The right way to rock

Attention all planets of the solar federation.

We have assumed control.

I remember the first time I heard these lyrics on the radio, at the end of Rush’s rock anthem 2112, from the 1976 album of the same name. I wondered what they meant. Radio stations tend to only play the first and final movements of the 20-minute epic, so it wasn’t until much later, when I heard the song in its entirety, that the chilling warning it contained became clear.

2112 is the story of a young man living in the intergalactic “Red Star Federation”. Its totalitarian rulers control all art, knowledge, and access to information. The hero discovers a guitar – something unseen for generations – and teaches himself to play. Then he presents his discovery to Red Star leaders, hoping they will share his joy about the great potential for beauty and creativity in the music. Instead, they destroy the guitar, dismissing it and the music as “a silly whim” that “doesn’t fit the plan.” In despair for the lost age before the Federation’s rule, when individualism and creativity reigned supreme, driven by the “pure spirit of man,” the hero takes his own life. After his martyrdom we hear the Federation’s chilling declaration of omnipotence.

It’s hard not to see 2112 as a political allegory, an anti-Communist manifesto at the height of the Cold War. But the young Torontonians who wrote it weren’t Reagan conservatives, according to Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson. In an interview with Rolling Stone earlier this year for a 40th anniversary feature about the album, Lifeson acknowledged that Ayn Rand was an influence. But he hastened to add that he and his bandmates were not especially political, and in fact were uncomfortable when the media cast them as right wing libertarians.

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Still, at the time, rock and roll was intensely political, even if the musicians weren’t. It still is. John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance was adopted by the 1970s anti-war movement. His heirs are probably still collecting royalties for the treacly Imagine from contemporary peaceniks. U2’s soundtrack for the ‘80s and ‘90s includes songs protesting Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy in Latin America (Bullet the Blue Sky) and the Irish Troubles (Sunday, Bloody Sunday), and supporting the civil rights movement in the United States (Pride [In the Name of Love]). Neil Young has made a career of protesting Vietnam, wars in the Middle East, and most recently, the fossil fuel industry and Monsanto. Anti-war songs, anti-poverty songs, and anti-capitalism songs are common. All of them reference freedom of a kind: freedom from war, freedom from fear, freedom from want, or even, for some punk rockers like MxPx or Blink-182, freedom from responsibility.

But whatever their intentions, with 2112 Rush turned the concept of the protest song on its head and found commercial success. It is also a song about freedom, but specifically freedom to create, to achieve, and most importantly freedom to live one’s life without government interference. It’s a theme that appears again and again in Rush’s work. Red Barchetta, from their 1981 release Moving Pictures, again presents a fictional world where freedom has been curtailed, but with a happier ending; a young man’s joyfully evades “the eyes” in an antique sports car. Juvenile male fantasy? Sure. But it’s also an unequivocal rejection of a world in which the individual is viewed as anything less than the prime mover of his own life.

There is a perception that rock music as a genre, with its radical sound, and broad themes of rebellion against tradition and polite society, belongs to the political left. The right stereotypically expresses its devotion to faith, flag, and family through the sentimentalism of country and western, or the family-friendly but otherwise vapid pop music of the 50s and 60s. But there is far more political complexity and diversity in contemporary music than that.

Lifeson told Rolling Stone that he and his bandmates were “liberal”. Indeed they were – classically liberal in the philosophical tradition of Burke, Mill and Hayek. What unites them are the values of individualism. Rush was by no means alone among rockers in expressing these values. It was common in the hard rock or progressive rock genre they helped pioneer, along with bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. And it was even more pronounced in the so-called “heavy metal” sub-genre that evolved out of their work. Well-known acts such as Metallica, Megadeth, and Judas Priest, along with lesser-known artists with names like Iced Earth and Hammerfall, mostly eschewed the politics of protest in favour of the librettos of liberty.

