Is Prog Becoming Popular? Is that Even Allowed?
To be honest, I was hoping to be writing a totally different article. Specifically, it was going to be a review of the Between the Buried and Me/Cynic/Devin Townsend/Scale the Summit show (billed as ‘The Great Misdirect Tour’ after BTBAM’s latest album) at Irving Plaza a few weekends ago. However a little over a month before the show something very peculiar happened that caused me to write this particular article instead.
The show sold out. Not only did it sell out, but it sold out ridiculously quick. Not the ‘oh crap I forgot Phish tickets were going on sale at noon today and now it’s 12:05pm and all three nights at Madison Square Garden are sold out’ level of bullshit I suffered through in December, but all things considered this might have been even more surprising. To have a show sell out over a month before the first band takes the stage is not something any progressive rock fan born after 1980 is used to. At first I blamed myself for waiting to buy tickets, but then I realized that I could surely pin this on someone or something else besides my own procrastination.
The first question that popped into my head was ‘Did they underestimate the size of the venue?’ Irving Plaza holds 1,200 people according to Wikipedia. That’s a pretty tiny venue to hold a show featuring four bands, even if none of them are even remotely famous. I think the bar downstairs in my building holds almost half that.
On the other hand, I can’t blame the organizers for booking such a small venue either. Until now the only way a progressive rock band could fill any venue was if said band was an established group made up of older British gentlemen in their 40s-60s, in which case an audience of 30-50 year old fans would drastically over-pay to see their idols musically masturbate on stage for a few hours and maybe play some of their hits (note: this trend is not exclusive to prog. I’m looking at you, Rolling Stones). So when the ‘Great Misdirect Tour’ was announced, it was safe to assume that there was no chance that any of the performances would be held in a major venue. New, young prog bands for the past 20 years have almost universally generated zero hype and zero money, and multiplying zero by four bands is still $0.00. I can count the number of fresh prog faces that have seen major success in the past 20 years on one hand, at least here in the US.
I spent the remaining weeks before the concert looking for tickets everywhere I could. Except for one string of extremely sketchy ticket broker websites that were charging hundreds of dollars for individual tickets that they probably didn’t actually have, no one had even a tiny glimmer of hope for me. Something I noticed as I made my search, however, was that NYC wasn’t the only city that had zero tickets available weeks before the tour’s stop there. In fact I could only find two cities on the tour that consistently had tickets available during my searches (note: The capital region of New York state and Charlotte, North Carolina are apparently prog-haters).
So my disappointment here in NYC appeared to be more than an isolated incident. While I’m sure the promoters were happy to be selling out the venues they booked, I have to hope that they also came to the same conclusion that I came to. At some point while no one was paying attention, progressive rock crossed some threshold and became somewhat popular with new fans.
Now hold on, I’m not saying that next year we’re going to see Emerson, Lake, and Palmer play the Super Bowl. But look around, and you’ll see more and more that prog has started to creep out of nerd’s basements and into the mainstream. Some examples for you to consider:
– Rush is rumored to have been scheduled to play the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Olympics, but their segment was scrapped as being too ‘up-beat’ following the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. Notice how the show was themed around the different provinces of Canada, moving from east to west? Also notice how Ontario and the Great Lakes region were skipped over? I’ll tell you who noticed, Rush fans. I don’t know why line-dancing-lumberjack fiddle battles were deemed to be more appropriate than the country’s chief musical export, but I guess it’s just another reason to hate Canada.
– Speaking of the Super Bowl, the Who worked TWO segments of their rock opera Tommy into their half time show, something I am declaring the ‘proggiest moment in Super Bowl history’. Ringo’s kid also did a pretty good job of pretending to play drums.
– Continuing with our current theme, prog has inched its way into sports via other avenues as well. NBC has used Dream Theater as background music for sports vignettes in the past, and the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs enter the court to Dream Theater every game. This puts Dream Theater in the same stratosphere as such illustrious artists as Baha Men, Sisqo, Rednex, and The Village People.
– Porcupine Tree, long lauded by the progressive rock community as ‘the band we love that eventually the mainstream is going to listen to and steal from us’ is finally starting to slide down that slippery slope into popularity. First in April they’ll be performing at Coachella, one of the biggest music festivals in the US, along with other prog-curious artists Les Claypool, Coheed and Cambria, and headliner Muse. Then in September they will be playing at Radio City Music Hall here in NYC, which is especially impressive considering that they were playing tiny bars here in the states five years ago. The ascension of Porcupine Tree into the mainstream is something progressive rock fans have been both dreading and praying for, as this may be a major sign of the pending prog-pocalypse, where the prog-faithful will be raptured to prog-heaven. It’s in the prog-Bible, you should read it some time.
– As of this writing, the game Rock Band has 24 songs available specifically labeled as ‘Progressive’ or ‘Prog’. The fact that this surpasses the number of songs they have available labeled as ‘Emo’, ‘New Wave’, or ‘Glam’ is extremely satisfying.
– Classic Rock Magazine has begun issuing a quarterly piece they’ve titled Prog! dedicated to the genre. It’s an English publication so I haven’t gotten my hands on it, but hopefully they’ve put more effort into writing articles for Prog! than they did coming up with the amazing title. (note: I realize I’m criticizing someone for title originality on my progressive rock blog titled ‘A Progressive Rock Blog’. Shut up.)
So there are just some examples of progressive rock’s progression (ha!) into main stream society. I’ll be the first to admit that prog hasn’t exactly climbed to the top of the pop culture mountain, but it’s certainly in a more prominent position than the one the genre was occupying for the past two decades.
What does this mean for progressive rock? I know a lot of music listeners who for the most part stick to genres that they feel are ‘underground’, and who extract some amount of joy from the idea that their music is ‘pure’, as it hasn’t been touched and corrupted by the masses. Prog has plenty of fans like this as well, and they readily admit that they don’t want their favorite bands to become popular. I understand this motivation, but personally I feel the exact opposite way. All I’ve ever wanted is for other people to listen to the same music I enjoy and find their own level of pleasure in it, instead of instantly dismissing it as comical or foolish (note: To be fair, this is exactly what I do to country/emo/nu metal/any kind of music with the word ‘Jesus’ in it. I’m not trying to be musical Gandhi here and treat everyone as equals). If all of this is stupid speculation based on the fact that I couldn’t get tickets to a show I wanted to go see, and chances are that it is, then shame on me for creating hype where there is none. But if on New Year’s Eve I look up at a TV at whatever party I’m at, and Beardfish is playing as the clock hits midnight, and I’m not in Sweden, then I’m going to be shouting ‘I told you so’ as loudly and joyfully as a drunken prog fan can.