Freedom Isn't Free - A thematic study of Rush's 2112

Disclaimer: I don't own 2112 or any of the songs or images in the album. I didn't make any money for writing this. This was an assignment for school in my Yearbook studies class. The teacher said it was the best essay he had read in three years and gave me 100% on it. All images and lyrics you will see here belong to the Canadian Rock band Rush and their members: Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart. All rights reserved.

If I asked you to think about freedom, what do you imagine? Do you think about being able to do anything you want without restrictions? Taking the car without asking? Or owning your own car and being able to go anywhere with it? Leaving home and starting your own life, where you make your own rules and you don't care if you break them? Or do you think about how awesome it would be to make your own choices? Whatever it is you're thinking about, do you ever consider the consequences of your freedom? After all, if you take the car without asking your parents, they may get mad at you and punish you, thus taking some of your freedom. If it's your own car, you're responsible for filling it up with gas which costs money. Leaving home and beginning your own life doesn't mean you're necessarily free; you have to do everything your parents did for you and then you realize just how tied down you really are. Sure, you can make your own choices, but most of the time you'll have choices made for you by other people (at a job, how many choices or decisions do you ever have?).

Let's face it: freedom isn't free.

Rush's 1976 album 2112 demonstrates just how much freedom really costs. You can see and hear it in the lyrics, see it in the linear note left by the "hero" of 2112 and get the feeling by the red star on the cover.

Allow me to explain. In the twenty minute song of 2112, there is a galactic federation called the Solar Federation. This red star, surrounded by a red circle, is their symbol. All planets that carry this red star banner are under the control of the Solar Federation, which controls every single aspect of life. When I say every single aspect of life, I really mean every aspect of life. Music, pictures, words...everything. You cannot even make your own choices. Under the Solar have no freedom at all. The red star in the circle on the cover, also surrounded near the top by stars (which ties into the fact it's a galactic federation and reaches the planets beyond our own planet Earth), is a symbol of a very controlled way of life or collectivist mentality.

The album 2112 focuses on the main overture, which is the song 2112. There are five other songs on this album that tie in with the idea that freedom isn't free, but for at least two songs, it's very vague and involves reading in between the lines. For now, I'll start with the simplest one: the twenty minute masterpiece 2112.

"I lie awake, staring out at the bleakness of Megadon. City and sky become one, merging into a single plane, a vast sea of unbroken gray. The Twin Moons, just two pale orbs as they trace their way across the steely sky. I used to think I had a pretty good life here, just plugging into my machine for the day, then watching Templevision or reading a Temple Paper in the evening.

My friend Jon always said it was nicer here than under the atmospheric domes of the Outer Planets. We have had peace since 2062, when the surviving planets were banded under the Red Star of the Solar Federation. The less fortunate gave us a few new moons.

I believed what I was told, I thought it was a good life, I thought I was happy. Then I found something that changed it all..."

-Anonymous, 2112

This is the only linear note shown in the album. The man who is speaking is the man who tells the story of 2112. In the year 2062, a galactic wide war had been raged and resolved by the Solar Federation, who unites all the planets as one. By the year 2112, life is controlled by the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx. They are the people who determine your life as you know it. (Depicted in section II of 2112.)

The man believed his life was good under such control. One day, he goes to a cave behind a waterfall and makes an astounding discovery: a guitar. There's no such instruments like this in his life, so it's a very big moment for him. He touches the wires and discovers it makes music. But it's not the music he's used to hearing from the temples, it's much more different. As he continues studying this strange device, he teaches himself to strum in a rhythm that makes even more music that he's proud to call his own. He could chose his music! That's something you're not even allowed to do, by the rules of the priests. That's why, when he goes to show the priests his guitar and his own music, the priests stomp on it and sneer at his "silly whim". The priests reject the idea of letting people make their own music because it's a way of freedom for the people, which has "destroyed the elder race of man". (Section III and IV of 2112.)

