This week, I’ve been trying to listen to the new Steven Wilson album Hand. Cannot. Erase. I say trying because I really like Steven Wilson and I really like the genres he covers. I love his approach to being an artist in an ever changing industry. He does what I’d love to do: write an album; hand pick great musicians to record, perform and tour it; make it a piece of art, a show, a work that is meant to be enjoyed and appreciated as a whole. The concept, the artwork, the special editions. And as I said, I love the genre, too; a kind of rock/prog/indie/epic/fusion.
We need people like Steven Wilson in the 21st century to blaze a trail and demonstrate a way of (sorry to say it) making a living from a profession whose market has changed unrecognisably, and arguably, in many respects, doesn’t even exist any more.
I enjoyed his last album, The Raven Who Refused to Sing, VERY much. But, I remember watching a review by Anthony Fantano at The Needle Drop who didn’t enjoy it half as much as I did. His main issue with the album – and in fact, with Steven Wilson in general – was that it was basically just a montage of all of Wilson’s favourite bands and songs; that Wilson had definitely “done his homework” around the genre, but “that’s all he’s really done” (to paraphrase), creating in effect, a regurgitation of work by other artists.
On the one hand, I COULD appreciate the point Fantano was making, but on the other hand, I didn’t think Wilson had crossed the line of plagiarism and was at least drawing influence from his favourite bands and at most, paying homage. Unfortunately, as a fan of his last album and what he represents as an artist, Hand. Cannot. Erase. for me pretty much vindicates all the issues Anthony Fantano raised (you can watch the review here to get the full viewpoint of The Needle Drop) and his analysis of Steven Wilson’s creative process makes sense to me.
As someone who has written a good number of songs – as both a solo artist and with various bands – I know that I have a kind of filter in my head that’s like a copycat alarm. If I come up with something I like, but after playing it a few times I think, “oh, hang on, that sounds too much like… (insert famous song title here)” then I bin the idea and start again. And it’s not so much from a fear of plagiarising someone else; it’s more born from the principle that if I’m going to write, or record, or publish a song, I want it to be a representation of who I am as an individual and what’s going on with me at the time, and I want to bring something into the world that didn’t really exist before. Steven Wilson, it pains me to say (on his new album, at least), doesn’t seem to have a copycat filter.
As a songwriter in a particular genre or genre’s, we’re automatically constrained by certain conventions. Take blues, for example: it’s fine to use a 12 bar structure; we’ll often use dominant chords, which then means we’ll be using the mixolydian mode; we’ll throw some flat 5’s into the pot; the I, IV, I, V, IV, I, V, chord progression will be our friend; we have licence to play in 6/8 and 12/8 or a swung 4/4. It’s not plagiarism to use these foundations to build on; that would be like trying to sue the chef of a Chinese restaurant for taking some chopped red pepper, beansprouts, onions, chicken breast and noodles and using a wok to fry them all together in sesame oil and soy sauce.
But, the reason I said TRYING to listen to Hand. Cannot. Erase., is because I can’t sit back and relax and enjoy it because in every song I’m not subconsciously thinking “wow it’s so nice to hear someone writing using the established rules and motifs of the prog-rock genre I know and love”; it’s because I’m consciously thinking, “that’s Song Remains The Same; that’s Hemispheres; that’s Great Gig In The Sky; that’s The Manic Street Preachers; that’s Bat For Lashes; ad nauseum…. (Even the cryptic symbols he’s used in his marketing is basically something Radiohead did back in 2007 in the build-up to the release of their album, In Rainbows).
Which brings me to the other subject of this blog title: the problem I experienced with the academic attitude towards creativity at the University I was attending last/this year. After the initial period of getting myself orientated to the Uni, the rooms, the grounds, and getting my head around the course and the variety of practical and theoretical work, I began to realise that the creative subject (fashion design) I’d signed up to wasn’t principally designed for creative people. Let me explain…
You’d think that an educational organisation would assume that people who applied for a course in a creative subject in Higher Education would be creative people, and that the responsibility of said organisation would be to teach people how to physically create what their imaginations were capable of envisaging. But a major facet of the course was based on the idea that the students aren’t already creative – that they need to be taught HOW to be creative. So, how did they do this? How did they define creativity and transmit it to students? By trying to indoctrinate us into believing something that, for me, results in the opposite of creativity, entropy.
Here’s their attitude towards creativity in a nutshell:
There can never again be such a thing as originality because at this stage of human existence, everything has already been done.
So how do they teach the ‘creative process’ to their students, based on this ‘fact’? Quite simply:
Take something that has already been made… and just alter it, slightly.
I kid you not.
When it crystallised for me that this was what I was being taught to do, I was pretty devastated. The knock-on effect of this way of thinking is that anything that steps outside the box or pushes boundaries is scorned and ridiculed as being ‘wacky’ or ‘avant-garde’ or ‘out-there’. And you actually see this in the whole of academia because really, pushing boundaries and thinking outside the box is, for professors and experts, something to be feared. And the reason for that is that a paradigm shift in any field will cost a lot of experts and professors of that field their jobs. Who needs an expert on the theory that the Earth is flat?
This week, I was walking through a department store, and I saw a dress that just made me think, “that’s such a rip-off of the elements, lines, print technique, patterns and colours of Alexander McQueens SS2010 collection, Plato’s Atlantis. And that’s how my brain is working when I listen to the latest Steven Wilson album. I think Hand. Cannot. Erase. is what all music would be like if the people who create it subscribed to this academic approach to creativity.