Prog Rock: In Touch with Some Reality Beyond the Gilded Cage

Foreigner, Boston, Rush! I began to binge on bands helmed by long-haired men with their shirts and their hearts ripped open. They were physically strong and emotionally irresponsible; their libidos could only be contained by gigantic stadiums. I was young, but I knew a “Hot Blooded” woman had been awoken inside of me. It was heady, empowering. It was my first close encounter with sexy.

It was progressive rock.

I’m turning into my father. I’m that point in life that all young women dread. Or is it all young men? Either way, it’s definitely happening. One day, you’re a sweet ‘n girly teenybopper, burrowing into your pink bed-nest with an Aaron Carter fan club magazine. Life is simple (if not psychologically, then musically): you light vanilla candles while enjoying the Love Actually soundtrack on Friday nights. Britney’s entire catalogue springs easily to your syncing lips. Your favorite Backstreet Boy is the wholesome ginger Brian, but you find yourself experiencing surprising fantasies about the “bad” one who raps. You know, kid stuff. Youth. Being a girl. Loving the pop treacle that will later become your generation’s collective shameful inside joke.

But something happened to me along the way, something simultaneously dreadful and wildly exciting. Up until New Year’s Eve 2000, I had been focusing most of my preadolescent energies on assuming a modicum of cool. Not a normal cool; I had long since given up on that pipe dream.  The day my schoolmates recognized me as an 11-year-old arbiter of taste, an impresario of the trendy, would never come. Instead, I consistently strove to be like my dad, whom I knew to be cool in the classic sense – a la Willie Nelson, or samurai movies, or smoking jackets. Timeless cool. On the fateful day of my transformation, I was trailing behind him as usual, asking endless inane questions about Mel Brooks movies (see? timeless cool) as he prepared our house for my parents’ annual New Year’s board game night. The fact that I was excitedly readying myself for a night of bothering bored, drunk adults grouped around a checkers table should have served as a warning sign. Dad should have sounded the alarm and immediately driven me to the nearest 7th-grade party so I could associate with normals.

Instead, I perched on the stair, avidly watching the action and training my ears on the radio in the kitchen. My dad, per tradition, was listening to local classic rock station Q104.3, which played the top 1,043 rock songs of all time until the stroke of midnight every December 31st. I was occupying myself with stirring my mocktail (apple juice, seltzer, and ice) when suddenly a strong, lilting guitar chord sliced through the calm. It was soon accompanied by a heavy drum and some kind of odd, synthesized sound, like the aural equivalent of sparkling city lights. My interest grew deeper with the entrance of the lead singer. His voice was manly and pure and entirely GOOD. “I guess it must be the woman in you that brings out the man in me,” the voice soared, squeezing me like giant callused hands. I felt stirrings, strange and wild, within my underdeveloped chest. It was a simple melody, but it expanded within me, filling the cracks and crevasses in a way that made me want to climb onto the roof and throw my head back like a wolf. I rushed downstairs and breathlessly inquired, “Who is this?”

“It’s Foreigner,” my dad replied nonchalantly. “Boy, this guy can really wail, huh?”

“Really WAIL?” I snapped. “God, Dad.” With that, I grabbed my mocktail and ensconced myself in my room, my ear pressed to my clock radio and my heart racing. Suddenly my father wasn’t cool – this was cool. This was a handsome, muscle-y  dream lover, embodied in sound. This was something my classmates could never dream of understanding. It felt like the 70s in its bossiness and rawness, but it glittered with 80s-style mechanical complexity. Foreigner, Boston, Rush! I began to binge on bands helmed by long-haired men with their shirts and their hearts ripped open. They were physically strong and emotionally irresponsible; their libidos could only be contained by gigantic stadiums. I was young, but I knew a “Hot Blooded” woman had been awoken inside of me. It was heady, empowering. It was my first close encounter with sexy.

It was progressive rock.

Writing these words makes me strangely bashful, because I now know how the rest of the world views prog rock. In fact, my Wikipedia investigations revealed an alternate name for the genre: “corporate rock.” Compared to what came before them (punk, garage bands, folk rock), proggers were peddlers of dumbed-down rebellion. They told huge stories of love, loss, and youth over endless layers of electric guitar, multiple drum kits, and electronic sound effects. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Yes, Electric Light Orchestra – they filled huge arenas but were derided by music scholars as loud and irrelevant. Time has not been kind to prog rock, and neither has the world of classic rock purism; in fact, the only people that have carried the proverbial torch are a small faction of middle-aged male suburbanites who smoke pot and practice air-guitar after their children fall asleep. Those guys, and me.

I thought this stuff was pure poetry. I also deeply resented the fact that while I could appreciate these songs, they were never about me. I thought of Rush’s hit “Limelight” as a treatise on masculinity: “One must put up barriers to keep oneself intact.” It was a rumination on the golden boy, the rock star. I understood it but could never aspire to it, like other girls aspired to be Britney Spears’ fictional pop star “Lucky”. This was the beginning of serious teenage self-reflection, though my brand was notably precocious and mis-gendered. All the music I truly loved was written by men, performed by men, only sounded right when men were involved. I wanted badly to sing to a beautiful, ratty-haired girl a la Boston’s “Amanda.” I didn’t want Amanda, per se – I just wanted to be that guy.

When I told my father I’d written about my prog rock years, he laughed wistfully. “I remember that phase,” he said. “Your mother took it as a warning sign that you’d become a lesbian.” While I appreciated my dad’s good-natured, non-judgmental attitude towards the issue (probably all the pot) , I must admit my mother was probably onto something. Loving prog rock didn’t have anything to do with liking girls, but it did suddenly explode my lens on the world of gender, identity, the pop culture I so eagerly lapped up. I felt my inner male wake up and start prowling my insides. I felt possibilities beyond the prepackaged archetypes of so many boy bands and pop princesses. I was liberated from the world’s expectations by a genre of music that so many others called derivative, basic, unoriginal. Prog rock might not have been the most complex of rock and roll movements, and it might not have broken new ground, but it functioned as the key to my self-actualization even before I got braces. Standing with my legs apart, tossing back my mane and noiselessly mouthing power ballads like prayers, I was set free.

4 thoughts on “Prog Rock: In Touch with Some Reality Beyond the Gilded Cage

  1. Jeje that was just amazing, you just explained the whole rise and fall of prog with your own personal experience, but I’m afraid Prog is not as dead as many people think 🙂 it has change but it’s pretty alive and I think is more diverse nowadays. Excellent post, is amazing what prog rock can do to you if you’re grasp the beauty of this genre.

    • Thank you so much for commenting, I really appreciate it! I’m actually not familiar with any artists nowadays who are working in the prog rock vein. Do you have any recs?

      • Yes of course, Prog artists are still around but have gone underground just as the genre used to be in it’s early stages. Nowadays prog is still presents and has melted into different genres especially Metal and Avant-Garde, prominent prog artist right now are: Porcupine Tree, Steve Wilson, Diablo Swing Orchestra, Anathema, Beardfish, Magma, Mew, Deluge Grander, The Mars Volta and my favorite Birds and Buildings, they have only released one album but I consider the greatest prog album of this last decade, I wrote a review of it if u wanna check it out I don’t know if you’re into metal or jazz if you do, I could even recommend you more bands 🙂

  2. Pingback: The Beatles, Breaking Bad, and How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pop | pop mitzvah!

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