There''s a story I have heard about the-artist-formerly-known-as-and-now-once-again-known-as-Prince. It suggests that during the past 30 years, he has commissioned several documentaries about his life and work from major filmmakers. Each one has been filmed and edited at great expense, only to be consigned to Prince''s vault for his own viewing pleasure, a glorified home movie if you will. Whether this is true or not, it still chimes well with what we know about Prince—very little. Prince is still a largely mysterious figure, in the great tradition of rock enigmas, and so apart from reflecting on the few things we think we know about him (he''s mad, he likes purple, he''s quite short, etc.), we tend to simply listen to his music and work and conclude that the guy really is a pop genius. Now compare Prince to those two other ''80s pop icons, Madonna and Michael Jackson. Isn''t it true that we know too much about these people? And isn''t it also true that it''s almost impossible to hear the music of either of them without being weighed down with knowledge of their private lives, scandals, family feuds, ex-marriages, and court cases?
I say all this because it seems to me we have now passed out of the era of the pop enigma and are now firmly entrenched in the era of reality. But when was great pop music ever about reality? I think of the mystery and aura that grew up around artists like Led Zeppelin and David Bowie in the ''70s, and wonder if this wasn''t a contributing factor to the immense power of the music. When I first started to buy records in the early ''80s, the only means I had to find anything out about the music and musicians I liked was whatever I could glean from the credits on the sleeve, or perhaps an interview in a music paper like Melody Maker or NME. These little scraps of information only increased my sense of awe at the magic of the music. David Bowie is a bisexual alien? I''ll buy that. Jimmy Page sold his soul to the devil? That makes total sense!
In contrast, these days I''m only a few clicks on the Internet away from the minute details of the lives of any number of pop and rock stars on Twitter (handy if you want to know what they had for breakfast), a webcam link into their studio as they write their new album, or a blog discussing their personal and business problems. Of course, there is something to be said for this. Musicians are just regular people; the rock star thing was just a pretense anyway, so aren''t things more honest now? Yes, more honest, but hellishly more dull too. I am writing this in a magazine designed to demystify the process of how music is made (and as I write this perhaps I''m even demystifying myself), but I''m not really talking about the technical considerations of making music; I''m talking about the human aspect. I want to believe that the music I love was created by superhumans who, when they were not space traveling, hanging out with supermodels, and finding religion, spent their time dreaming up music that would somehow perfectly encapsulate the human condition in a way that only a divinely gifted being could. Because they are not like you and me. Okay, I exaggerate a little, but you take my point.
Shows such as American Idol may put the whole pop-star charade up on the screen and lead us to believe that somehow it''s all fake anyway, but I don''t believe that. Or at least I don''t want to believe it. Just like I don''t want to know how a magician does all of his tricks, because to know that would render the whole experience banal. And it''s for these reasons that when I listen to classic Black Sabbath, I still try to picture Ozzy as an Odinist visionary in league with Satan, not as Ozzy the cuddly buffoon falling off of his chair.
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.