Sunday, June 02, 2013


The New York Times Book Review this week has published a review of an anthology called Yes is the Answer: And Other Prog Rock Tales. Unfortunately for fans of prog rock, they gave the assignment to Rob Sheffield, a nearly 50-year-old man who chooses to maintain the print (and on-camera, when he serves as a VH1 talking head) persona of a sneering teenage boy. As a writer and editor for Spin, Blender, and now Rolling Stone, he's been one of the primary voices of "poptimism" in the US music press, forever championing the shiny, the ephemeral, the marketed-to-teenage-girls. When he decides to publish a book, on the other hand, he fixates on his own teenage years and youth—his first was Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time, the story of his courtship of and marriage to his first wife, who died. His second book was called Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man's Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut. According to the Times, his third book is called Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke. I suspect it's a third memoir. All of which is fine. But this career path, and set of fixations, makes him pretty much exactly the wrong person to review an anthology of essays devoted to 1970s prog. For while many critics can look dispassionately at work which doesn't dovetail 100% with their personal tastes and still find ways to intelligently critique its strengths and weaknesses, Rob Sheffield apparently cannot. If a book, a movie or a record's not custom-built to push his aesthetic buttons, it exists only to be ridiculed—and its supporters along with it.

Let's begin at the beginning:
Oscar Wilde once said, “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.” But for men born about a century after Wilde, mistakes tended to have more colorful names, like “Yes,” “Genesis” or “Emerson, Lake and Palmer.” These were the hairy dragon-kings of prog rock (short for “progressive”), the bands that ruled the FM airwaves of the 1970s, providing black-light initiations for their adolescent male devotees. Even after all these years, prog remains one of the most intrinsically silly of rock fads: concept albums, ornate time signatures, keyboard solos, lyrical ruminations on the tendency of mountains to fall out of the sky.
A man who's written three books filtering his favorite music through his personal life is calling fans of music he doesn't like "adolescent male devotees," as though they were part of some arcane cult. And we are told right off the bat that keyboard solos and "ornate" time signatures (read: anything that's not 4/4) are "intrinsically silly," and that prog was a "rock fad."
Lovingly packaged and designed, “Yes Is the Answer” is a paper treehouse for gentlemen of a certain age, a safe place to embrace a shared teenage fantasy of adult sagacity they can now re-access as an adult fantasy of innocent youth. And yes (so to speak), the writers are mostly men. Margaret Wappler and Beth Lisick contribute essays on female prog fandom, which for them means fond memories of boyfriends playing albums like King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King” as a makeout soundtrack. There’s also an essay titled “Do Gay Guys Listen to Yes?” (It’s summarized, tersely: “At least one does.”)
I haven't read the book, but reducing women's interest in music to "a makeout soundtrack" is pretty grotesque. Readers of Love is a Mixtape, fill me in: Is that how Sheffield describes his former wife's receipt of the tapes he makes for her?

Feminists need not worry about Sheffield, though; he's just as sneeringly dismissive of male writers' essays:
Rick Moody, in his highly entertaining and informative guide to E.L.P., credits the drummer Carl Palmer with dabbling in “funk,” a claim he is probably the first to make as well as the last.
Anyone who's heard E.L.P.'s proto-disco stomp through Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" would likely agree with this statement, actually.

Wesley Stace, the novelist who performs music under the name John Wesley Harding, offers a useful tour of the Canterbury art-rock scene. In his account, he got turned on to the music by a high school girlfriend. Not a typical prog story, to say the least.
Because prog is for nerds who can't get dates! Haw haw!
The contributors are not necessarily adept at music criticism, nor fluent in its arguments, so do not expect to come away from this volume with a shopping list of albums you need to investigate. On the contrary — the least convincing moments in “Yes Is the Answer” are the attempts to proselytize, since prog seems to induce some kind of oblivion with regard to other forms of pop. Nobody here seems aware of its influence on hip-hop or dance music.
Or maybe they felt like prog stands on its own, and doesn't require additional credibility conferred via sampling. This is maybe the most ironic paragraph in the entire essay—even as Sheffield smirks at the writers' lack of aptitude and fluency as music critics, he makes one of the most elementary logical errors a critic can make. The writers are at fault for not re-contextualizing prog in the light of, say, Kanye West sampling King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man" on his song "Power"...and yet I find it hard to imagine Sheffield ever demanding that hip-hop be contextualized via its sampled source material. Hip-hop critics are some of the most myopic, Year Zero-minded writers in all of music criticism, with virtually no interest in anything predating the summer's hot single or mixtape, and yet writers dealing with rock are required to demonstrate a keen and respectful awareness of how that music has led to hip-hop, or be dismissed as lacking in fluency.

The New York Times has plenty of access to writers who actually like prog—Steve Smith, a regular contributor to the paper's Arts section, is merely the first name that comes to mind (because he's a friend). Why they gave this assignment to Rob Sheffield is beyond me.


blisick said...

Hey Phil! Great to see your thoughtful post. Funny thing is, my piece in the book is actually about starting my own band because I was inspired by the prog-influenced bands in Oakland at the time. (Sure, one of those bands was my boyfriend's and I write about learning about music from him). Margaret's essay is an absolutely gorgeous piece of prose about love and loss and change, in addition to making out to King Crimson. My guess is Rob didn't actually read our essays or else decided to take an easy shortcut in summing us up. Thanks again for writing this!

Henry Holland said...

Nice piece, Sheffield's column is embarrassing.

One note, a better example of Carl Palmer "funk" would be When The Apple Blossom's Bloom..., recorded during the Brain Salad Surgery sessions.