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F.A. Hayek wrote that “independence, self-reliance, and the willingness to bear risks, the readiness to back one’s own convictions against a majority, and the willingness to voluntary cooperation with one’s neighbours” form the basis for an individualistic society. In other words, freedom to live your life according to your own values, responsibility for your own choices and their consequences, and respect for the freedoms of others are the key values of conservatism – and they’re the values at the heart of the heavy metal sub-culture.

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Although heavy metal complains (very) loudly about all kinds of things, it is not generally “protest music” in any conventional sense. There are exceptions to be sure – Metallica’s anti-war song Disposable Heroes or Iron Maiden’s 2 Minutes to Midnight come to mind – but heavy metal doesn’t make a habit of asking people (politely or otherwise) to change their beliefs. In other words, it’s not preachy like, say, almost everything written by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and so much of contemporary rap music. To be sure the cover art for Metallica’s Don’t Tread on Me appropriates Gadsden ensign’s coiled rattlesnake from the libertarian movement, but the lyrics – “liberty or death, what we so proudly hail” – are nothing if not a conservative expression of love of country and tradition.

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Ronald Reagan knew that freedom must “be fought for, protected, and passed on to the next generation.” This responsibility is a foundational value for conservatives, and one that appears regularly in heavy metal music. The band Dragonforce is perhaps best known outside of the metal world as being responsible for writing the hardest song ever put to Guitar Hero. Through the Fire and Flames is certainly that, but its true cultural significance is in its portrayal of the pursuit of freedom as an eternal struggle. Each verse describes a battle, followed by a victory chorus of “we’re flying, we’re free, we’re free before the thunderstorm.” It’s the same story in Three Hammers, which commands listeners to “stand, fight, fight for your lives” so that “our world may be free once again.” In Power and Glory, the obvious allusion to the Lord’s Prayer in the title opens the door to individualist triumphalism in the lyric “free your own mind… cause no one can stop you from climbing this mountain and reaching the top.” In Rush’s futuristic dystopia, Metallica’s American revolution, or Dragonforce’s medieval imagery, the underlying message remains the same. Freedom is the ultimate objective in life, and fighting to get and keep freedom is the noblest of human endeavours.

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Most heavy metal bands and fans are not anarchists or nihilists. They get that freedom comes with responsibility. You see this at their concerts in the phenomenon known as the mosh pit. The mosh is a ceremonial war dance where metalheads celebrate freedom and re-enact the struggle for it. It can be a chaotic place, and it can even be violent – but there are rules. If freedom is reflected in the wild, ecstatic dancing, and the fight for it reflected in the pushing, shoving, and body-checking of the dance itself, then the rules of the pit are the glue that holds the whole thing together. Those rules are straightforward. When someone falls to the floor, pull them to their feet; if someone drops something, hold it up for them; if you’re on the boundary of the pit, keep the moshers contained; in any encounter with venue staff, be civil. In other words, respect other people, and respect their property.

Ultimately, as political creatures, if we want the freedom to live life according to our values but don’t respect the freedom of others to live their life according to theirs, we risk becoming tyrants and undermining our own freedom as much as everyone else’s. In the pit, if we don’t show respect for our fellows, we risk damage to property, serious injury, and getting barred from future shows at the venue. We can have all the freedom we want, but without respect for the freedom of others, it really doesn’t count for much.

The violent iconoclastic imagery of heavy metal – war, death, the satanic underworld, and so on – is undeniably disturbing for many conservatives. However, the values espoused by heavy metal music and the sub-culture surrounding it – the freedom to live according to your own values, a responsibility to protect that freedom, and respect for the freedom of others – are the values of Hayek’s “individualist society.” In far more ways than they are not, the values of heavy metal are the values of conservatism. Even the modern political battle-cry of the conservative movement, the idea that “smaller government is better government,” finds itself echoed in Rush’s 2112. Metalheads and conservatives alike hear the same ominous notes in the words: “Attention all planets of the solar federation… We have assumed control.”

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