23 June 2001
“The boy bands have won.” –Chumbawamaba
The third annual North East Art Rock Festival was held at its usual location in the Zoellner Arts Center, on the campus of Lehigh University in Bethlehem. Nearfest was a progressive rock festival that ran from 1999 to 2012, mostly in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. Porcupine Tree performed on the first day. These are all mundane details, but together they make my head explode because I live pretty close to the Lehigh Valley, and was up there fairly often as a kid, so I’m retroactively wondering why Porcupine Tree did a show near where I live and no one thought to tell nine-year-old me, who was listening mostly to boy bands and 1970s classic rock, and wouldn’t have known what a Porcupine Tree was, and wouldn’t have appreciated anything they were playing anyway.
As for what it was they were playing, it is surprising to learn that Porcupine Tree occasionally made extremely boneheaded decisions about how to adapt some of their songs to a live setting. We’ve encountered this before; Up the Downstair’s bass, for instance, is done no favors when Edwin’s playing it. It’s not quite synthetic enough; it feels like it should be something Barbieri constructs and then throws on a loop so he can focus on more involved soundscapes. (Nice that it gives Edwin something to do, though.) At Nearfest, the main victim is Even Less, a song that Wilson has only ever barely managed to get a handle on playing live. Here, the song plunges into that weird uncanny valley that live performances can occasionally fall into where it’s tremendously faithful to the studio version but the differences are just prominent enough that the whole performance sounds off, somehow. In this case, it’s the guitar’s odd tuning and the way it doesn’t sound quite crisp enough, although that might be flaws in the recording itself. Combined with that weird warble thing Wilson’s voice occasionally did at the time where he sounded twice his age, the intervention is toxic.
(The one really good live version of Even Less was performed during soundcheck in Los Angeles during the Incident tour (and possibly elsewhere; but the LA performance is what we have video evidence of). There, we had Wilson on vox and acoustic backing guitar, with Jordan Rudess playing the main guitar part on the piano, in that full grand Steinway mode he’s really good at, with the pastoral, flowery flourishes and bone-shattering low end and everything. It sounds amazing. This was then butchered into what appears on Home Invasion, where Wilson essentially is trying to play an acoustic arrangement of the song on an electric guitar, and the result sounds like it should be a discarded demo more than anything else…doubly frustrating because Adam Holzman could have replicated Rudess’ piano without too much trouble.)
Most of the time, though, the Nearfest gig doesn’t do that. The performance is pretty decent, if you’re into generally note-perfect renditions souped up here and there by the slightly looser dynamics of the live setting, Barbieri’s correctly rated and Maitland’s criminally underrated ability to bring space and atmosphere to a song, Edwin’s unflappable island time energy, and Wilson’s prowess at busting out some killer solos when called upon to do so. It’s not their best, but at this stage in their career “their best” is something they’re still working toward.
That said, there are some interesting facets of the band dynamics at the time that the Nearfest performance brings out. Toward the end of Shesmovedon, for instance, the camera lingers on Maitland and Edwin for a bit, marveling at the contrast between the two musicians. Maitland is improvising a spectacular drum solo and is going at it like a maniac, while Edwin picks at his bass the same way a middle-class office worker picks at a cocktail while sprawled out on a lounge chair at a Bahamas all-inclusive resort, and just looks happy to be there. Wilson, meanwhile, is still trying to construct a stage presence, and 2001 finds him wearing crop tops, cargo pants, and little hippie sunglasses, looking for all the world like a teenager for whom this is an after-school side gig. He’s still not fully comfortable onstage; whenever he has to speak to the audience he sounds like he’s about to die of stage fright.
This leads us neatly into what everything up there was a preamble for: before the band dives into Hatesong, Wilson steps up to the microphone and says the following:
“I don’t know how closely you guys follow the news, what’s going on in the United Kingdom at the moment, or in fact recently. We’ve had a pretty terrible disease sweeping the country, sweeping the nation, you know about that?”
Muted “yeah!” response from an audience conditioned Pavlovly to respond that way to any question posed by a musician onstage.
“Yeah, I am of course talking about boy bands and girl bands.”
“It is a fucking disease. And showing no signs of slowing up, either. The infection keeps spreading. And I know you have a particular problem with this disease in the United States as well, and in fact, you’ve sent your disease over to us as well! Thanks!”
“So, what we’re gonna do for you now is a song which is kind of our antidote to the likes of Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, ‘N-Sync, Christine Agwilera [sic], &c. &c. &c. And the thing about all these…musicians…”
Wilson highlights the word “musicians” with giant air quotes.
“…about these ‘artists,’ is that they purport to perform ‘love’ ‘songs,’ and they don’t make me feel very romantic somehow. So this is Porcupine Tree’s antidote to all of those pointless love songs, and this is called HATEsong.”
So obviously there’s a lot going on here. On the kneejerk surface-text level, Wilson is grossly overgeneralizing. Boy bands like Backstreet Boys and “girl bands” (WTF?) like Britney Spears don’t make “love songs” (although they do make those) as much as they do “songs about love.” Something like Oops I Did It Again isn’t meant to make the listener feel romantic because it’s a much more cynical (yet simultaneously empowering!) approach to the whole business of romance, an approach that works entirely because it trades on the song’s (and genre’s) sense of artifice and Spears’ own image as a (not that–) innocent teenybopper pop princess.
(I would, of course, be remiss if I didn’t mention here that “songs about love” is a spectacularly broad label and includes not just what was on the pop charts in 2001 but over half of Lightbulb Sun–including, in its own sick, twisted way, Hatesong. Pot, kettle, &c.)
