Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Prog-Rock Theology

When I was a child, I had a much easier time relating to people of my parents' generation than my own. Other kids were cruel and demanding, and half the time I had no idea what they were talking about.

Did you ever read that book About A Boy? With the nerdy twelve-year-old who listened to his mother's records and was isolated from his peers and their pop culture? When I read that book, also at age twelve, I identified with the protagonist to a painful degree. This was a text that understood how important pop-culture touchstones are: how, if your touchstones are completely different from those of the people around you, you might have a very hard time making friends.

The book ends with the nerdy kid declaring his hatred for his erstwhile favorite musicians and going off with his friends to, like, listen to Nirvana or something (it was written in the mid-nineties). I myself have never reached the point of disavowing the dad rock I grew up on – I adore the Who and Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel and Rush, and I have no intention of ever apologizing for that ever – but I have discovered the value of generational touchstones.

I embarked on this process maybe seven or eight years ago, when I relinquished the shackles of parental indoctrination and started to take television seriously. Since then, I've been an unabashed pop-culture junkie, and (coincidentally or not) I've also found it a lot easier to make friends my own age.

Just because you're compensating for who you used to be, however, doesn't mean you lose continuity with that person; and sometimes you experience moments so thoroughly of your past that you have to pause and take stock of how you got from there to here.

I had one of those moments the other day, during a classmate's presentation on the religious element in Jethro Tull's Aqualung.

This classmate, being of my parents' age, spoke of the personal resonance of a record that came out at the very moment when she, as a young teenager, was beginning to seriously question the faith of her religious upbringing. At a time in her life when she was querying the assumptions she'd always taken for granted, and finding the institutional church frustrating and inadequate for her needs, Aqualung was a locus of meaning and a source of spiritual significance.

This makes perfect sense to me. I too began to question my religious upbringing at age eleven or twelve, and I too found enormous meaning, far beyond anything I could have hoped to articulate, in the music I loved at that age – specifically, in English prog-rock concept albums of the 60s and 70s:

I don't know if I consciously made the connection at the time, but all of these records tackle explicitly religious or existential themes. They're fundamentally about the Big Questions, and, for a young teenager obsessed with Big Questions of identity and purpose and the nature of life, they provided a site of engagement with these questions in a way that the formal religion in my life at the time did not.

After I had spoken up in class to this effect, three other people of my own generation spoke in turn, and they all said that their experience had been the exact opposite. Church had been, for them, a haven of meaning and spiritual nourishment in the face of the relentlessly superficial pop music of their childhoods.

I realize that this sample is skewed. I'm studying at a seminary, so naturally there will be a higher than average proliferation of people who do ultimately have use for the institutional church. But it's still interesting to me that the prog-rock concept albums of my dad's record collection could provide a space for doing theology in a way that the bubblegum radio pop of the nineties and early aughts apparently could not.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome article on prog music you have 5 out of 5 sir! congratulation!