There are a lot of ways you can critique someone. You can come right out and say it. You can gently question the person until he realizes the wrongness of his ways. Or, in the case of “Piano Lessons”, the closest Porcupine Tree has come to writing a pop single, you can satirize them through clever mimicry, pointing out their absurdity. The lighter side of the coin whose opposite is the melancholy “Dark Matter” (from Signify), “Piano Lessons” is the purest example of Porcupine Tree’s criticism of the music industry. Given Stupid Dream’s release during the time of boy-band pop, the argument was and is especially relevant. The genius of “Piano Lessons”, however, is that it’s not just a particularly great critique. It’s also a particularly great song.
The premise is simple enough: satirically critique pop music within the structure of a pop song. Though the most psychedelic of all of the album’s tracks, “Piano Lessons” is primarily driven by an absolutely infectious chord pattern, as well as a gorgeous vocal harmony in the chorus, something that lead vocalist/guitarist Steven Wilson has become well known for. (He cites the Beach Boys’ use of harmony as a formative influence on Porcupine Tree’s “poppier” music, especially on this record and the one after it, 2000’s Lightbulb Sun.) The song’s hook might be the best one the group has conceived, despite its more popular releases being heavier offerings such as Deadwing (2005) and Fear of a Blank Planet (2007). Many might miss the song’s pointed criticism given how catchy it is, which only adds to the tongue-in-cheek irony of it.
Wilson here uses the example of childhood piano lessons to demonstrate how over time music, as practiced by contemporary culture, strips artists of their creativity. He recalls those early years as involving “Cold ears and tiny hands / Destroying timeless tunes”, highlighting the theme of musical recycling depicted in the album’s sleeve art. This child is also presented with an ultimate catch-22: he’s told first “There’s too much out there / Too much already said / You better give up hoping / You’re better off in bed”, but then that “You don’t need much to speak of / no class, no wit, no soul / Forget your own agenda / get ready to be sold”. Whether the child chooses to join the music business or not, he won’t actually be doing anything. If he stays at home in his bed, he’s not making music. But if he does decide to succumb to the temptation of a lucrative record deal with a label, the music won’t be his own. He might as well not play at all.
The song’s psychedelic and hilarious music video adds to the already rich argument in the lyrical matter. The video depicts all four band members holding up obviously-labeled title cards for each part of the song (“Title”, “Chorus”, and “Verse”—the video itself even opens with “A Promotional Video”), while also containing several “subliminal” messages telling the viewer to purchase the album. “Credit me with some intelligence”, they sing in the chorus, “If not, just credit me”. Here Wilson’s lyrics co-opt the language of finance, highlighting how fame itself has become a commodity that pop outfits strive to earn just as much as money. The last verse lyric of the song (“I remember piano lessons / Now everything seems clear / You waiting under streetlights / For dreams to disappear”) paints a dark picture of life in the music business, where music itself has become reduced to labor for corporate labels: no longer does the “class, wit, or soul” of music matter. When Wilson sings, “Even though I got it all now / My only stupid dream / Is you and me together / And how it should have been”, the album’s title takes on a resounding message. The reality of financial success for any artist(s) who wish to perform music on their own terms is a stupid dream. Fortunately, with the increasing popularity of independent music and the proliferation of cheap technology, musicians in the second millennium have been able to subvert the major labels. In 1999, however, the picture was substantially bleaker.
Yet as disheartening as the lyrics of “Piano Lessons” are, it’s easy to not take in the message the first few listens because of how addictive it is. While this does make the track’s message a bit of brilliant irony, something of a paradox arises. If this song is a memorable one, does that mean pop music can be saved at all? If the track’s criticism of pop music at the end of the nineties is correct, then doesn’t its own structure undermine its criticism? Some may find the band’s satire here to be effective, but others might believe it undercuts what meaning it has because of how good of a pop song it is. After all, if the hoi polloi are so receptive to banal pop music, won’t the criticism be missed by most who hear it?
It’s in this exact tension that Porcupine Tree’s brilliance shines. Often, groups under the progressive rock umbrella stick to the long, complicated song structures to the point that when they do write a short song, it sounds unusual or in many cases awful. A good example of this would be much of Dream Theater’s recent work: on albums like Black Clouds and Silver Linings, people were more drawn to the album’s ten-plus minute epics rather than the airy, radio-ready ballad “Wither”. In contrast, throughout its existence Porcupine Tree has deftly balanced the accessible with the ambitious. Stupid Dream has plenty of challenging, progressive material, but those songs need not come at the expense of friendlier fare. Wilson himself has spoken highly of quality pop music, noting that “extraordinary pieces of pop music still are things like ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ on [the Beatles’] Revolver which is two and a half minutes long, “God Only Knows” on [the Beach Boys’] Pet Sounds which is two and a half minutes long . . . they . . . represent the pinnacle of popular music”. As such, “Piano Lessons” isn’t critiquing pop music as a universal idea; it’s critiquing how the increasingly money-obsessed record industry has come to craft pop music. Even prog fans have to have a catchy song to listen to amidst the polyrhythmic, tempo-bending tracks they so love.
For all of these reasons, “Piano Lessons” stands as not only one of this album’s highlights, but also one of Porcupine Tree’s finest compositions. Anyone looking for an introduction into the band ought to give this cut a spin; it’s a brilliant demonstration of the band’s ability to craft a good hook while also maintaining its unique take on progressive rock. Five studio releases later, Porcupine Tree has awoken from its “stupid dream” to a reality much more promising than 1999 would have led it to believe. It’s just a shame that this type of witty pop didn’t top the charts.