Friday, November 13, 2009

Essay: Let's get serious here for just a second...Prog Rock in the online age

In light of that Cracked article I posted here, I thought I would add a serious essay as contrast.

While there is no secret of how the over-the-top nature of bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer in the mid to late 70s has indeed cast the name of Progressive Rock in negative light over the last three decades, I do have reason to believe that the internet is starting to bring some perspective to the perception of the 'genre'. While all the negative aspects listed in the Cracked satire have some justification, the angle taken in judgment of music is altogether wrong-headed. The focus on style over substance in the music industry is a direct product of the need to increase profits in the era of the mass market. The dumbing down of all media (TV, Radio, Newspapers etc...) over the last 30 years reflects the need for the corporations selling content to reach as broad an audience as possible. Then the internet came along...

When dealing in the mass market, art is something that can't really be sold. The risk of signing a band that focuses on pushing boundaries and experimenting on form, structure and overall sound is a risk that a big corporation dealing with big bucks just simply couldn't take on. While they were slow to catch on to the Progressive revolution in the late 60s and early 70s, they jumped at the Punk and New Wave movement. The focus of those 'genres' was far more on appearance and basic aesthetics then the actual music. What a punk band wore on stage was usually far more important then what they played. The folks in charge of marketing music at big record labels were clearly thrilled by this prospect because it made their jobs much easier.

They used to play all kinds of stuff
And some of it was nice
Some of it was musical
But then they took some guy's advice
To get a record deal, he said
They would have to be more punk
Forget their chops and play real dumb
Or else they would be sunk
So off they go to S.I.R. to learn some stupid riffs
And practice all their poses
In between their powder sniffs
Chop up a line now, snort it up now
And when they think they've got it
They launch a new career
Who gives a fuck if what they play
Is somewhat insincere
Did you know that in Tinsel Town the people there
Think substance is a bore
And if your New Wave group looks good
They'll hurry on back for more
Of leather groups and plastic groups
And groups that look real queer
The Tinsel Town aficionados
Come to see and not to hear

-Frank Zappa
lyrics from the song Tinsel Town Rebellion

Zappa knew exactly what was happening. While Punk was being sold as a rebellion to the 'snobby' sounds of the Progressive bands, most people were completely ignorant to how conservative it was musically. The notion of rebellion may have existed in the fashion of Punk, but musically it was as far from pushing the boundaries as it could possibly be. It was, in fact, an undoing of progress. It was a rehashing of a form of rock that had already been done. It ignored all the giant leaps Rock had undergone and return to retread old ground. Conservative in every which way, it followed the notion that things were better in the 'good old days' while ignoring all the latest evidence and the need to move forward. Like an oppressive religion, all those who doubted that the punk way was the right way were ridiculed and dismissed.

The effects of the corporate need to sell a 'product' far out weighed the true notion that music is an art form that is made to be listened to and not to be looked at. In the years that followed Punk we saw the birth of MTV that further compromised and plasticized music. The work of the true rebellion that took place in the late 60s, the idea that musicians are artists and therefor should create art, was replaced with the notion that musicians as salesmen, pushing a product.

What you had in the 80s and 90s was a few generations deprived of any exposure to music that didn't fit the 'paint-by-numbers' formula created by the record labels as the only sounds that were sell-able. The radio dial was full of same-sounding derivative replications of the same song over and over again. It's a wonder that I was able to discover as much Progressive music as I did, mainly as a result of combing through used record stores and finding the gems of the 70s and ignoring the top 40. Most of my pears were not so wise and ate up the corporate spew as feverishly as they could. A generation whose exposure to sound was dictated by the profit-margins of men in suits sitting in a board room.

The internet has slowly diminished this stranglehold on what a young person was able to hear.  It was now possible to figure out that, wait a second, not all music has to sound exactly the same. The so called 'rules' were mere fabrications of an industry focused on making billions at any cost. You could actually listen to music because it could be interesting, entertaining, emotional and all other things that it never was. Lightbulbs started to appear over the heads of many a young person. Bands like Porcupine Tree, always pushing the boundaries, started to gain large audiences. Before you knew it an album with a 55 minute title track was appearing on the top 40 charts, something unheard of in over 30 years. All because the internet has opened doors long closed by the media empires of the world.

I don't think we can underestimate what the internet means to folks who enjoy listening to music. The long-gone act of spending an evening in front of your hi-fi system listening to an epic concept album is viable again. Artist can make music that is engaging without fear of record labels rejecting it. The platforms exist now for artists to return to making music once again. So laugh all you want at silly dress and style of the 70s Prog bands. Remember though, when it comes to Progressive the appearance doesn't matter, it's about the music. And thanks to the internet, the music is back.

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