Sunday, August 19, 2012

Shadows and Prog

If you haven't already, you really ought to read Dave Weigel's 5 part rumination on the movement that was progressive rock in Slate. Besides many fun anecdotes about the genre's crimes of absurdity, the story Weigel tells about prog's ultimate rejection and marginalization seems useful for our purposes here. Prog was, after all, the great attempt to use the materials of rock in the service of music with "classical" ambitions--a rejection of the 3 minute pop song in favor of composed, large-scale formats, greater rhythmic and melodic complexity, and subject matter that delved into abstract and spiritual concerns. Moreover, prog often explicitly aligned itself with the classical tradition--Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's debut LP includes substantial material from Bartok, Janacek, and Bach. In the 1970s, these references weren't so foreign to British (and American?) teenagers and 20-somethings.

Weigel lays some blame for prog's mainstream demise at the feet of prog itself, for tempting self-satire as bands sought to outdo themselves in weirdness and inaccessibility, and some more at the homogenizing tendencies of the music business, which eventually realized it didn't want to be in the business of providing FM real estate to the occasional half hour transcendental opus. But he also points to the viciousness with which rock tastemakers turned on the genre in favor of the primitive sounds of punk. Punk's own merits aside, prog seems like a clear victim of a pop chauvinism which classical enthusiasts are sure to recognize.

Now before anyone gets upset, let me emphasize that I'm not trying to get into some old pop vs. classical nonsense, and anyhow, no one beats the last several hundred years of the Western classical music establishment in the chauvinism department. But rock music does have a peculiar self-limiting hangup here, and one that seems cruelly at odds with both the natural maturation of artists' ambitions to try bigger, more challenging things, and audiences' interests in being challenged themselves. Let's just say there's a reason the "rock opera" stubbornly abides as an aspiration, no matter how the forces of cynicism and coolness may disparage it...