Steven Wilson: The Gentleman Doth Protest Too Much (Part Two–The Fury)

Many of porcupine Tree member Steven Wilson’s mostly accurate, but increasingly tedious denunciations of inferior audio can be attributed to genuine motivations. He really does despise digital downloads and looks askance at those who would abuse their ears (and his art) by listening to them. You can usually ascertain if someone’s agenda is disingenuous by the amount of money they stand to make; in Wilson’s case, sniffily censuring consumers for their philistine proclivities is certainly not going to line his pockets. Bully for him — his browbeating-bordering-on-bullishness comes from an uncorrupted heart. Still, fans that are sufficiently removed from the sullied means of production and procurement Wilson whines about might hope he can avoid becoming known more for his crankiness than his musical proficiency.

It’s not that he’s a snob, these fans could claim; it’s that he really cares about music (his already notable street cred as a proponent of progressive rock was augmented by his recent undertaking to remaster — for the umpteenth time, it might be noted — the (brilliant) back catalog of King Crimson; suffice it to say, this is not a task the merely passionate producer assumes, this is an obsessive labor of love).

So what are we to make of Wilson’s latest jeremiad in Electronic Musician, “In The Mix: Everyone’s A Critic”? A knee-jerk analysis might be that the self-appointed physician who would ameliorate all that ails us might want to turn some of that attention inward. It is by now abundantly clear that Wilson would prefer that more people shared his opinion on how music is made, received, and enjoyed (an exalted regard of his own judgment includes Wilson in an artistic community that is neither exclusive nor in danger of diminishing its numbers). What is striking–and slightly unsettling–about his new piece is the implication that Wilson might prefer that a great many people have no opinions at all.

Check it out: in an observation only slight more earth-shattering than the proposition that digital files suck, Wilson rues the reality of our Internets allowing every yahoo to have a voice. Once again, Wilson’s essential position is incontrovertible: there are a disconcerting number of uninformed, semi-literate, sensationalistic folks out there blogging, tweeting, and e-scribbling their two cents. It long ago ceased being news (if indeed it ever was) that anyone with web access can become a critic, and anyone who happens on their site — however unintentionally — might become, however briefly, an audience. It’s not unlike the blowhard at every dinner party over the course of several centuries, multiplied by the speed of Google.

So… what is Wilson actually saying? Well, he spins himself back down the years to the (good old) days of our youth and name-checks the estimable Lester Bangs. One wonders aloud what Bangs would have made of Porcupine Tree, and if perchance an unkind appraisal from Mr. Carburetor Dung might complicate Wilson’s nostalgic approbation. Great music journalism, Wilson asserts, “reaches out beyond the music to the core of the human condition, just like the music it is about” (one also wonders what Bangs would make of that sentence, and that sentiment).

As is the case with honest music reproduced on machines designed to authentically transmit it, there is little to quibble with here. An LP (or CD) played on a receiver through decent speakers is the real deal, and even the most recalcitrant hipster would likely hold his Pabst Blue Ribbon aloft in solidarity to this sentiment. Quality music journalism, like quality literature (or quality music for that matter) is always something to savor, and there is seldom an overabundance of it. The only thing worth noting is that this has always been the case (indeed, one could easily make a compelling case that the sheer volume of words being written in 2010 means that there is, pound for pound, better music journalism than at any other time in our history; of course there is many times more crapola); hence the proposition that opinions are like arseholes: everybody’s got one. The Internet, naturally (or, perhaps more to Wilson’s putative point, unnaturally) has enabled every a-hole with web access to let those opinions pollute the public spaces. So what?

Paraphrasing won’t do it justice, so let’s smell what Wilson’s stepping in:

Albums are praised one minute as an artist’s best, then trashed a minute later by someone else as the worst — both opinions expressed as irrefutable truth. The quality of writing rarely rises above comparisons to other bands and liberally applied superlatives. Only now, these so-called reviews are broadcast the world over, giving influence to their authors no matter how narrow their frame of reference or biased their agenda.

Really? You mean unlike the halcyon days when artistic assessments were reached by consensus? Or do we even want to fantasize about a fascistic purgatory where only the anointed Wise Ones determined what made the cut? We’ve read thatbook before, and it had something to do about Atlas Shrugging while Orwell imagined a dystopia that Ayn Rand appropriated and Neil Peart wrote a concept album about. Or something.

