If you ask me which musical project I''m involved with that people are most likely to have heard of, it would be Porcupine Tree. Of course, we''re still a long way from being a household name, but we have a loyal underground fan base. However, enter the words “Porcupine Tree review” into a popular web search engine, and it will return more than half a million results That''s a lot of reviews, opinions, and critiques written about one relatively off-the-radar rock band.
So I''m asking myself: Are these really reviews or just an endless noise of opinions—and is there a difference?
I''ve spoken before about how inexpensive technology and online tools have given rise to a wealth of home-grown music production; the flip side is that those same tools have created a blossoming of home-grown music criticism. But could one call this a renaissance? Sadly, no. Much of what I read are variations on the heated arguments that used to take place between friends at a bar. 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.
As a musician, it''s hard to look away. We artists are a sensitive bunch, so even though we shouldn''t care what a 15-year-old Metallica fan writing from his bedroom in Utah thinks about our music, a lot of us do. It''s human nature to care what even one dissenting voice has to say. Yet among music fans, it''s often the most shrill and snide writing—not the most thoughtful or insightful—that attracts eyeballs. That doesn''t make it proper music journalism, and I worry that really engaging music writing is being lost among all of this garbage.
Great music journalism is an art in its own right. It places music in a historical and cultural context while revealing the passion and personality of the musicians that made it. It reaches out beyond the music to the core of the human condition, just like the music it is about. In the introduction to Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, a compilation of rock critic Lester Bangs'' work, Greil Marcus wrote, “What this book demands from a reader is the willingness to accept that the best writer in America could write almost nothing but record reviews.” In other words, he considers quality music writing to be on a par with the very highest literary achievements.
There are certainly those that bear this grand claim out—David Fricke, Paul Morley, Nick Kent, and Bangs—who not only wrote (or still write) about music, but lived and toured with their subjects, understanding implicitly the nature of the muse. At its best, their work sent you on voyages of discovery to hunt down the music they wrote about, or find new depths to music you thought you already knew. If you were a music lover, these guys were your teachers.
Recently, many of the old lions who defined music criticism for a generation have left their posts—some by choice, others by necessity. The good news is that there are a decent number of serious and respectable online publications that are more than happy to go on publishing thoughtful and literate music writing (for example, check out Anil Prasad''s writing on his Innerviews website, or Tobias Fischer on tokafi.com). The bad news, though, is that those sites aren''t nearly as numerous or popular as those that traffic in gossip, pointless best-of lists, and the “this sucks” / “this rules” approach to reviewing. The celebrated rock journalists acted as curators, with enough expertise, depth of knowledge, and wit to intelligently offer us some kind of insight to help us make up our own minds. You didn''t have to take their opinions as gospel, but they sure as hell made it entertaining while they argued their point. And you might even learn something along the way.
Steven Wilson is the lead vocalist, guitarist, and founding member of the band Porcupine Tree. His most recent solo album, Insurgentes, was released in 2008. Go to swhq.co.uk for more info.