First, let’s give proper credit to James Parker, who is a contributing editor to The Atlantic and a white man who hates prog rock: he manages to avoid, in his review of David Weigel’s book The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock, the adjective “pretentious.” Kudos. Props. Cheers. Scattered applause.
The rest of his article—that is, the entire article—is appalling, bad, and cranky (the abc’s of lousy articles), starting with the title—“The Whitest Music Ever”—and taken up a few notches with the subtitle: “Prog rock was audacious, innovative—and awful.” Perhaps Parker was trying to top Kyle Smith’s embarrassing excursion into prog criticism. If so, he succeeds in some ways, if only because he doesn’t even try to construct an argument, provide much (if any) context or contrast, or observe any basic journalistic rules governing facts, truth, and other boring minutia. It’s so pathetic, it makes a typical blog rant on about any topic sound like “The Gettysburg Address” in comparison.
Here, bullet-pointed in order to keep me from wasting too much time shoveling on this, are five glaring problems with the article:
• The word “was” in the subtitle. Just like Smith, Parker seems completely unaware of the history of prog after the late ’70s and is clueless about the steady re-birth of prog over the past 25 years or so. Everyone knows that prog experienced a serious dive in maintstream popularity; what many folks don’t admit is that prog didn’t die. You could say it went into hibernation, but there’s a real sense in which it actually fragmented or melted into the world of pop music—think Asia, Genesis, Yes (with Rabin), Alan Parson’s Project, and so forth—and then slowly began to reform throughout the Eighties, finally coalescing again in even more diverse and surprising ways in the Nineties. As Alexis Petridis observed in a 2010 article in The Guardian on the resurgence of prog:
The perceived wisdom is that it was utterly swept away by punk, but that doesn’t account for the string of British prog bands signed by major labels in the early 80s – not just Marillion, but IQ, Pendragon and Pallas – nor for the continued chart success of Yes, Rush and Genesis, although whether those bands’ 80s oeuvres could truly be considered prog is a matter of some debate…
I say “diverse” because prog in recent decades has become incredibly popular in places such as Italy, Spain, South America, and parts of Asia. Yes, it is still Euro-centric (ooh, how horrible), but it’s not about “white” as much as it’s about a certain stream of Western culture and artistic expression (ooh, that really is horrible). In sum: anyone who thinks prog died in the Seventies shouldn’t be writing about prog. Period.
• Hateful venting does not equal knowledgeable argument. Parker is frank:
The problem comes, for me, when I actually listen to the stuff. Is it not a form of aesthetic dissipation to praise something for its ambition and its bold idiosyncrasy when that something is, objectively speaking, crap? I think it might be.
He refers to songs by Gentle Giant and Magma, concluding: “Again, very creative. But run, oh run, from the music.” Well, I’m not a fan of either of those bands either, and I really like prog. Come to think of it, I disdain The Doors, cannot stand The Rolling Stones, and think the Beatles are overrated but I tend to like a lot of rock. I disdain almost all Top 40 music, but really enjoy great pop. On top of that, I gave up trying to hang with Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman years ago—and I love jazz. Lots of jazz, to the tune of nearly 20,000 jazz cuts on my iTunes. Rather than acting like a snubbed teenager or a snotty sophist, I simply admit that the music of Taylor and Coleman isn’t for me, while happily acknowledging their talents and place in jazz. (I’ve actually met people who say they hate jazz because they don’t like Kenny G. Lord have mercy.) Parker clearly likes rock music that is blues based. Good for him. But stating, as he does, that “[t]hus did prog divorce itself from the blues, take flight into the neoclassical, and become the whitest music ever,” is far more dismissive than descriptive. In fact, it says far, far more about Parker than it does about prog. And that is what is so often the case of “critiques” of prog: it’s far more about the critic than about the music.
• How much prog has Parker actually listened to? I ask because this remark is laugh-out-loud-for-ten-minutes funny:
But prog’s doom was built in. It had to die. As a breed, the proggers were hook-averse, earworm-allergic; they disdained the tune, which is the infinitely precious sound of the universe rhyming with one’s own brain. What’s more, they showed no reverence before the sacred mystery of repetition, before its power as what the music critic Ben Ratliff called “the expansion of an idea.”
Idiocy. Really. And oddly precious idiocy at that. The “infinitely precious sound of the universe rhyming with one’s own brain”? Huh? This from a critic who later, without any apparent sense of irony, states: “Yes’s Tales From Topographic Oceans is an experience to me unintelligible and close to unbearable…” Again, note that it’s “to me“; does Parker have any actual musical or critical acumen to bring to the party? Anyhow, for those really interested in how hook-averse great prog is not, start with PROG’s recent “The 100 Greatest Prog Anthems….” and go from there.
• Since when was musicianship a mark against musicians? As usual, the virtuosity of many prog musicians comes under, um, scrutiny, with Parker smirking that “like mad professors, they threw everything in there: the ideas, the complexity, the guitars with two necks, the groove-bedeviling tempo shifts.” Because, as we all know, proficiency at one’s craft is a bedeviling, dangerous, and revolting thing! The corrective, of course, was the raw, “authentic” energy of punk: “To all this, the relative crudity of punk rock was simply a biological corrective—a healing, if you like.”
A January 2016 post at TheBluze.com directly addresses this silliness, first by noting, “The virtuosity of progressive musicians made some uncomfortable; They thought this challenged their less accomplished favorites…” and then remarking:
The exponents of progressive rock in the seventies were actually trying to be true to themselves. Ian Anderson, for example, felt inauthentic when he was singing American blues. He rediscovered his own roots and began writing music and lyrics from a particularly British point of view. Rick Wakeman of Yes studied at the Royal Academy of Music; He wasn’t pretending to have an interest in classical music. Procul Harum had two members who were capable of writing their own orchestrations. Frank Zappa could transcribe the extended improvised solos he had played in concert while travelling afterward on the tour bus. These people were not pretending to be something they were not. Meanwhile, the “authentic” punk anarchists The Sex Pistols were actually a manufactured band put together by a clothing store owner to publicize punk fashion. Should the progressives pretend that they could not play their instruments and did not understand music in order to please the critics?
I suspect that Parker’s argument is that punk pretending is more authentic than prog authenticity. Which is rubbish.
• Ah, it’s really about The Market! Parker sniffs: “No more disappearing into the countryside for two years to make an album. Now you had to compete in the singles market.” First, it is still the case, as it has long been, that the best-selling artists often take many—many!—years to produce an album. As I have said so many times, if you are going to criticize prog for this or that, you need to apply the same standards to other forms of music. Besides, just to take a couple of examples, Yes released ten albums—some of them double albums (more horror!)—between 1969 and 1980. Genesis did the exact same thing. So…hmmm.
As for the singles market, there’s the already noted fact that many prog artists had tremendous success in the mainstream pop and rock world. But, more importantly, prog music was never about commercial success, even if certain musicians and producers (Phil Collins, John Wetton, Trevor Horn, etc.) pursued and achieved tremendous commercial heights. While the debates over what prog is and isn’t continue, it’s safe to say that a big part of prog’s appeal is pursuit of musical freedom, of experimenting, and of not being bound by the strictures of Top 40 this and Top 100 that.
Parker, of course, misses all of this. To him, the music of prog is like an annoying drop in the ocean. To me, he is just a drip in The Atlantic.