Rush: A rock band for introverts (Part Two: Subdivisions)

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Part Two: Subdivisions

Welcome to part two of my article on Rush. In part one I focused on the song Limelight, now I’ll have a look at the song Subdivisions, from Rush’s 1982 album Signals.

On the Signals album, Rush experimented with the use of synthesizers and sequencers even more than on their previous album, Moving Pictures. Rush was always a band who embraced new technology and they loved to experiment and reinvent themselves. The band would continue to experiment with synthesizers throughout the eighties. In the nineties, they would gradually leave the synths behind and embrace a more guitar-driven, almost grunge-like sound.

As is usually the case with Rush, the lyrics to the song Subdivisions were written by drummer Neil Peart, while bassist and vocalist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson took care of the music. Subdivisions is a fan favorite and it was a staple of the band’s concerts right until the very end of their legendary career. The music video made for the song was broadcasted regularly on MTV at the time.

Conform or be cast out:

The lyrics to Subdivisions comment on social stratification, which is a term sociologists use to describe the way society tends to categorize (or subdivide) people based on factors like income, education, occupation, wealth, race, age, and habitation.

The song (and the music video) tells the story of a young man growing up in the suburbs, those residential areas at the edge of the city where all the houses, streets, and shopping malls look almost identical. The title of the song refers to the subdivisions of social stratification as well as the urban planning of the suburbs.

 (Pictured above: the suburbs. Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone…)

(Pictured above: the suburbs. Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone…)

Let’s take a step by step look at the song, the lyrics, and the music video:

The song begins with Geddy laying down some very dark, ominous sounding synthesizer chords. Alex and Neil soon join in on guitar and drums. In the video, we first see a birds-eye view of a busy city, then the camera moves away from the city and shows us the suburbs.

Geddy starts singing Neil’s lyrics:

“Sprawling on the fringes of the city,
in geometric order,

an insulated border
in between the bright lights
and the far unlit unknown.”

Right away the lyrics describe the location of the suburbs in between the bright lights of the city and the far unlit unknown. The robotic feeling of the music fits very well with the description of the ‘geometric order’ of the suburbs.

Now the lyrics go on to describe how the protagonist feels about growing up in the suburbs:

“Growing up it all seems so one-sided:

Opinions all provided

The future pre-decided

Detached and subdivided,
in the mass production zone.

Nowhere is the dreamer
or the misfit
so alone.”

In these lines, Neil paints a depressing picture of teenage life in the suburbs. He describes the suburbs as a place where creativity and originality is not encouraged. All the opinions are already provided and the young man’s future seems pre-decided. Dreamers and misfits seem to have no place in the boring ‘mass production zone’, where every person is detached and subdivided.

The music video now shows us the young man reading a book in the high school cafeteria and wandering around on his own in the high school halls, while the other kids are talking to each other and seem to reject him.

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Now Geddy switches from the synthesizer to his Rickenbacker bass and we hear the song’s chorus for the first time:

“Subdivisions -

In the high school halls,
in the shopping malls,
conform or be cast out.

Subdivisions -

In the basement bars,
in the backs of cars,
be cool or be cast out.”

High school is often the place where we are confronted with social stratification for the first time in our lives. Teenagers tend to subdivide their peers in classifications based on their appearance, their athletic ability, their wealth, the number of friends they have, and their sexual escapades ‘in the backs of cars’. If you’re not considered ‘cool’, you will be cast out. When you find yourself in this position, you must either try to conform to the social expectations of the popular kids or embrace the life of a loner.

The labels we get in high school often linger on in adulthood. The way we view ourselves has a lot to do with how others viewed us in our adolescence. Most people grow out of these labels eventually but it may take a while. Introverts often are misunderstood by extroverts. They are often viewed as being shy, depressed, or conceited, when in reality an introvert is someone who enjoys time spent alone or with a select group of close friends, and is probably not shy or stuck-up at all.

At the end of the chorus, we see the young man in the video watching television on his couch at home. The young man’s escapism comes to an end when his father turns off the TV and throws the young man’s school books in his lap, while Geddy sings:

“Any escape might help to smooth
the unattractive truth,

but the suburbs have no charms to soothe
the restless dreams of youth.”

After a fantastic synthesizer melody, the song goes back to the ominous, robotic rhythm.

Now the video shows us the young loner wandering around in the city streets on his own, while the other teenagers are cruising around in their cars and hanging out together. Because the suburbs ‘have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth’, the young man and his peers go to seek excitement in the city on Friday night:

“Drawn like moths we drift into the city.

The timeless old attraction,
cruising for the action.

Lit up like a firefly,
just to feel the living night.”

In the following lines, the lyrics go on to describe adult life. As we grow up, being ‘cool’ is no longer what society demands from us. But the social stratification does not end. On the contrary, society now labels us even more. We still need to conform, or be cast out. As we age, some of us find a way to establish ourselves in society in a healthy way, but others do not. Time can be cruel, and some get caught in ‘ticking traps’ and lose sight of the dreams they once had. The only thing these people can look forward to now is to buy a house where they can escape from reality and save some money to go on vacation now and then…

“Some will sell their dreams for small desires,
or lose the race to rats,

get caught in ticking traps
and start to dream of somewhere
to relax their restless flight,

somewhere out of a memory
of lighted streets on quiet nights.”

While Geddy’s singing these lines, we see people dressed in suits and carrying briefcases, rushing to their jobs like human cattle while the clock ticks away.

Time for the chorus again:

“Subdivisions -

In the high school halls,
in the shopping malls,
conform or be cast out.

Subdivisions -

In the basement bars,
in the backs of cars,
be cool or be cast out.”

After the second chorus, the song goes to a classic Alex Lifeson guitar solo. The band is really on fire at this point. Geddy’s playing some great bass lines and Neil’s drumming like a man with a mission.

In the video, we see the young man turning to escapism again as he’s playing some arcade video games in the city while Geddy screams once more:

“Any escape might help to smooth
the unattractive truth,

but the suburbs have no charms to soothe
the restless dreams of youth!”

Now the song comes to an end in typical Rush fashion, with Neil banging on his drums as if his life depends on it!

While Rush has a lot of songs with a positive message and a motivational spirit, Subdivisions is one of the darker ones. The theme of the song can be very depressing indeed, but it is a part of reality. A lot of Rush fans could identify with the young man in the video, and this is the reason the song was so popular at Rush concerts. If there ever was an anthem for outsiders and misfits, Subdivisions is the song.

Watch the Subdivisions video below, and leave a comment in the comment section below this article if you like. Tell me what you think of the song and the lyrics.

Many people have commented on part one of this article, and I would like to thank everyone for sharing their thoughts.

I would also like to point out that, of course, I’m aware not all Rush fans are introverts. Even within the band, Neil is probably the only real introvert. Alex definitely seems to be an extrovert while Geddy is probably part introvert and part extrovert, as most people are. But, with Neil writing the lyrics, a lot of Rush songs speak to introverts, hence the title of my article.

I will write about other Rush songs sometime in the future. I like to mix things up, so I’ll write about other things first before I’ll write about Rush again. Please like and follow my blog on Facebook or Twitter so you can see when I post some new stuff. Go to my home page for the links. Thanks!

Wesley Stuer
october 15, 2018