[29 May 2012]
In 1991, the now-classic “Radioactive Toy” was released to the public on Porcupine Tree’s psychedelic hodgepodge of a debut. In that Floydian, ten-minute epic, Steven Wilson sang, “Give me / The freedom to destroy / Give me / Radioactive toy”. Nine years later, on the tenth track of Stupid Dream, he got his wish. “A Smart Kid” is the depiction of that nuclear aftermath.
At first listen the narrative of “A Smart Kid” seems wildly removed from the broader issues dealt with on Stupid Dream. The album’s broad lyrical themes—rejection of the music industry and unrequited love, specifically—don’t have a place in this post-apocalyptic snapshot. Musically, the song isn’t out of place, though harkens back to the band’s output made around and during the time of The Sky Moves Sideways (1995). Some might cite this musical/lyrical imbalance as a reason to regard this track as a one-off, an interesting experiment amidst a larger narrative that’s more intriguing. However, despite being set in a world entirely removed from 1999, the ironically named “Smart Kid” bears a lot of similarities to the narrator of the Unrequited Love Trilogy and the disillusioned musician of “Piano Lessons”. He’s been burned by his dreams and deceived by the prospects of something powerful. His conceit is not new: having the ability to split an atom, for instance, once struck scientists as a pursuit worthwhile, one that could propel science into whole new realms. But upon seeing the unprecedented mass slaughter of innocent civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the power once seen as the pinnacle of human achievement then revealed human achievement’s dark side. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the principal scientists backing the Manhattan project, himself recognized this; after the bombings, he declared, “The physicists have known sin.” This is the precise situation that the Smart Kid finds himself in.
While this song isn’t explicitly labeled as a sequel to “Radioactive Toy”, the parallels are impossible to overlook. The landscape painted by “Radioactive Toy” was one where the Earth was already bleak; the song spoke of graveyards and “streams of running death”. The continuity between that song and “A Smart Kid” is thus quite clear, considering the lyric “It’s not much / But it could be worse”. This person has already experienced the pre-apocalyptic state that incited the radioactive destruction in the first place. Notice how the details attributed to the nuclear winter-ridden planet attempt to describe it in a positive light: “Everything’s free here / There’s no crowds”. Here is another place where “A Smart Kid” ties into the album’s consumerist critique: perhaps the song is a counterfactual, a hypothetical scenario in which our response to the increasingly commodified world is to destroy it entirely. The loneliness and yearning in Wilson’s vocal here provide a resounding answer to the question of destruction: the world may be a difficult place to live in, but if we seek the power to destroy we fare no better than the destructive forces that we live with now (namely hyper-capitalism and the money-greedy music industry, amongst others). The echoey quality of the piano and guitar riffs, as well as Wilson’s vocal, reveal the extent of how alone the world is.
This loneliness does not last the entirety of the song; a moment of hope arrives halfway through. In the third verse, a spaceship arrives on the desolate planet. Finally, this lone survivor has some interaction. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last long; “There was a war, but I must have won”, he sings, not even taking a modicum of pride in his position as the last-person-standing. His ambivalence is the similar one the piano instructor gave the pupil in “Piano Lessons” eight songs earlier: there’s no need to be optimistic or dream. The world is what it is, and because of that it is beyond our control. One must succumb to the forces or lose it all. This “Smart Kid” faces the same dilemma.
What is interesting about this song’s narrative, however, is that it does not attribute the bomb’s detonation to any specific person. It could be the singer; given the uncanny similarity to “Radioactive Toy”, this is a plausible explanation. But just because he claims he “won” the war doesn’t mean he was the one who flipped the killswitch. He could have just been an innocent bystander amongst a sea of people determined to exercise the ultimate power. This ambiguity is what makes the story so compelling. In a world of nothing, is there anything to think? Could this nuclear solipsism actually be an existence worth living?
Those questions don’t get answered in the five-and-a-half minutes of “A Smart Kid”. The track concludes with the survivor asking the occupants of the spaceship to take him with them, to which we also don’t hear an answer. For those reasons, “A Smart Kid” is the true isolation song of Stupid Dream. The narrator of the Unrequited Love Trilogy may not win over the woman he desires, but he at least gets to see her, and even interact with her on occasion. Because as much as love may sting, it’s hard to compare to the destruction of a nuclear holocaust. So despite “A Smart Kid’s” seeming irrelevance to the grander themes and narratives of Stupid Dream, in the end it’s actually a microcosm of all the record’s criticisms. The “freedom to destroy” that was asked for in “Radioactive Toy” is clearly no freedom at all. Like Porcupine Tree’s pervasive critiques of “big music”, the Smart Kid wants freedom from forces he sees as pervasive, which in his case is an overly consumerist society. Yet as tempting as freedom may be, not all freedoms are good, and not all freedoms make us free.