In August my wife and I went to see the rock band Rush in concert in Salt Lake City. For forty years Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart have been making records and touring the world. Now in their late fifties, they played as well—or better—than ever. The concert, held in the outdoor Usana Amphitheater, drew middle-aged fans, teens with their parents, and one couple, I noticed, who clearly looked to be in their sixties. The band put on a great performance lasting nearly three hours, without an opening act. It was quite a night.
Few people are neutral about the music of Rush. Folks either love them or hate them. As I stood in the crowd, singing along with Geddy, I was struck more than ever by the peculiarity of the life’s work of three nerdy guys from Canada. Geddy’s high voice rings out as he sings Neil’s lyrics—some of the most meaningful lyrics in the rock canon. Geddy plays his bass and Alex plays guitar, while both of them enrich their sound with the occasional use of keyboards and pedal synthesizers. Meanwhile, Neil leans into his massive drum set, hammering away like a mad scientist. These guys are truly a singular phenomenon in the history of music, with a sound of their own. People don’t mistake other bands for Rush. And this is one of the things that makes them great—their unapologetic insistence on being themselves. Simply put, they’re a lesson in authenticity.
Back in the 1970s, Rush released their third album, Caress of Steel. The band was proud of its work, but the response wasn’t positive. Critics hated it, the record company didn’t understand it, and even their dearest fans came off a bit confused. Sales were low, and soon the band knew that if their next album didn’t sell it would be their last. The record company advised the band to make the next album more conventional, with shorter songs, a straight 4/4 rock beat, and lyrics everyone could understand and sing along to. This was the band’s last big chance. What did they do? They released 2112, a concept album with a title song that was twenty minutes long—just the opposite of what the record execs wanted. The lyrics to “2112” tell the story of a futuristic “utopia” without music, a society ruled by “priests” with “great computers.” In the story, an individual discovers a guitar in a cave, and along with it, discovers the gift of music. But the gift is rejected by the elders, who say, “It doesn’t fit the plan.” This was the band’s last-ditch offering: a story about the individual versus the collective. You might have seen the oft-reproduced album image—a naked man standing with arms held up in defense against a great red star. The record execs didn’t understand this album either (“Where’s the radio hit?” they wanted to know), but the album was a smash. Sales were phenomenal, buying Rush the creative carte blanche they’ve enjoyed since.
Why do I bring this up in an Irreantum blog? Because I fear that, as Mormons, we might spend too much time looking over our shoulders while we read and write. We want to do good. But where do we find our standard? By looking to others, or by looking within, where we have access to our consciences and the Gift of the Holy Ghost. Of course it matters what other people think. We learn a lot by observing others. And certain others—“true messengers”—give inspired guidance to be especially prized. But even then, we still should primarily rely on the confirming voice that speaks from within. It matters what others think, but not more so than what we know from within.
I’m not talking about thumbing one’s nose at others. That distracts one’s focus from the work. I’m not talking about being a rebel, either. Going against the crowd demands dependence on the crowd. Authenticity means walking a fine line—being oneself despite the temptations to conform or rebel.
When it comes to good art, let’s take a lesson from a rock band. As we read and write, let us each be ourselves, our quirky, subjective, unique, searching, idiosyncratic selves. Who knows, we might be a smash!