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Progressing Toward the Avant-Garde: A Definition of Progressive Rock

Fifteen years ago (May 1999) I graduated from Penn State University as a member of the Honors Program.  In order to graduate from the Honors Program I had to write a thesis that was out of my discipline.  My discipline, and what I eventually secured a bachelors of science degree in, was Public Policy.

Prior to my senior year in college, when I wrote my Honors Program thesis, I spent the better part of a year wracking my brain as to what I could possibly research and write about that was out of my discipline and remotely feasible for me to do.  What other discipline could I possibly write about in a credible fashion without having to, more or less, go to college for it?

Ironically, what I did not realize until the summer between my junior and senior years, was that the sounds flowing into my ears nearly twenty-four hours a day since 1991, which also occupied many hours of life in books and in person, would become the subject for my thesis.  As I sat in my bedroom, with my stereo near constantly blaring music from the band Yes, or other progressive rock bands, it suddenly hit me that my thesis subject was there the whole time: I would write about the band Yes (for those who do not know, I am an enormous Yes fanatic).  After spending some time researching and developing ideas, I expanded from writing about Yes to writing about the genre of music Yes plays, which is progressive rock.

I was lucky to have written this thesis when I did.  Progressive rock, which got its start around 1967, saw its heyday around 1971 – 1977 (peaking around 1974) when it was a huge concert draw and selling millions of records. The late seventies saw punk knock progressive rock down a peg and the eighties pop revolution (thanks, in part, to Michael Jackson) saw progressive rock nearly disappear (most bands folded) or change form to what we now call “arena” rock (or “AOR”) which includes bands like Styx and Journey and such.  As a result, the 1980s and at least the first half of the 1990s reduced progressive rock bands to either extinction, change in form (e.g.: Yes and Genesis became pop bands), and/or nostalgia acts.  Yet, strangely enough, perhaps because enough time had passed, the late 1990s saw a renewed interest in progressive rock that lasted over a decade thereafter, which, as a result, saw the come back of many progressive rock bands, the formation of new progressive rock bands, the popping up of progressive rock festivals up across the US, and the production of many books, articles, and interviews about/with progressive rock and its history, music, bands, and musicians.  So, needless to say, in 1999 I unexpectedly had access to this resurgence and the new wealth of material produced therefrom in order to flesh out my thesis.

Unfortunately, while progressive rock did make a come back, it was not the comeback that was hoped for that would raise the genre back into the top of the charts and cultural influence and relevance.  In saying that, from a personal point of view, I relished the resurgence regardless of its modesty as it has allowed me, as a fan, to do what I never thought would happen: see in concert many bands long broken up and have access to new music produced by old and new bands alike.

Progressive rock, as one may gather from clicking the link above, is not an easy category of music to describe by any means.  As progressive rock fans all tend to have their own spin on what the genre is and what is consists of, I thought I would take a stab at it myself.  So, I went ahead and listened to my entire music collection (which is included in the discography appended to my thesis) and did fairly deep research into music, music theory, music history, and music influences, and developed, I think, a fairly credible thesis.  As the Honors Program at Penn State included some additional funding to students to help advance the writing of the thesis, I was also able to enhance my music collection with a wide variety of CDs from a lot of diverse and obscure artists.

Looking back at my thesis, fifteen years hence, I realize that my writing is not as sophisticated, mature, and/or polished as it may be now; and, I am sure fifteen years from now I will look back at my writing today and think the same thing.  So, if you decide to read my thesis, please offer a little grace to my twenty-two year old self who wrote it.  This thesis was my first foray into extensive research and very long form writing, so I am sure it could be vastly improved upon today.

So, if you are interested and/or are a progressive rock fan of some sort, I have taken the time to scan and post my thesis below in six parts (it is quite long with a fair amount of photographs, references, and discography) to read.  I am glad to have this blog in which to post my thesis as, before today, it existed exclusively as my own hardcopy at home.  I am glad I am able to convert it to a digital form in order to preserve it longer than my hardcopy may survive.

Thanks and happy reading; here is my Penn State Honors Program senior Thesis: Progressing Toward the Avant-Garde: A Definition of Progressive Rock

progressing toward the avant garde – part 1

progressing toward the avant garde – part 2

progressing toward the avant garde – part 3

progressing toward the avant garde – part 4

progressing toward the avant garde – part 5

progressing toward the avant garde – part 6

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