Is There Any Worthwhile Progressive Thing? Yes

Since I spend no small amount of time beating down on Progressivism and all things Progressive here, more than a few folks have noted the irony that I’m currently having my house painted inside and out by . . . Progressive Painting!  (And for folks in Northern Virginia, write down the phone number in the photo; they’re really good.)  Not to worry; I’m not going to rush out to switch to Progressive Auto Insurance just to be counter-intuitive, or start holding progressive dinners, the first step on the culinary slippery slope to Pol Pot-luck dinners.

Is there any other “Progressive” domain that deserves some love?  How about Progressive rock—that highbrow alternative to punk and disco back in the 1970s?  I confess to having eschewed the Bee Gees for Yes, Genesis (the Peter Gabriel era only, however), and—if you’re really a hard core Prog Rocker—Gentle Giant.  (No one could change up time signatures like Gentle Giant.)  Nowadays I only dust off these old tunes when I want to torture my children, or my wife, or. . . well, anybody really.  Is there any better way to put down a youth rebellion on a car trip than by threatening to spin the entirety of “Tales from Topographic Oceans” if the kids don’t shut up?

But perhaps this is mistaken.  At least, that’s what I take from a fabulous lecture on the subject of “Themes of Dignity and Humanity in Progressive Rock” by Prof. Brad Birzer.  (You can also find the slides that went with the lecture at this Flickr site.  The venue was the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, where I visited last week.)  Who is Prof. Birzer?  He is the Russell Kirk Professor of History at Hillsdale College, so you know right off that he’s not some post-modernist poser.  In fact he’s written widely and well on aspects of the American Founding, and the Catholic thinker Christopher Dawson.

At 54 minutes his Prog Rock lecture is a bit long for a blog, but worth it if you have the time.  Prof. Birzer points out that the iconic Roger Dean album covers for the long series of Yes albums (see below) appear to have been the model for the planet Pandora in James Cameron’s supremely annoying film Avatar.  There’s some wonderful history of the evolution of Prog Rock out of the jazz stylings of Dave Brubeck and others, but the best parts of the lecture explain how much of Prog Rock departs significantly from the main line of rebellious rock and roll of the 1960s in being more cerebral.  Prog Rock often has intricate and obscure story lines, often with titles that come in several Roman-numeralled subparts.  He even draws a connection with the abstract poetic style of T.S. Eliot, with themes of time and eternity looming large.

It doesn’t appear from Birzer’s slides that he’s got Gentle Giant on his radar screen.  Too bad.  I recall that their most unusual album was “In A Glass House,” which was only available in the U.S. in the 1970s as an expensive import.  Apparently American record companies just found it too weird to release.  But even as an import, it sold something like 250,000 copies.  Of all the old Prog Rock albums still in my basement, these guys hold up the best.  In small doses.

JOE adds: Steve, how about the genre known as “progressive bluegrass”? That’s worthwhile progressiveness!