So here’s the beginning of what I hope is a productive discussion I’m interested in all of us having (with very few sentences as confusing as this one). I recently bought the super-deluxo reissues of Gish and Siamese Dream after a protracted period of debate with myself. I’ve listened to the first of the two and I’m passingly familiar with the singles from the second. I also re-read the Pitchfork review of the two reissues which contained a link to this little gem. Reading that piece made me start thinking about the wave of 90’s nostalgia that’s washed up on the shores of 2011 and a point that Klosterman once made about coolness. So here we go.
There’s an essay in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs where Chuck Klosterman elaborates on his admiration for Billy Joel by repeatedly emphasizing how cool Billy Joel isn’t. (This is kind of a brilliant strategy because no one in their right mind would argue that Billy Joel is cool. Uncoolness is to Billy Joel as perceived cuddliness is to koalas. By conceding the most obvious point of attack as the core argument of the essay, Klosterman pre-empts the majority of the criticism he could face. I suppose you could still say that Joel’s music sucks but that would seem mean since 1) even his supporters already go out of their way to make it clear he’s lame and 2) that’s actually a LOT more subjective of a question than whether or not he’s cool. None of this is remotely relevant to what I’m talking about here, though). Re-reading that Spin piece immediately made me think that Billy Corgan was the Billy Joel of the 90’s (hey, they even have the same first name!) because while the Smashing Pumpkins could certainly be a great rock band, would anyone ever say they were a cool rock band?
Billy Corgan’s problem, I think, is largely that he became a star right when it was becoming impossible for a public figure to exert complete dominance over what that meant. Think about Billy Joel again for a second–even his staunchest admirers would have to admit he’s not a handsome man. He looks sort of like a mouse whose wish was to become a Jewish man. It was possible when he was establishing himself for music fans to appreciate his music without ever having to contemplate his celebrity. A music fan could consume his output without ever seeing an image of the man himself (assuming, of course, they never bought his records). By the time the Smashing Pumpkins came around, though, MTV was integral to a band’s ability to break through into the popular culture mainstream. Unfortunately for Corgan’s ego, this also meant that music fans also had 1) a lot more freedom in constructing their own ideas of a celebrity’s personality and 2) a lot more shiny material from which to build that crow’s nest.
Anyone who’s had the misfortune of bringing up the subject of music around me after I’ve had more than two drinks has doubtless heard me pontificate about my love for Pavement. The reason I had such a protracted period of debate with myself about picking up those two reissues (well, other than the fact that I am an idiot who only thinks about irrelevant nonsense) is the famous slam that Stephen Malkmus makes on the Smashing Pumpkins in the song “Range Life.” Corgan responded angrily and the two enjoyed the sort of adversarial public relationship you’d expect to find between the kid who was actually the smartest in school and the one with the highest GPA. The Spin article kind of supports that idea, since Corgan can’t seem to stand anybody not thinking he set the entire universe in motion. The problem is, as Klosterman says, that the only surefire way to not be cool is to WANT to be cool. This is why Stephen Malkmus will always be cooler than Billy Corgan. (Also, Malkmus’s music has held up a lot better in my opinion). Corgan always seemed obsessed with people thinking he was the best.
Notably, the other band mentioned in the Spin article is equally uncool. Apart from that one TERRRRRRIBLE single (“Black Hole Sun”) I doubt anybody even remembers Soundgarden at all. Their music was the nadir of 90’s alternative movement and the best example of how a lot of the “alternative” Seattle bands who positioned themselves against 80’s hair metal were just the same warmed-over crunching guitars with lead singers who sounded like they were undergoing treatment for severe hernias instead of the pretty boys of the Sunset Strip. Even when they were popular, I don’t think anybody who didn’t spend most of their day under the influence of something would have called Soundgarden “cool.” Today, I’d be shocked if anyone not in his immediate family could pick Kim Thayil out of a lineup.
I’ve thought about a lot of the bands who were a part of the 90’s grunge/alternative explosion and most of it just strikes me as really boring and lame. Steve Albini once derided the Smashing Pumpkins for being too commercial but they’re one of the few bands from that period whose records I would ever even consider putting on. (Incidentally, if you’ve ever made it more than halfway through the first side of a Shellac or Big Black album, there’s a chapter in the DSM IV about you). Billy Corgan may not have been cool, but he was certainly better than most of the others.
A lot of this plays into the en vogue Simon Reynolds-driven nostalgia discussion happening in many of the internet’s nerdier corners. The points I want to discuss here are, roughly, as follows:
1) How is coolness/image related to a band’s success in their period? Does that image complicate their legacy/longevity/influence?
2) What does the specific 90’s rehash tell us about this trend and how those bands look now?
3) To what extent was early 90’s grunge and alt-rock a second punk explosion/rejection of 80’s hair metal/extent of the indie ethos?
Any thoughts? Feel free to bring more questions to the fore here.