On the inside cover to Steven Wilson’s 2008 album Insurgentes is pictured a scene of broken iPods, their cases and circuit boards strewn across the ground. Wilson has been vocal about what he regards as the diminished experience of music that iPods represent, especially the reduction of album artwork to an icon on a screen. This paper suggests that Wilson’s critique of the iPod is much broader, redolent of what Daniel Chua (2010) describes as the reduction of music ‘to a cocoon’ that allows the individual to disappear into their own subjectivity.  This is, in turn, part of a broad social anxiety about contemporary digital culture. I examine how these themes play out in the 2007 album Fear of Blank Planet by Wilson’s band Porcupine Tree. Fear of Blank Planet makes a series of complex links to the Brett Easton Ellis novel Lunar Park (2005), as Wilson himself acknowledges. The album deploys a range of imagery associated with youth culture: prescription drugs, addiction to games and television, and boredom. I will argue that these themes constitute a critique of listening practices, and that the ideas of technology and alienation running through Fear of a Blank Planet have broader resonances elsewhere in Wilson’s output.


Peter Elsdon is a Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Hull. His book on Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert was published by Oxford University Press in 2013. Together with Björn Heile and Jenny Doctor, he co-edited the volume Watching Jazz, published by Oxford University Press in 2016. His publications cover a broad range of areas, from work on Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós, to chapters on John Coltrane, Snarky Puppy, theorising improvisation, and music and gesture. He is currently working on a project that examines technologies of listening by using ideas such as mediation, agency, and object-oriented ontology.


  1. Thank you for you interesting analysis: I love this record and it was a nice surprise to find a presentation about it among the papers for this conference. I would like to add some information that may be useful for the understanding of “Fear of a Blank Planet”, and especially of the song ‘Way Out of Here’. Maybe you are already aware of all of this, but still…

    I have done some research on ‘Way Out of Here’ for an analysis of mine, and I think it is very important to understand it under the light of the fact that Wilson stated that the song is somehow linked to an actual fact that happened in 2005: the suicide of a teenager girl, Arielle Daniel, who was a PT fan and apparently was listening to PT from her iPod as she walked onto a train. Here ( Wilson dedicates the videoclip for the song to that girl, and here ( he also adds some detail on the song’s meaning and its connection with the sad fact (and with the theme of suicide as the most extreme way of getting “out of here”). If you search for the photos the girl took of her (and her friend, who committed suicide with her), you may also state a certain resemblance between Arielle and the actress in the video – but maybe I am getting a bit paranoid here. Also, the reference to the train tracks in the lyrics and the main location of the videoclip can thus get a complete explanation.

    The second verse and some things portrayed in the video add new layers that I find more difficult to understand, as those highlighted in this Reddit discussion ( The main fact here is that the second verse does not seem to make sense if attributed to the same character who sings the first one. Maybe it is Wilson singing to Arielle (as the user on Reddit suggests), but I think that the videoclip is suggesting a different interpretation, in which the “Arielle-character” is singing to that part of herself that with which she is struggling, in the moment of taking a decision about the suicide (the crescendo in the outro also builds a sense of tension that would find a precise meaning under the light of this idea). I am saying that because in the video it looks like the faces cut from the pictures is the face of the protagonist herself, like she was trying to forget her problematic life in an attempt to escape from the temptation fo suicide.

    In this sense I think that the appearance of the iPod in the lyrics might be in a sense less significative than we might think, and more linked with the pure diegetic aspect of the song: a frame that contributes to the narration of an actual story just as other details do (like the train tracks, the actress’ look and maybe even the reference to the pictures). Also, here the theme of disappearance needs to be read under the light of death (although, as Wilson himself states, it is just one way, the most extreme one, to escape), and I am not sure whether or not it should be understood in continuity with the following song’s lyrics (‘Sleep Together’), but I think that, although ‘Way Out of Here’ is more of a stand-alone song that incorporates the story of Arielle into a broader conceptual frame, the continuity can be found in the fact that “the last two songs on the record were about escape from that world” (Songfacts interview, see above). By the way, I am not saying that Wilson wrote the song with that story in mind from the very beginning, but as he states in the interview “that was also in there”.

    I am not sure how all of this can be useful to you, but I felt like it could be interesting to see how it can react with your interpretation.
    Thank you again for the presentation and have a nice day.

  2. Hi Mattia,

    Thanks very much for your comments. I was aware of the link between ‘Way Out Of Here’ and that tragic event. I looked into it a while ago, and it seemed to me that the dedication of the video to the fan came after the recording of the album. But in the link that you posted to that Wilson interview, he implies otherwise. I’ll look into that again. It’s pretty clear that the imagery of the video is very strongly linked to that suicide, but taken on its own, I think the song an its imagery does hint more at disappearance, especially ‘cover my tracks’, and ‘dispose of the car’, etc.

    I know what you mean about the apparent shift of perspective in the second verse. In fact, there are other songs from the album that do something similar, and I’m working on discussing them in a longer version of this paper. One is the end of ‘Fear of a Blank Planet’, where the outro seems to suggest a significant shift of perspective.

    I take your point about the significance of the iPod in ‘Way Out of Here’. I think I’m trying to construct a reading of the album that tries to understand how and why Wilson uses imagery like that, and how that image might have a dual purpose: both in terms of the world the song is trying to create (as you suggest), and Wilson’s own view of technology and listening.

    But thanks for your comments, they’re really helpful!


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