Speaking of artifice, we’ve gone briefly over the issue with authenticity in pop music w/r/t popularity and the ethics of “selling out” and participating in the exploitative meat grinder that is the recording industry back in the Stupid Dream post, but Wilson’s roast of boy bands here introduces a new wrinkle: the trouble with pop music is that it’s shallow and manufactured lovey-dovey fluff. This implies there’s a music that serves as a counterpoint in its depth and authenticity. Music like, say, Porcupine Tree, who proudly write not love songs but Hatesongs. Never mind that he’s currently wearing a crop top and touring his most obviously please-make-me-famous record to date and the fandom tore him a new asshole for apparently selling out with the last album two years ago, Steven Wilson is the real deal. Honest.
Here’s the issue, though: if we take it as a truth that any artist sells out the instant they’re able to have complete strangers listen to their music, then artists who claim to value authenticity don’t actually value authenticity but the appearance of authenticity. They’re saying “we’re not trying to sell you something, man” while shamelessly trying to sell us something, and the people who get huffy about authenticity in music (aka “suckers”) bought the lie look line and sinker. Any music that claims it’s “real” is lying to you. Pop music is fake, too, of course, but it doesn’t care, and so is more preoccupied with other things. The true value of pop music, and music in general, lies elsewhere, in the meaning it creates for the listener.
This is, in microcosm, the deeper engagement with the boy band rant, which hits one of the defining fault lines in music criticism: rockism versus poptimism. Kieron Gillen has an excellent (and charitable) definition of the former, stating that “Rockism is the belief that some forms of music are more authentic and real than other forms of music and authenticity and realness are virtues in and of themselves,” leaving pregnantly unspoken the implication that the more “authentic” and “real” forms of music happen to feature white men with electric guitars. Poptimism, meanwhile, is a celebration of music in all its forms, deemphasizing concerns about authenticity through recognizing that music is an expansive, multifaceted thing, containing within it all sorts of multitudes and innovations and dynamisms…even the stuff that appears on the pop charts. There are nuances, contradictions, and fuzzy borders, of course, but in broad strokes that’s where the lines are drawn.
It should be pretty obvious where I stand. Rockism is fundamentally a regressive, reactionary position because treating that old time rock ‘n roll as the pinnacle of what music can offer completely ignores the other musical currents that were brewing in the 60s, 70s, and 80s: stuff like synthpop and punk and funk and soul and hip hop. These genres all had just as much youthful energy and innovative spirit as anything that would become standards on classic rock radio in the following decades. In addition…let’s be honest. Rockism also ignores that most classic rock is unlistenable dreck. Rockist snobbery is the only possible explanation for why artists like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bad Company and Steve Miller and the Allman Brothers still have cachet in this year of our Lord 2020. It is a celebration of bland white mediocrity as the peak of the musical art form, and a disparagement of anything that fails to worship at its feet. It’s Morrissey saying reggae is vile. It’s Bohemian Rhapsody’s Best Picture nomination. It is a school of thought that has no business existing in contemporary music criticism.
Steven Wilson, meanwhile, isn’t quite either a rockist or a poptimist. He’s absolutely without question a rock musician, and those are the traditions he holds in highest esteem…but he also has an appreciation for pop music healthy enough that it resulted in Blackfield and To the Bone and Billie Eilish showing up on last year’s year-end recommendations list. His attitude toward music criticism could best be illustrated through his onstage banter during the To The Bone Tour, where on one hand we get the rant about how millennials don’t know what an electric guitar is, while on the other hand we get the rant about how people who turn their nose up at pop music should really get over themselves. We could probably describe Wilson’s attitudes toward music as a particular synthesis of rockism and poptimism, where the snobbery is largely displaced away from rock music (although not gone away entirely, see his withering comments about Greta Van Fleet, for instance) and toward pop music. When he’s criticising boy bands, he’s not using boy bands as a synecdoche for all pop music and saying pop music sucks, he’s saying boy bands make bad pop music.
Though I staunchly disagree, that’s at least a defensible position. Here, though, is where his approach runs into trouble: Steven Wilson may have grown up with both Pink Floyd and Donna Summer, and he may be musically omnivorous and take inspiration from all sorts of genres, but he is not a pop musician. He’s a rock musician. Therefore, any criticisms of pop music he makes will be perceived as coming from an outsider…and all the troubling dynamics that implies when Wilson is a white man, working in a genre dominated by white men, casting aspersions on a genre that’s considerably less dominated by white men and typically looked down upon by white men. It is perfectly reasonable to listen to Wilson ranting about boy bands and think he’s a rockist snob saying all pop music is terrible. This means that when Steven Wilson goes onstage and says Backstreet Boys suck, whatever nuances are lent to this argument from his particular relationship with pop music will sail right over the heads of everyone in the audience, generally rockist snobs themselves, and anything he says will register as “durr pop music bad.” Oopsie.
(This is a broader issue than one would think. When Todd Nathanson started reviewing pop songs we automatically assumed that, like most Internet Males of a Certain Age, he came out of the rockist tradition and bashed pop songs because he hated pop songs, even after we had annual best-of lists and his repeated protests, in detail, that he loved pop music. It was only after One-Hit Wonderland started and he got to regularly show off his knowledge of pop history that the idea of Todd Nathanson, Pop Music Lover finally landed.)
As an unfortunate consequence, every rockist snob at Nearfest now thinks of Wilson as one of their own, even when he isn’t. This wasn’t a perception Wilson would seriously push back on for over a decade and a half, instead choosing to yammer on about iPods and music streaming and other such things that record store owners in Rush t-shirts could nod dumbly along to. Thus does the Wilson-as-rockist-snob meme grow and metastasize until 2017, when Permanating is released and half his audience starts screaming betrayal at the top of their lungs. The backlash was a self-own, yes, but if they were to think a little bit about Wilson’s musical background, they would have at least seen it coming and recognized Wilson for who he is: a man with better and wider taste in music than they will ever have.