Wilson v Springsteen: A Lesson In Authenticity
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This week, some thoughts on authenticity via those two titans of rock, Bruce Springsteen and Steven Wilson. “Who the hell is Steven Wilson?” you ask. Great question, thanks for raising this important point. Steven Wilson is the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist for the progressive rock/metal band Porcupine Tree, who I went to see live last week on the same day as Bruce Springsteen’s new album of soul covers, Only The Strong Survive, came out. First up, a caveat for any other Porcupine Tree fans out there – I really like Porcupine Tree. Prog rock is my favourite genre, and I think every band that plays it is basically great, regardless of how ridiculous they are. My favourite band is Marillion. I had an incredible time at the gig and think the band are really, really good musicians. What I’m about to say is said with real love. But one of my abiding takeaways from the gig was that Steven Wilson is essentially a bit of a tool (I summarised my observations in this video). Nearly every bit of chat he did with the audience basically amounted to how terrible popular music had become, and how he was ok with the fact that Porcupine Tree had never had a hit single because it meant they were cooler than all the popular stuff out there. He mentioned this at least three or four times, I think, and on one occasion described himself as “a visionary,” while also assuring us that the reason the audience in London were mostly in their 50s and 60s was just because he’d been gigging in London for longer than anywhere else, but when they played Chile they were playing to thousands of teenagers and the teenagers in Chile were way more up for it than the old people in London. Huge fan as I was, and tongue-in-cheek as those moments may have been intended to be, I couldn’t help but spend a lot of the gig thinking “This guy is quite lame, actually.”
My enjoyment of prog rock these days has to be confined to my headphones because Miranda (for new readers, Miranda is my girlfriend) objects to it on emotional grounds. If I play her a single Porcupine Tree riff, or show her a picture of the lead singer of any prog band, she has a physical reaction and goes “Ugh, no” and leaves the room. She’s not a fan of tragic middle-aged narcissistic men who still think they are in their 20s, (which is understandable), so prog rock is understandably a difficult area for her. But it got me thinking – how come she was able to listen to the Springsteen album? How come she was able to summon up a general respect and admiration for Springsteen that she denied to almost every other ageing rockstar I could think of?
Obviously, there are genre concerns at play here – Springsteen covering feelgood soul classics is a very different thing to Steven Wilson playing a metal riff for seventeen minutes (“Be warned – this next piece of music is incredibly long. Which means it’s better than all the other pieces of music out there,” Wilson said with his trademark self-effacing charm on Friday). I’m not really questioning why someone could enjoy Springsteen’s music more than that of a fairly hardcore prog band, that’s obvious. I was just interested in drilling down into the creative and emotional specifics of why Springsteen was so clearly a cooler and less cringe-inducing artist than Steven Wilson, an artist who clearly ached to be cool. The yearning for cool manifested at the Porcupine Tree gig at one point as a giant video projection of huge CGI demon wolves prowling around the stage. “Look at how cool all this is!” Wilson seemed to be saying through his CGI wolves, while furiously shredding. “Aren’t we all cool?” But one look at Bruce Springsteen brings the answer fairly rapidly – no way. This guy’s cool. Be more like this guy, weirdly big head and all:
One of these two guys is cool. It’s the one who’s not trying very hard.
A Lesson in Authenticity
The solution wasn’t even about vanity. It wasn’t that Wilson is a vain egomaniac and Springsteen isn’t – Springsteen is clearly vain. No way is that his real hair. Not that there’s anything wrong with hair dye or hair transplants, but my initial theory that Springsteen was ok with growing old gracefully while Wilson was desperately clinging onto his youth wasn’t quite fair. And anyone who’s read Springsteen’s autobiography will also know what an ego he’s got on him. I also wondered for a while if the answer was that Springsteen, despite his self-acknowledged demons, seems like somebody who has broadly been able to accept what life has given him, while Wilson seems like someone yearning to have slightly more than he’s been granted. Then I remembered that Bruce Springsteen is Bruce Springsteen, one of the most famous and wealthy artists on the planet, so the idea of “Oh, he’s just more able to be happy with his lot” felt faintly ridiculous.
Then I realised what it was – it was about authenticity. Watching Steven Wilson, I felt like I was watching the projection of who he wanted us to see him as. It was there in the patter, in the way he held himself, in the shredding, in the demonic CGI wolves. The entire show screamed “See me as this! Please validate this version of myself that I think I am!” And there’s nothing wrong with that. A lot of commercially successful creative work can only come about as a result of that sort of self-willed self-mythologising. Whenever I’ve seen Springsteen perform, though, I have only ever had the sensation of watching someone just doing what they do. “Here I am,” Springsteen’s shows seem to say. “Hope you like it.” Partly this comes down to the fact that Springsteen only ever seems to be having a good time up there – he doesn’t perform because performing is the thing that makes everyone love him (though I’m sure, like all performers with healthy egos, that plays a part). He does it because it’s what he loves to do.
This is what’s known in therapeutic circles as congruence – the state where your inner and outer selves are in harmony, and you are able to be physically and emotionally present without inner conflict between who you hope you might be and who you are right now. I think it’s an incredibly important state to achieve as an artist, and it takes a long time to find it. Over the last couple of years I’ve had a number of really rewarding conversations with frequent collaborator Ben Target about how hard it is, but how rewarding, to persist through the period of your life when you’re trying to be creative because you want to get something out of it, to arrive at the time when you’re being creative because it’s what you do. And it’s something you’d be doing anyway, regardless of whether it was still what you were trying to do for a living. It’s a difficult state to reach, and an equally difficult state to hold onto and not lose sight of. But every time you give power to the kinds of thoughts that Steven Wilson, tongue-in-cheek or otherwise, gave voice to at that gig – “I wish I had more than I do, but then I hate what everyone else is doing so much that maybe it’s better I don’t” – it brings you out of that state and into closer contact with your shadow self. You don’t wanna be creating in partnership with your shadow self. That guy is not helpful to you. I never think Bruce Springsteen sounds like someone who needs to stand onstage and talk about how bad everybody else’s music is these days. He’s too busy having a good time. Be more Springsteen.
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – In a couple of weeks the brilliant Jazz Emu is doing a run at Soho Theatre. I really love Jazz Emu, and am excited to see this.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Mat Ewins has started adapting his stupid videos from his live shows and putting them on TikTok. I love Mat Ewins so much.
Book Of The Week – Still plodding through Joseph McBride’s Writing In Pictures: Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless. It’s a bit long, but I’m learning interesting stuff.
Album Of The Week – I’ve already mentioned Springsteen’s new album, which is great, so I’ll use this section to mention the new album by Christine and the Queens, Redcar Les Adorables Etoiles (Prologue). It’s quite a musical departure to his earlier stuff, relying more on meandering soundscapes than on catchy pop hooks, but it’s good stuff.
Film Of The Week – Blind Ambition. This is a documentary about the world’s first Nigerian wine-tasting team. I saw the trailer for it in August and it made me cry, so it’s been on the list for a while. Turns out it’s a slightly more by-the-numbers documentary than the trailer led me to expect, but it’s a brilliant story and still has some really great moments.
That’s all for this week! As ever, let me know your thoughts, and if you enjoyed the newsletter and would like to send it to a friend or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it! Catch you next week, and take care of yourselves until then,
PS Here’s a pic of some autumn leaves I took the other day. The colours are nice, I think.