Wilson’s (somewhat surprising, considering his band’s underground origins and the semi-cult status it still retains) despair at the millions of uncultivated impressions exposes an aloofness he is perfectly entitled to possess. Unfortunately, it discounts a rather serious underlying issue: until fairly recently, the same hegemony that governed the music industry also controlled the publishing world — including, and especially, magazines. As such, there were only a relative handful of “legit” voices allowed (e.g., able) to opine, and set the agenda. If history is written by the victors, the present is written by those with entree. Often, too often, these insider types were influenced by personal relationships with bands, and integrity was just as often tossed into the paper bag with the vials and the Quaaludes.

Does Wilson fail to see even a little bit of irony in the fact that Led Zeppelin, a band now generally regarded as golden gods, was largely reviled by the rock establishment throughout the ’70s? Ditto Black Sabbath and Rush. How many times, for that matter, was King Crimson on the cover of Rolling Stone? A conservative estimate: about 7,000 times less than U2 has been. If you think the reason U2 has graced that exalted space so often is because the editors genuinely believe they are the best band around, and not because Jann Wenner gets wood every time he can converse with St. Bono, I’ve got booth space at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame I’d like to sell you (check that: the editors at Rolling Stone probably do think U2 is the best band around).

Obviously, our Internets have allowed every self-proclaimed prophet to shout from the highest rooftop, even if that rooftop is in their mother’s basement. But the cream generally rises, as it did even in the days when Cream made music and Creem wrote about it. What Wilson, bizarrely, seems to overlook (and this complements his intransigence on the many positive aspects of digital technology) is that what is going on in the publishing world right now is very similar to what went down, a little over a decade ago (and is, of course, still unfolding) in the music industry. For all the shoddily crafted or hysterical hyping (and/or bashing) blogging empowers, the web is also a vehicle for dedicated, deadly serious endeavors that would have been all but inconceivable a generation ago. And for every imbecile who doesn’t think twice about submitting one-star reviews at Amazon or dismisses a particular album with unoriginal and spell check-free snark, there are music aficionados who are taking the time (and making no money) to promote the discovery of unheralded acts.

Speaking of blogs, it would seem remiss to not make brief mention of the fact that the haughty dismissal of these independent and/or underground ventures — however forgettable many of them may well be — calls to mind a similar, much more grave phenomenon. It’s hard to not think about the ongoing, albeit increasingly less credible grousing from the mainstream media regarding blogs and various other unsanctioned sources of news and opinion, particularly as it relates to international and political affairs. Reading Wilson’s piece, his superciliousness sounds distressingly congruent with the Bad Old Boys club of inside-the-Beltway elitism that has sought to marginalize the voices that dare dissent from the already-established narrative. These interloping hordes of “non-traditional” media types have only augmented their collective credibility as we see how supine and/or asleep our ostensible watchdogs have been for far too long.

These recalcitrant — and often unpaid — reporters and bloggers were roundly dismissed and ridiculed as shrill Chicken Littles by those same sober and serious denizens of the D.C. dinner party circuit. Those same well-placed (and remunerated) stenographers who breathlessly informed us of the WMDs, the trivial costs — in financial and human terms — of our imminent international adventures and the revised political and religious alignments (which anyone with a modicum of knowledge concerning the long and extensively documented history of the Middle East sniffed out on sight) that would fall neatly into place like so many shocked and awed dominoes, and turned out to be wrong, about everything.

Would Wilson really want to roll the dice and insert himself back in a time when the prospects were a hell of a lot less salubrious for unorthodox and unsigned bands? Today, there are illimitable sources of opinion, and taste making is as democratic as it’s ever been, in part because of the abundance of voices and agency. On balance, this is undeniably a good thing, for artists and audiences. If it’s easy to get buried in this blizzard of evaluations, it’s pretty painless to seek out consistent and respected sources of guidance. The bile and disposable flame-fodder quickly dissipate into the ether, dragged down by their own ineptitude; kind of the way calculated chart-seeking detritus slinks quietly into the slipstream.

The reason bands find an audience is because they offer something of substance, something that speaks to a disparate crowd who may have little else in common. The way a writer attracts a readership is by engaging honestly and intelligently with the material at hand, respecting the intelligence and integrity of the artists who create and the people who support them. In the better tomorrow we’re always working toward, tolerant and receptive minds will eventually; inevitably find each other–either in the real world or the electronic one.

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