The Questionable Lyrics to “The Pass”

I like to gush over Rush. Every song of theirs makes me want to write a rapturous single-sentence review and stuff it with pretentious poeticisms. “The Pass” is no exception. The 1989 single is a breathtaking experience, with a guitar that soars through the vast soundscape, frequently hitting harmonic sweet spots in the bass’s succinct structure. Recently, though, I’ve developed an issue with the lyrics to that song. It’s too minor to even begin to shake my fandom, but too disconcerting to ignore. So, sit back and enjoy as I criticize my favorite band. Chiefly to prove to myself that I can, but also to address the serious subject matter of “The Pass” – teen suicide.

I intend 0% disrespect to the late Neil Peart, Rush’s incredible lyricist and drummer.

Native to the lukewarmly received Presto album, “The Pass” has nonetheless proven itself an enduring fan favorite. Even Rush themselves, notoriously modest, have admitted to being proud of it. It’s an important song, band and fans agree, because it’s anti-suicide. It reaches out to the life-weary young ones, assures them that things do get better. Truly an admirable cause. But unfortunately, that’s not the only message discernible in the final product. A different, colder attitude got thrown into the mix. Don’t misunderstand me, the song is still anti-suicide, but not necessarily for the right reasons. It’s apparent in the very first verse:

Proud swagger out of the schoolyard
Waiting for the world’s applause
Rebel without a conscience
Martyr without a cause

Immediately, the song passes judgment. It defines an adolescent character who, blinded by pride, maintains a façade of shallow martyrdom. It’s not clear who the youngster is, and it will stay unclear for a while. But this is the first clue to the attitude of the lyrics – an attitude of scorn towards the young. Okay, let’s skip to the second half of the second verse:

Someone set a bad example
Made surrender seem all right
The act of a noble warrior
who lost the will to fight

This verse indirectly addresses suicide, but it’s not all that nice about it. Like that excessively strict teacher you were afraid of in third grade, it seeks only to set young people straight, not to console or understand them. It laments that they confuse suicide for a noble act, that they believe surrender to be all right. Then it promptly dispels that illusion for them. A touch condescending, wouldn’t you agree? Now, the third verse:

No hero in your tragedy
No daring in your escape
No salutes for your surrender
Nothing noble in your fate

Christ, what have you done?

It sucks to criticize this part, because I can glimpse its good intentions (also, the music is so darn good here). Suicide should never be romanticized. Its association with heroism and courage must be fiercely combatted. But does it have to be done so disdainfully? The song more or less assumes that you, the listener, think suicide is “noble” or “daring”. It turns out that you are the misguided youngster the first verse was scoffing at. “The Pass” brands you a wannabe martyr, misled by “a bad example”, willing to die for “the world’s applause”. Then it calls you out on your folly. It’s a strawman: In order to deromanticize teen suicide, the lyrics first romanticize it to a ludicrous degree, then refute that exaggeration. And we’re left with a text that’s neither as relatable nor as poignant as it could have been.

The strawman approach makes “The Pass” suffer not only as commentary, but as comfort. Because it’s busy dismantling the listener’s delusion, it can’t offer the right support. What would be the right support, then? Well, I’ve never been truly suicidal – a fact for which I’m thankful – so take my words with two spoonfuls of salt. But I believe that thoughts of suicide stem from an emotional imbalance. A person’s pain has surpassed their intrinsic motivation to live. The right support would be to somehow boost their intrinsic motivation (or ease their pain, but that’s harder). Otherwise, they won’t want to recover. This doesn’t apply only to youths, but to any suicidal person. Listen to them, comfort them, to remind them of their value. Give them good experiences, to remind them of the value of life. Sadly, “The Pass” rarely does either. It implores the listener to keep on living, but not because they have value as a beautiful human being, not because they deserve happiness. No intrinsic reason is being advocated for. Instead, the song hammers home that suicide isn’t glorious. But let’s be honest: Save for religious extremists, no one would end their own life for glory. Glory may be a contributing factor, but the chief culprit is the pain. The song targets the wholly wrong thing, leaving the listener even lonelier.

Worse, some of the lyrics come off as scold, and scolding a suicidal person will weaken their intrinsic motivation further. They might stay their hand for a while, but mostly out of fear of disappointing the scolder – an extrinsic motivation. It won’t last long. If I were suicidal, and the only thing keeping me alive was my obligation not to upset an authority figure, I doubt I’d survive. Without a true desire to live, I’d soon buckle under the heavy hand of hopelessness. And I’d only feel worse if my peers said things like “surrender isn’t all right” or “you’re not brave for ending it”. Such condescending talk would make me do exactly this:

Don’t turn your back and slam the door on me

But to be fair, the lyrics have their nicer moments. Here are some of them:

And now you’re trembling on a rocky ledge
staring down into a heartless sea
Can’t face life on a razor’s edge
Nothing’s what you thought it would be

It’s not as if this barricade
blocks the only road
It’s not as if you’re all alone
in wanting to explode

The first part is the pre-chorus. The cheerless imagery is both precise and sympathetic in its depiction of a despaired state of mind. The second part is from the second verse, a gentle reminder that life is never as hopeless as it seems. Clearly, the song isn’t devoid of understanding or encouragement. And then there’s the chorus, which begins:

All of us get lost in the darkness
Dreamers learn to steer by the stars

That concisely magical message never fails to give me chills. Better yet, it’s supported by an ingenious chord structure that only intermedial wizards like Rush could dream up. Still, I fear the song is too laden with judgment to save a life, be it young or old. In the context of that judgment, even the uplifting words seem accusatory. (“Come on you slacker, learn to steer by the stars! You think you’re the only one who wants to explode?”) It’s a mess, to be honest. A slighly sympathetic, slightly judgmental – and musically exceptional – mess of a song. Fortunately, I’m that kind of listener who favors music unequivocally over lyrics, so I’m able to enjoy the “The Pass” perfectly fine. But I worry that, since it’s garnered a reputation as a suicide prevention song, people may turn to it for help and be left feeling unfairly judged when it’s over.

Admittedly, every time I see “The Pass” mentioned in Rush circles, it’s being lauded for its message (or occasionally the aforementioned harmonic sweet spots). Some thank the song for getting them through rough times. So it’s obviously doing something right. Perhaps I’m wrong about suicidality – perhaps one needs to engage in tough love to snap someone out of it. Perhaps the urgency necessitates some moralizing. But then again, couldn’t that added harshness push someone the wrong way over the edge? I’m ambivalent, and more than a little discouraged by my fortunate lack of experience. If you want to make up your own mind about the song, here’s an unofficial lyric video. Enjoy the Rush!

Finally, if you’re considering taking your own life: I’m not going to tell you to feel different. I’m not going to tell you to think about your loved ones. The pain is too great for that to work. Everything feels hopeless. I believe you. I just want to say that there is kindness out there in the world, and you deserve to find it. You deserve it even if you think you don’t. And that kindness will eventually beat the pain.

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