… including the following:
• It’s condescending. And clichéd. Those of us who have followed prog for more than 20 minutes, unlike Mr. Kyle Smith, author of “Prog Rock: A Noble but Failed Experiment” (NRO, June 15, 2017), are all too familiar with the chortling and snorting that progressive rock is silly, outlandish, over-the-top, nerdy, self-indulgent, and—yes, you guessed it—pretentious. Kudos (I guess) to Smith for recycling all the usual jabs and wrapping them up in a few sentences; it must have taken some talent to do so:
Progressive rock is the nonpolitical description that stuck to the pretentious, arty, classical-and-jazz-influenced bands, most of them English, who created the music fad of the early 1970s. With their mystical themes, their surreal and sci-fi album covers, their outlandish costumes (capes, fox heads), their obsession with faeries and aliens and loopy 20-minute synthesizer solos, bands such as Peter Gabriel–era Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer led rock down a bizarre sonic detour first mapped out by the Beach Boys on Pet Sounds and the Beatles on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Prog rock was the exclusive domain of a certain kind of nervous, experimentally minded, cautiously intellectual young white guy. It was nerd rock. College rock. Dungeons & Dragons rock. Pimply-virgin rock.
This reminds me of how I was told, growing up in a Fundamentalist home, that all rock music was “of the devil,” that it was all about sex and drugs, that most albums featured nefarious, masked lyrics, and that it involved little talent (but plenty of hedonism and self-destructive behavior). In fact, there is a small element of truth to some of this, just as Smith’s smirking descriptive contains some shards of truth, while missing so much it becomes nothing more than a weird form of cultural virtue-signaling. Neither approach—the sophisticated sneering or the fundamentalist frothing—provides much in the way of context or content. Which is unfortunate, since the context and content of prog—then and now—are quite fascinating.
• It’s pretentious. If this one word were removed from existence, most critics of prog would be reduced to stammering tears (yes, I’m looking at you, Rolling Stone magazine). Some prog fans try to dismiss it; others shrug it off. My take is this: pop and rock music—whether rockabilly, folk, disco, metal, R&B, or punk—is almost always pretentious in some way or another. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “pretentious” as “expressive of affected, unwarranted, or exaggerated importance, worth, or stature.” Pop and rock music is pretentious, in general, because its fans invest so much in it—emotionally, culturally, monetarily—and because its performers do the same. Is it often out of proportion, fanatical, and irrational? Yes. Without doubt. Sinatra and Elvis were pretentious, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles were pretentious, Madonna and Lady GaGa are pretentious, and just about every musician who has dressed up, acted up, acted out, and acted like a nut on stage was filled by a bit of pretention: that is, they want to be taken for and embraced for something they most likely aren’t or cannot really be (prophets, rebels, gurus, etc). Hey, I like the music of U2, but let’s be honest: that band is wildly pretentious. And, last I looked, they were about as “prog” as Adele.
But, then, I’d suggest that Smith is also pretentious: he wants readers to take him seriously as a critic, but in this case his posturing and snarking cannot hide his failures as said critic. For example…
• It’s stuck in 1977. Smith, who is apparently reviewing (or vaguely referencing, take your pick) the new book The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock by David Weigel, continually refers to prog as a sort of strange artifact from a bygone era. “Prog rock was, largely, terrible,” he writes, “But it was also kind of glorious. Its story deserves to be told fondly, albeit with a waspish tone of disbelief…” (emphasis added). “Progressive rock,” Smith sniffs, “was a rocket that crashed a few yards above the launch pad.” Unlike, say, disco. Or punk. Or New Wave. Or big hair metal bands. Or industrial. Or goth. Or ska. Or … you get the idea. Yes, prog’s initial and greatest run of success lasted less than ten years. But, then, most 99% of pop artists don’t last five. (Quick, name the “American Idol” winner from, say, 2013.) Tastes are fickle, fads are fleeting, and teenagers eventually grow up (or at least many of them do). The vast majority of popular music does not last, at least not in the sense of transcending the confines of its place and time.
The point here, however, is that prog didn’t die, even if it departed from the charts. While I’ve not read Weigel’s book, I note that the descriptive contains the following: “Ultimately, Weigel defends prog from the enormous derision it has received for a generation, and he reveals the new critical respect and popularity it has achieved in its contemporary resurgence.” For some reason, that positive note never finds its way into Smith’s unbalanced and truncated narrative. A far better and more balanced (not to mention learned and thoughtful) review of Weigel’s book, oddly enough, is found in The New Yorker, penned by Kelefa Sanneh, who writes:
In the past twenty years, though, a number of critics and historians have argued that prog rock was more interesting and more thoughtful than the caricature would suggest. The latest is David Weigel, a savvy political reporter for the Washington Post who also happens to be an unabashed fan—or, more accurately, a semi-abashed fan. His new history of prog rock is called “The Show That Never Ends,” and it begins with its author embarking on a cruise for fans, starring some of the great prog-rock bands of yore, or what remains of them. “We are the most uncool people in Miami,” Weigel writes, “and we can hardly control our bliss.”
• It’s often stupid and is oddly spiteful. Smith writes: “Still, prog rock failed. It was a noble experiment, a beautiful folly, as naïvely questing as youth. We should salute its ambition if nothing else.” Give me a break. That’s pure nonsense. I like the “sweet four-minute bon-bons, crafted and structured instead of bloated and aimless” as much as anyone (well, within limits), but why does Smith insist that pop and rock music must be straitjacketed to a commercially-oriented, cookie-cutter approach? The fact is, there are countless crappy four-minutes “songs” out there, but I don’t judge all pop songs by the garbage. To do so would be lazy and unfair. This reminds me of how, back in 2008, the L’Osservatore Romano—the Vatican’s newspaper—published a lengthy and laudatory retrospective on the Beatles, and lamented how the “modern pop music industry is too willing to sacrifice originality and fantasy in order to satisfy the consumer models it has adopted and promoted…” As I noted, this was both unfair and even a bit moronic:
First, it is misleading in its comparison of the best music from one generation with the best-selling music of another generation. It’s not just apples and oranges, it’s apples and horse manure. If you are going to compare the Beatles, who produced some of the best pop/rock of their time (and, yes, of the past forty years), with Britney Spears, Hannah Montana, David Archulata, Pink, and any given “flavor of the month” boy band, then you must be fair, turn the tables, and compare, say, U2, Radiohead, Prince, Coldplay, and The Police—just to name a few—to such stellar 1960s artists as Bobby Goldsboro, Lulu, Boxtops, and Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, all of whom had big-selling albums between 1965-1969.
And, I added,
there is a lot of good, excellent, and even exceptional pop/rock music being produced today. And, to build upon the last point, much of it is being created outside of or on the fringes of the mainstream pop music industry. Yes, there is also a lot of dreck. A lot. But there always is. But for every Britney Spears there is a Brandi Carlile, Kate Bush, Tracy Chapman, Tina Dico, or Cowboy Junkies; for every David Archulata there is a Van Morrison, Seal, Sting, Jeff Buckley, Iron and Wine, Sigor Rós, Sufjan Stevens, or Martin Sexton; for every Pink there is a Björk, Lamb, Portishead, or Sarah McLachlan. For every boy band there is a Soundgarden, Radiohead, Muse, or Porcupine Tree.
As we at Progarchy know, there is a lot of good, excellent, and even exceptional progressive rock being produced today. And that is good news for those who enjoy music that is surprising, different, strange, adventuresome, experimental, occasionally zany, sometimes obtuse, but almost never dull, safe, or close-minded.