Progressive Rock Stereotypes Part 1: If you don’t learn anything about prog from this blog, and least you can learn what to hate
I was a psychology major in college, something that gets me laughed at by my friends almost as much as my musical tastes. While they were all off learning about thermodynamics or the economic principles behind the stock market or something else that would get them a salary twice as large as mine directly out of college, I was learning how to trick a monkey into thinking its mother was a robot.
Amid all of the bullshit topics psychology includes, one of the ones that actually made sense was that of stereotyping. Of course today society tells us that stereotypes are inherently evil/tools of racists/the oppressor of the homosexuals/deadly carcinogens/etc. However, if you aren’t a stuck up and sensitive douche bag with skin the thickness of newspaper then you also realize that stereotypes can be 1) useful and 2) hilarious. Today I’d like to explore some progressive rock stereotypes, some of which are blatantly false, some of which are mostly true, and all of which are perfectly legit reasons to love or hate the genre.
Stereotype 1: Progressive rock is pretentious
Most musicians like to think, at least to themselves, that their music really means something. On the other hand, progressive rock musicians know that their music has some kind of deeper meaning, and by god if the rest of the world doesn’t understand what they mean by ‘Goodies for the table with a fable on the label/ Drowning in miracle sauce’ then that’s because they are lower life forms not deserving to witness the artist’s genius.
In response, progressive rock fans themselves have become even MORE pretentious than the artists. Reflexively they look down on every other band or genre that doesn’t fit prog stereotypes (see: the rest of this article) as well as anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that progressive rock is the greatest music made by the greatest musicians in the history of the universe, or any parallel universe. Speaking of parallel universes…
Stereotype 2: Progressive rock songs are about topics only nerds in their mother’s basement can relate to
One of the things that has kept prog from really ever gaining mainstream popularity is that it doesn’t appeal to the issues most people are dealing with in their lives. Teenagers don’t enjoy it because there’s never been a prog song about how the popular kids stole their girlfriend and how sad life is living in a rich suburb. College kids don’t like prog because you can’t dance to it (discussed later on in party II of this entry) and because no prog musician has ever written a song about dancing the night away in a small town bar, or how awesome it is to be seen at a club. No, the works of progressive rock lyricists instead tends to fall into one of three sub-categories:
-Things you need a 20-sided die to resolve: If it involves elves, dragons, outer space, orcs, goblins, vampires (but not this), whatever, it’s prog. Led Zeppelin started this trend, and once nerds realized they could get away with it, they too started writing stuff blatantly ripped off from Lord of The Rings.
-Great philosophical questions/debates about the nature of existence: Is man inherently evil? Are we alone in the universe? Will string theory unite all other theories of physics and take us into a golden era of science? Lets write a song about it, I bet we can figure out the answer if we put some formulas over these arpeggiated chords.
-Epic rock operas: If a prog lyricist’s genius can’t be contained in the brief 10 minutes that usually make up a single prog track, an epic rock opera is required. There’s usually something mystical or distopian or both about the setting and story of a rock opera, like you’re an assassin for the government, or computer-worshiping priests have taken over society, or the murdered spirit of one of your past lives has come back to haunt you, or whatever. What’s consistent is that every prog rock opera would make a horrible mini-series on USA Network.
I would be lying if I said that every prog song fit into one of these concepts. A lot of songs have no lyrics at all.
Stereotype 3: Prog is needlessly complicated for the sake of being complicated
A lot of prog bands are totally ok with admitting to this one, and some even treat it like a contest. In a number of their songs Dream Theater does something they call ‘shrink and grow‘ phrasing, where they will repeat a phrase multiple times, subtracting a repetition every time until they get down to nothing, at which point they’ll start adding repetitions back until the whole group of phrases is ten years long again. Does this add musical value? No, it’s more of a subtle wink at the fans who actually care about this stuff. These are the kinds of fans who are impressed when an artist tells them a song is in 13/16, or that there’s a key change every measure. Deep down I’m probably one of these types of fans, but that’s because my internal clock has always been screwed up. Songs in 4/4 bore me, and I even find myself getting too comfortable with 5/4 and 7/4 at times. Yes, I realize this is pretentious of me. I don’t care. If I know where the next downbeat is going to be I get bored.
Stereotype 4: For prog musicians, gear=skill
Sometimes a prog artist can express his or herself using conventional instruments. Most of the time however the raw prog power that courses through their souls needs a more powerful conduit than the usual fodder one would find in Sam Ash. Luckily for prog musicians, being nerds they have easy access to engineers who can help them make their prog-tacular visions reality. Here are some totally typical, in no way hyperbolic examples of your average prog musician’s set up:
How do all of these totally awesome instruments actually sound? Who the hell cares! They’re totally awesome looking! Think of it this way: Britney Spears knows that no one is going to her shows because they want to hear her songs. They want to see the elaborate stage show, the dancing, and her god given talents (NSFW-ish, if you had any doubt). Instruments like the ones above are the prog equivalent of this concept. Except the drum set, which is totally valid and necessary.
Prog Stereotype 4: Prog songs are all 10 years long
I think the longest prog song I’ve ever heard, legitimately one track on an album, was 54 minutes. However, most prog artists aren’t this naive. They realize that unless their fans are either stoned or European, they won’t listen to any track longer than 30 minutes. One trick artists will use is that they’ll write something longer than War and Peace, and then split it up over various tracks/albums/decades. Suddenly a 2 hour masterpiece, once insurmountable for a listener, is now available in easily digested 10 minute chunks. The result of this practice is that some songs have comical titles like “Metropolis Part II: Scenes from a Memory: Act IX: The Dance of Eternity”.
Prog fans do need to shoulder some of the blame for this stereotype. If a song is less than 3 minutes long, we require an explanation, and if none is provided we come up with our own: The song blows. I’ve actually heard people say that they weren’t going to buy an album because there was no song on it longer than 4 minutes, making it thoroughly un-prog.
Keeping with this stereotype, part I of this entry ends here. Keep checking every few hours for part II, preferably using different IP addresses to boost my hit count.
Note: If you’re a prog fan, you might notice that I rip a lot on things Dream Theater has done in this entry. Since they do actually fit 75% of these stereotypes, and they’re the reason for the other 25%, I’m ok with this trend, so deal with it.