being played to represent someone who sounds like they are just learning how to play. When the character goes tho the priests, the singer’s voice ranges widely in pitch to represent the meek character and the controlling priests. The whole piece is played and crafted together with such precision, 2112 comes off as a musical story.

The third interpretive operation of testing the symbolic connections drawn around the messages in the music for internal consistency is more or less a skeptical one. There are symbolic connections but they would have to be drawn out. Whether or not a listener would find symbolic connections between the music of 2112 and a problem in the listener’s life would really have to depend o the listener. A more intelligent and thought-provoking person would probably find the connections more than an average listener who just listens for enjoyment. Each section of 2112 comes with a paragraph or two of quoted material that helps explain the section. Since 2112 deals with the future and the year 2112, a listener may have a hard time finding present day connections to those represented over a hundred years in the future.

The fourth and final step of deciding whether the message in the music is relevant in the listener’s life depends upon whether the third step was completed. I think with 2112, most listeners were captivated by the story and the vivid images the music helps create. But, I think it was from the story and the music that allows listeners to take a deeper look into the lyrics. I do not think very many listeners can feel what Rush was going through at the time they made the album. I do think that once listeners get hooked by the vivid portrayal of the story, some listeners will then understand the lyrics to be about a controlling universe where higher authorities make the everyday decisions. Then it is up to the listener to just appreciate the creativity of the band and/or make a connection with the lyrics and gain an understanding that they are not alone in their feelings.

The factors that allowed this album to succeed were not necessarily found ni the meaning of the lyrics. The creative energy found in this album was probably the deciding factor that allowed this album to make it. I think people who listen to the album are captivated by the narrative story that is portrayed and the band’s ability to provide music that enhances and flows along with the lyrics. The talent of Rush becomes a big factor here as well.

When analyzing 2112 and trying to adapt the four interpretive operations to the album, I found myself in awe of the creatively expressed on this album. the music, lyrics and the way the lyrics are sung complement each other in perfect unison. Listening to 2112 has more entertainment value rather than providing a message. I believe it to be this factor that allowed 2112 to succeed. The creativity revealed on this album could have been a fresh face on the music scene in 1976.

The message revealed o the album seems to favor what Rush wanted to express on a personal level rather than for the listeners. Rush had nothing to lose and they had nothing to prove. 2112. was a make it or break it album and the band members made the album for themselves. If they had made the album for the listeners it would have probably fallen along the lines of a hit single and what was popular at the time. By utilizing their talent and their creativity, Rush made an album that allowed the m to express the anger and frustration of a failing career. It was this creative energy that listeners caught on to.