One of the courses I teach, #ECON0055, is about the Economics of Science. I am as intrigued by the content of Science as I am by the way it comes about and how it affects and shapes our lives. I have deep roots in Natural Sciences, so why not take a quiet Saturday to write about the song of the same name by the Canadian rock band Rush.

Drums, siren-songs and Natural Science

Rush as a band has been a slow-burning yet influential force in music during its active period ranging from 1973 to 2020, when on January 7th lyricist and drummer Neil Peart passed away [1]. The notion that this was the end of the band in terms of music and touring was clear in an instant. Whatever was to come next, would be different.

In Rush’s early years, immediately following the entry of Peart, the lyrics accompanying the music became increasingly sprawling attempts to reflect on the times the band members were operating in, both in terms of their personal experiences as well as in terms of wider societal developments. The distinction between those two was something which Peart himself [2] has always been conscious about. Of course there were the hints to, and acknowledgements of, Ayn Rand’s in influence on Peart’s thinking in songs like 1974’s “Anthem” and 1976’s “2112“. But the identification of such as indicative of an ultra-libertarian view on society at large is far fetched and even amongst Rand scholars [3-4] largely acknowledged as such. In fact, both songs, the only two with that clear attribution, are largely reflections on personal experience and not societal design.

Ideas about the personal freedom to engage with art and creativity, so central to an artist’s life, are found all across the Rush catalogue in a slowly developing dialogue on oppression and liberation [5] between the lyricist and the musician in Peart, but also between band and a wider audience, including but also beyond their fans [6]. A key component in Peart’s reflections on the tension between individual freedom and the “mass”-society is less engaged with notions of rights and rather involves thinking about the space of personal authenticity [7]. A space that the band itself had to work hard for to create for itself, one where it could enter into that dialogue with an audience in a sense curated, or irresistible pulled-in as through a Siren’s song, through their music [8]. A dialogue that has been far more sprawling and interesting [9] than the libertarian focus of some ‘readers’ allows, and that speaks to the lived experience of working- and middle-class adolescents deep within the ’70s and ’80s struggling for authenticity imprisoned between mass-culture and a dearth of attainable aspiration [10].

Peart’s methodical approach to his lyricism and his drumming earned him the nickname “the Professor on the drums”. His music as well as his words were crafted, weighed, reflected upon and re-crafted. Peart returns to drum-patterns, re-ordering and re-thinking them across songs throughout his playing. In the same way he returns to themes, images and narratives in his lyrics. Almost always these get “placed” somewhere in “spaces” [11]. In a real sense the band itself, the way it operated and was perceived by its fans, was such a place and space [12]. As a result, joining a concert was always more than just a celebration of their music, it was ‘a gathering of readers’ and the performance of the music spoke to the themes the lyrics developed over the years.

I’ve never met a Rush fan who ever gave two hoots for Rand or objectivism, but I know plenty for whom Rush’s brilliantly openhearted, unafraid ludicrousness was just as much of a draw as their staggering technical aptitude.

Rob Fitzpatrick [13]

Natural Science

I would like to steer away from a well-trodden, and in my view overstated, reading of Peart’s lyrics as expressions of middle-class individualism [14]. Band and lyricist were much to familiar with, in a welcoming sense, change [15] to indulge for long in speaking to a specific demographic or world-view. Instead of individualism as an ideological underpinning of the lyrical exploration of themes of oppression and liberation, authenticity is more appropriately viewed in Peart’s work as a form of resistance [16] against technological innovation going awry or society succumbing to mass-culture. If anything, the resistance here is that of the romanticist kind [17] rather than the hyper-individualist kind. The critical rejection of dehumanizing technology as well as dehumanizing culture in Rush’s catalogue is not only informed by the desire for authenticity and its preservation as a living space for artists and other humans, but also by the family histories of some of the bandmembers [18].

When the ebbing tide retreats along the rocky shoreline
It leaves a trail of tide pools in a short-lived galaxy
Each microcosmic planet, a complete society
A simple kind of mirror to reflect upon our own
All the busy little creatures chasing out their destinies
Living in their pools, they soon forget about the sea

Neil Peart Natural science (1980)

A few of Rush’s songs explicitly reference or talk about Science and Technology, yet those are most from the latter half of their catalogue. “Prime Mover” can be read in this way [19], with its scientific imagery to describe a romantic appreciation of the journey over the goal. “Vital Signs” had similarly adopted scientific imagery and vocabulary to reflect on the limitations of human communication while “Nobody’s Hero” clearly ranks scientists among the quiet heroes slogging away at making life a little better. Especially in the latter, Peart’s romantic critiques of society had shifted from a verbiage that could be misconstrued as being sold on individualism, towards one that spelled out the effect of mass-society and ‘bad’ technology as one that leads one to overlook the important efforts made in spaces condemned to anonymity. Peart’s exploration of Science and Technology shared some aspects similar to that of Tolkien [20] and Lucas [21] though perhaps less filled with nostalgia for a lost, pre-industrial, romanticised world, and more of a critically ambivalent one [22].

In part Peart addressed this explicitly in contexts where great benefit was seen to stand next to great horror, such as in the song “Manhattan Project“. But in equal part this was read into his texts by scientists and applied as diversely as to ‘scientific territoriality[23], or the cost of destruction of our natural world [24]. But in Peart’s entire lyrical work for Rush probably only the song “Natural Science” addresses Science and Technology and their impact head-on.

Computerized clinic for superior cynics
Who dance to a synthetic band
In their own image their world is fashioned
No wonder they don’t understand

neil peart “Natural Science” (1980)

The lyrics describe his worry for the capacity of Science and Technology to induce cynicism and detachment, ultimately leading not only to a failure to properly understand the world, but also to serve it well.

Although the lyrics are clear that Peart sees Science and Technology as being in need of some form of ‘taming‘ he does not present this as the ‘taming of a monster’ but rather as providing it with a “state of integrity“. The lyrics to Natural Science quite neatly set out the main themes that Peart will return to in later songs, frequently with more detail (Turn the Page), more metaphoric imagery (Between the Wheels) or with more wonder, curiosity and excitement (Countdown). But the song in its final verse also acknowledges how waves of scientific insight and technological achievement will keep washing over us to change everything, and yet to ‘leave life going on as it was’.

Peart was deeply worried and deeply hopeful about the powers of Science and Technology. While bulwarks against religious and political extremism, or racism, he also saw them as sources for alienation, human vs nature antagonism and ecological destruction. Where he regularly expresses worries over how technology undermines the authenticity in art and music, he himself never shied away from incorporating it in his never-ending quest to become a better and more versatile drummer [25].

Like Lucas, Peart was very away that, in Lucas’ words, “All art is dependent on technology because it’s a human endeavour, so even when you’re using charcoal on a wall or designed the proscenium arch, that’s technology“. Peart strongly felt that remaining a human endeavour was what Science and Technology needed for authenticity, for integrity.

Wave after wave will flow with the tide
And bury the world as it does
Tide after tide will flow and recede
Leaving life to go on as it was

neil peart “Natural science” (1980)
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