The first and only Smashing Pumpkins CD I ever bought was Machina: The Machines of God. Without being too familiar with their catalogue, I would assume that this was the low point of their career, at least until the band was resuscitated, or whatever it was that happened, sometime in the past decade. Machina arrived in the first year of the new millennium, thereby symbolizing THE END of the Smashing Pumpkins and the questionable decade of rock music they represented.
I wish I had had a more agreeable introduction to the band, but times were tough: I spent my early teenage years under pretty strict parental media censorship, and it was the only SP album that far-right Christianist magazine Plugged In, whose “reviews” consisted mainly in the simple enumeration of cuss words (and, possibly, minor chords), deemed suitable to breach the threshold of upright ear canals. As much as I wanted to like that album at that time, it was apparent that there was cooler stuff to be heard in the Christian rock genre. To clarify, there was really no cool stuff in the Christian rock genre. As John Jeremiah Sullivan observed in an essay I would recommend, which can be read here or in the book Pulphead, Christian rock subverts itself into being logically incapable of being cool, or good. It does so primarily in a different way than Seth meant by his suggestion that the attempt to be cool sabotages itself, but that mechanism is there, too.
The main trend in modern American Protestant churches is to falsely reconcile with pop culture: multimedia “message” presentations might feature secular movie clips; the praise band, bedizened impressively in current alternative fashions, as if they were being filmed (and often, they are), might perform an Adele song as a lead-in to the service; you might see seamlessly automated lights and graphics throughout the ritual (surely an antiquated term – spectacle does the job better). Some congregation members will defend these window dressings, although most won’t see the need to, by claiming that they are merely inviting gestures meant to ease new members into church fellowship, but you don’t have to be all that bitter and cynical to recognize that it’s less about saving souls than it is about crass growth. I may be an apostate, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t lament the ruthless thoroughness with which the ideology of free-market capitalism has hollowed out the dominant form of practiced Christianity in America today.
But weren’t we talking about the Smashing Pumpkins? I would like to find a way to connect this little tirade to the discussion. The cynical cultural positioning I’ve witnessed in Protestant churches is related to the point about coolness, since the intentional gesture toward relevance undermines itself. But this makes me think of two things: 1) Why are we right when we say that the Smashing Pumpkins and a tasteful arrangement of a pop song in a church service are definitely not cool? Lots of people apparently think they are cool. 2) The point about trying to seem cool and always failing seems to be complicated by the face of current indie music. I don’t want to pick on any single band, but there’s so much crate-digging and mining of old pop styles formerly considered garish, that a lot of it must be motivated by the intention of becoming cool. And I think that that was just a wordy, complicated way of saying that it would be foolish to ignore that many young people get involved in music scenes and subcultures with the aim of being cool. And it seems to me that it would also be an error to claim that all these scene-crashers fail in that attempt out of trying too hard. It works out for some of them. They attain coolness. But this doesn’t address Seth’s question about longevity and legacy. Maybe there’s a long-term mechanism for weeding out the less sincere artists.