Hearing Emerson, Lake, and Palmer Anew: Progressive Rock as "Music of Attractions"

Hung, Eric

Progressive rock is a loose label for music that combines some of the basic
ingredients of early rock 'n' roll and elements of genres that are generally
considered more prestigious, such as Western art music, jazz, and Indian
classical music. After emerging in the late 1960s, progressive rock reached
its peak in popularity in the early 1970s. Since the rise of punk in the mid
1970s, the genre has retreated to the college circuit, select clubs, and fringe
Over the past quarter century, there have been two common stances on
progressive rock. One builds upon rock critics' longstanding and overwhelmingly
negative view of the genre. For most critics, such as Dave Marsh and
Lester Bangs, the most important element of rock is the rather ambiguous
concept of "authenticity." Theoretically, "authenticity" is connected with
genuineness. A song is "authentic" when it is written (or at least arranged) by
the performing musicians, and is about their lives and emotions. Although songwriting credits are easily conveyed, this notion of authenticity is not
particularly useful in criticism. After all, how would a critic know whether
or not the feelings expressed in a song are genuine? In practice, many critics
track authenticity with more obvious qualities: a sense of rebelliousness,
the inclusion of blues elements such as blues progressions and extended
vocal melismas, and subtle inflections of the beat. Given these criteria, the
negative critical reception of progressive rock-exemplified by the strongly
worded Lester Bangs quote above-is hardly surprising. After all, progressive
rock musicians diluted the influence of blues in rock music by incorporating
elements of many other genres. They also took away the sexuality and
rebelliousness often heard in rock's hard-driving beat, replacing it with
complex meters that are not suited to dancing.



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Columbia University
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October 29, 2014