The image of a rainbow refracted into pure light by a triangular prism is iconic and inescapable, printed on endless t-shirts, postered on college dorm walls and notably stamped on the record cover of Pink Floyd’s 1973 album “Dark Side of the Moon.” This album has been hailed as one of the greatest ever by NME, Rolling Stone and score aggregator Acclaimed Music. Arguably the conceptual genius behind that album, vocalist Roger Waters is one of Pink Floyd’s founding members, moving on to a solo career after leaving the band in 1984. Waters is also known for his leftist political views and protest art, and has taken stances on international affairs such as the Israel/Palestine conflict as well as the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Chinese annexation of Taiwan.
Yet, in a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Waters started a comparatively petty beef, claiming that he is “far, far more important” than fellow musicians Drake and The Weeknd. Music enthusiasts exploded into internet crusades following the interview’s publication; dissenters claimed Roger Waters is a relic of a past musical generation and hypocrite gatekeeping younger and more popular musicians, while those defending Waters’ legacy maintained that his impressive six-decade career and political importance has yet to be matched by contemporary acts. As a fan of all three artists, I did the only logical thing I could do, of course: I attended a Roger Waters concert to see if his claim holds water. (Pun intended).
On my way to the Philadelphia show on a sunny Saturday in August, I listened to Pink Floyd’s 1977 album “Animals,” Roger Waters’ structuralist indictment of modern society in Orwellian metaphor (the political elite are “pigs,” the bourgeoisie upper-crust “sheep” and the falsely-conscious working class “dogs”). Waters’ “This is Not A Drill” tour, which was postponed until 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is aptly-named. It sends a political message, pleading us to remember that the societal and environmental havoc we wreak today will create a dystopian world of tomorrow. Waters’ Philly stop on this tour took place at the Wells Fargo Center, a huge venue outfitted with black screens that counted down to the start of the show complete with tongue-in-cheek warnings to audience members: if they were just there for tunes and no politics, they were in the wrong place. A roll of applause rippled through the crowd each time the minutes ticked down. Then the lights dimmed and the theatrics began, an awe-inspiring dystopic vision for the next two-and-a-half hours.
The most remarkable thing about Roger Waters’ shows is the resemblance to performance art. The dystopia of “The Wall” (both a 1979 Pink Floyd album and 1982 movie) remains at the heart of Waters’ stage show and his visual concept. At times, the band marched on stage dressed in Gestapo uniform, banners unfurled from the ceiling and automated sheep and pigs floated above the audience’s heads, all while the music played on. The most impressive achievement was the use of audiovisual displays, thrown upon huge screens across the arena that synced with the songs. During “Comfortably Numb,” the show-opener, the screens projected a ruined city bathed in smog and darkness, with its computer-simulated residents in rapture toward a monolithic building inhabited by oligarchic late-stage-capitalist elites. Immediately afterward, “The Powers That Be,” a rousing political indictment, played alongside images of riot-geared soldiers beating safety dummies with batons. “Us and Them,” perhaps lending the most gutting imagery in the show, flashed images of protestors, refugees, starving children in wreckage and survivors of war, all compiled into an evolving tapestry of forlorn faces across the world, a demonstration that embedded in all inhuman conflict is a core human resilience.
It is hard to understate the power of multimedia accompaniment that was not only spectacular on its own, but gut-wrenching when paired with Pink Floyd’s music. The audio and visuals of the concert make disagreeing with Waters’ pompous assertion frustratingly difficult—not only is his political messaging important, but the level of visual innovation raised the bar. But music doesn’t only have to be politically prescient to be important; art that is made purely for enjoyment is just as valid, as the betterment of people is achieved both through political activism and therapeutic musical power. In this perspective, Drake and The Weeknd trounce Waters in importance based on popularity alone.
Some may say that Waters’ performance is a sonic retread of the same sounds he made decades ago. His lead guitarist seemed like a substitute for young David Gilmour, complete with shaggy brown hair and the same Muddy Waters-inspired guitar tinge. Typically, repeating the same sounds that made you famous in your youth doesn’t make you seem important, as creative innovation is considered more significant than iteration from a critical standpoint. Granted, this same argument could be leveled at both Drake and The Weeknd; from “Take Care” to “Scorpion,” Drake has reiterated the same Afro-Caribbean dancehall motif, and The Weeknd’s themes of excess, addiction and burnout paired with synthwave production have yet to cease in his new output. Waters also devoted an extended section of the concert to Pink Floyd’s 1975 album “Wish You Were Here” where he recounted at length anecdotes from his time with Syd Barrett, an early member of Pink Floyd and seminal rock experimentalist who left the band due to bipolar disorder and drug abuse. While it was a touching story, and Waters’ performance of the album’s title track was perhaps the peak of the evening, I couldn’t help but feel Waters was attempting to associate himself with an innovative and storied musician whose unfortunate mental issues were mythologized by the “tortured artist” trope.
The audience’s reception of Waters indicated perhaps the most damning evidence of his diminishing importance. Despite his best efforts to remain on the political cutting edge as an old-generation standard bearer for progressive views, the Philly audience did not seem to be in sync with Waters’ avowed politics. Despite raucous applause at messages imploring audiences to support trans rights, dismantle the patriarchy, and support Black lives, many people sitting next to me were grumbling uncomfortably and pointedly not cheering. When a display came up admonishing a list of modern U.S. presidents as war criminals, mentioning Ronald Reagan’s funded genocide of Guatemalans, a man next to me yelled, “He didn’t kill any of us!” The same man screamed “God Bless America!” when Donald Trump was shown a few slides later. None of this is Waters’ fault—he cannot control who his listeners are, but their dispositions are conversely all-powerful in dictating his cultural strata. Meanwhile, Drake and The Weeknd push new ground with their listener base; both are Black men who sing about loneliness, substance abuse and mental health, dismantling both racial and gendered barriers on emotional intimacy in the rap industry. It also helps that they cover their romantic relationships, a significant aspect of social existence that seems to be outside Waters’ artistic focus. Perhaps due to age or relevance, Waters seems to be screaming into the void, while contemporary acts like Drake and The Weeknd use their titanic platforms to effect significant sociological change.
So, is Roger Waters actually more important than Drake or The Weeknd? While Drake and The Weeknd are unquestionably more popular and influential to a modern audience, the length of Waters’ career and knowledge of global issues magnifies his importance. After attending the “This is Not a Drill” tour, I couldn’t help but feel that behind the powerful songs, solid musicianship, awe-inspiring media integration and pure scale of the concert, Waters, for all of his fierce beliefs and anti-authority rhetoric, is still of a different era. The music industry has been radically democratized in under a decade, allowing new stars to rise meteorically through media algorithms and access unprecedented amounts of people, with the boon of having the political fire and contemporary knowledge of youth. While Waters, Drake and The Weeknd are among the most eminent forces in the music industry, Waters’ cultural importance has parabolized downward with time, while his younger competitors are following a linear ascent into superstardom.