The rest of the song goes on to detail his sorrow, his dream and the oracle who showed him an older and more free way of more as we know it in this day and age. It appears the elder race of man had fled the planets and continued to grow far away, out of the reach from the Solar Federation. Distraught by what he's seen and the realization of what a cold and empty life it really is, he commits suicide to free himself. As he dies, another galactic wide war begins. The song ends with these words: Attention all planets of the Solar Federation. We have assumed control.

The idea of freedom not being free is very easy to see here. The man feels that his only way to be free from the evil Federation is to die. To be free, he had to give up his life in exchange. I think that's the most costly thing anyone could ever give up for freedom.

Tracks two, five and six also demonstrate the idea of freedom not being free. Tracks three and four involves a lot of reading between the lines and making inferences.

Track two is a song called A Passage to Bangkok and it's a song about doing drugs and smoking. The question of freedom here is the drugs themselves. Everyone has tried drugs at one point in their life. Those that like it find themselves becoming addicted fast. Is having an addiction free? No. The cost of doing drugs is your own health and dependence on a controlling substance. Addicts think they're in control, but they can't function without a smoke or some other degree of drugs. A life with drugs comes with the cost of money and health.

Track three is a song called The Twilight Zone. This song doesn't really follow with the idea of freedom not being free, but there is a hint. The song begins with a man stepping up to greet you. However, if you take off his hat, you discover he has three eyes. What's going on?

Listen to the chorus.

You have entered the Twilight Zone
Beyond this world strange things are known
Use the key, unlock the door
See what your fate might have in store
Come explore your dream's creation
Enter this world of imagination

This leads to the next verse.
Wake up lost in an empty town
Wondering why no one else is around
Look up to see a giant boy
You've just become his brand new toy
No escape, no place to hide
Here where time and space collide

You're trapped in a world of imagination. You've virtually become a slave to the figments you dream up. Having the freedom to imagine can be a dangerous thing, especially when you fail to see the line between fantasy and reality. It's a scary thing to be trapped in your own mind and fantasy world. I've seen it happen as well.

On to track four, which is a song called Lessons. Like track three, you really have to search hard for the hints and make inferences. Lessons is a song that shows how difficult it is to teach, which makes me think about school. School is something no one can escape from, especially in your young years. School is a high price to pay in freedom because you have to learn before you can really be free. But is it really all that bad? The song Lessons also shows how important it is to listen, or risk missing out on important words.

Track five is quite sad and moving. It's a song called Tears. Tears is quite different from everything else depicted on the album and the theme is a lot harder to follow in it. However, Tears simply talks about crying. By making the inference that the song is about crying, we can assume what we want about what the singer, or who the singer is talking about or is crying about.

Then lost in that feeling I looked in your eyes
I noticed emotion and that you had cried
For me,
I can see
What would touch me deeper...
Tears that fall from eyes that only cry?
Would it touch you deeper
Than tears that fall from eyes that know why?

As you can see, from the verse and the chorus, it never actually implies what the cause for crying is. By assuming that the crying is done for the loss of freedom, the harshness thrown in life's journey or even crying over the idea that nothing in the world is free...including freedom...we can tie this song in with the theme.

Something For Nothing is the final song, and probably the song that ties in the most with the theme (aside from 2112). As a matter of fact, this song was inspired by the words "Freedom isn't free" and Neil Peart of Rush said, "All those paeans to American restlessness and the American road carried a tinge of wistfulness, an acknowledgment of the hardships of the vagrant life, the notion that wanderlust could be involuntary, exile as much as freedom, and indeed, the understanding that freedom wasn't free. In the mid-'70s, the band was driving to a show in downtown Los Angeles, at the Shrine Auditorium, and I noticed some graffiti splattered across a wall: 'Freedom isn't free,' and I adapted that for a song on 2112, 'Something for Nothing'"." (Source: Wikipedia page.)

This song talks about how you can't get something without giving something up in return. It's the basic every day can't get food without paying for it, you can't be clothed without paying for the clothes, you can't hire employees without paying them.

You don't get something for nothing
You can't have freedom for free
You won't get wise
With the sleep still in your eyes
No matter what your dreams might be

Freedom isn't free. Nothing is. That is the lesson I was taught by listening to the whole album.