Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss
Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.
I was born in 1978. This is only important insofar as it made me 13 years old in 1991, a year that has been coined as "the year punk broke". It was the year that saw the release of Nirvana's Nevermind, Pearl Jam's Ten, Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted, The Smashing Pumpkins' Gish, Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger, My Bloody Valentine's Loveless and many other albums that would come to define not only the rock landscape of the '90s, but the cultural and aesthetic values of Generation X.
As one of the youngest members of that generation, my adolescence began with the crest of the Alternative wave and ended with its rapid crash in the late '90s. It is important to understand that 1991 didn't come out of nowhere: there was a grand American tradition of independent music in the rock and punk genres going back to at least the late '70s, when bands like Black Flag and Husker Du began to emerge. The networks that were built as small do-it-yourself bands crisscrossed the nation through the '80s paving the way for the so-called "alternative revolution" that began in the '90s. Gen Xers who were only five or so years older than me had memories of the old scene, before "alternative" began a commercial label and a mainstream cultural phenomenon. While I was aware of the history of alternative music as a teenager, I was too young to have experienced it.
The rapid ascent of alternative culture – embodied by the Lollapalooza tour, the growth of what had been niche magazines like SPIN, the endless playing of alt-rock videos on MTV, the emergence of corporate radio stations devoted to alternative music, and the presence of alt-superstars on magazines like Time – made it feel as though "alternative" was more than a music label. At 14-years-old, "alternative" seemed to be an all-encompassing aesthetic theory of life: it was a way of dressing, a way of thinking, a way of talking, a way of dating, a way of consuming culture, and yes, a way of rocking out.
For many of the older Gen Xers, 1991 began their departure from what I viewed as a new youth movement: to them, what had been cool in part because it existed on the margin of popular culture had now been coopted by legions of high school kids who bought their corduroys at the mall. I didn't (and don't) blame the older Xers for their defection. But for the younger people who remained True Believers, the path to adulthood would be shaped to a large extent by the values preached by the Church of Alternative Inc.
Those values, the virtue of which seemed self-evident to me at 17, are values that I not only reject as a 41-year-old man – I hold them in contempt. And while time has not reduced my passion for the sonic aesthetics of alternative music of all eras (going back to the Velvet Underground), today I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous. This essay is about what that message was, how it formed me, and why I ultimately rejected it.
There were so many bands that I loved as a teenager – Nine Inch Nails, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Weezer, Rage Against the Machine, the Beastie Boys, Hole, Sonic Youth, Green Day, the Breeders, Radiohead, Beck, Gin Blossoms, the Cure, Liz Phair, Urge Overkill, Red Hot Chili Peppers, etc., etc., etc. But for reasons I will explain, the Smashing Pumpkins stood above them all. I remember a day in 1993, sitting in the living room with my mom and my aunt, when I convinced them to give a listen to some of "my" music. Of course, they had heard all the buzz – alternative was everywhere in pop culture, and they were curious. Knowing I had to choose carefully for them to listen for any length of time, I dropped the Smashing Pumpkins' swirling guitar symphony Siamese Dream into the CD tray. After a few minutes, my mom said "This sounds a lot like the stuff we listened to in the '60s, but louder."
"Yeah. Sounds kind of psychedelic," Aunt Lisa replied.
These responses pleased me greatly. In my eyes, the culture of the '90s alternative youth movement was a continuation of the cultural revolutions of the '60s, but with some important differences. One difference was in how both periods conceived of the relationship between their music and their politics. In the '60s and '70s, the links between politics and music/music fandom were much more explicit. The Beatles dissed fellow revolutionaries who carried around "pictures of Chairman Mao". Mick Jagger, speaking in the voice of the Devil, asks "Who killed the Kennedys?" before darkly conceding that – after all – it was "you and me." Neil Young lambasted the Southern Man dedicated to segregation and the Confederate flag, while Lynyrd Skynyrd reminded Young that he isn't welcome in the South and posed pointed questions about Watergate, Creedence Clearwater Revival attacked the hypocrisy of a system that ensures Senators' sons don't have to fight in the wars that they declare.
Certainly, another theme of that era's rock music was the value of personal expression, human dignity, and satisfaction. And yet it was the hippies' political revolution that was the priority, inside the music and out of it. Personal liberation was a value, but it was secondary. Societal reform was the core of the project: it was the means by which a secondary goal of self-actualization would be achieved.
Although much of the drug use of that era was purely recreational, the rhetoric that justified the drug use was aspirational – only by plumbing the depths of the self could one discover the ancient truths that could serve as the foundations of a truly liberated community. The romantic liberation of sensory experience that was achieved through LSD was an anticipatory glimpse of how life would be when their revolution was complete and the new order was established. Woodstock was an explicitly political event. Altamont less so – and it was precisely that fact, dramatized by the deadly disorder there, that caused many to point to the concert as a moment that marked the end of '60s – much in the way that Kurt Cobain's death precipitated a turn in the mood (for both artists and fans) of the '90s alt-rock scene.
Although many of the aesthetic dimensions of the alternative rock scene were clearly derived from '60s counterculture, the ethical outlook of the '90s contrasted with the earlier scene in some important ways. There was no explicit political outlook that was shared by the artists nor pursued by the fans. No one was articulating a vision for a new social order. This was the reason people my age were labelled as "apathetic" by our parents' generation (and now, by millennials). To the limited extent that there was any political engagement at all, it tended to be in response to one social issue or another.
Eddie Vedder would pontificate on the importance of abortion rights. Cobain wrote a song called "Rape Me", which he insisted was a protest of rape culture. (But was anybody taking a position in favor of rape?) Some alternative artists put together a benefit album to assist with AIDS relief. Rage Against the Machine partnered with a major corporate record company to distribute their furious rants against capitalism. Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys got really worked up about the situation of the monks in Tibet and started a series of concerts to protest the Chinese government's treatment of Tibet. Not surprisingly, China didn't seem particularly moved by performances from the guys who once penned "Fight for Your Right (to Party)".
So, whereas the '60s youth movement had an integrated, panoramic kind of social vision, the '90s had very limited engagement with the political. When rock musicians did touch on politics, it tended to be in a very atomistic way, focusing on a single issue. As the cases above indicate, what united these causes were the ways that the situation affected the individual. Without the right to an abortion, the personal autonomy of young women would be curtailed by nature. Obviously, rape is a terrible violation of personal autonomy.
While No Alternative was certainly motivated by concern for those who contracted HIV, a large part of youth activism related to AIDS was motivated by an unstated frustration with the way the the virus limited personal sexual expression: Free Love was a novelty that was less viable in the '90s.
Yauch's concern with Tibetan monks wasn't an expression of a general disdain for authoritarian impositions of government authority. It was more that he was a Buddhist and had friends among the monks – if that wasn't the case, then why focus so narrowly on Tibet rather than other repressive regimes like Iraq or Rwanda?
So, if political reformation wasn't the central enterprise of the '90s youth movement, what was? At its core, alternative culture was about disengaging with the political altogether. The general aim was self-sufficiency: pursuit of a state of emotional well-being that derives from a satisfaction with the self. The ideal person in the alternative movement was one who was liberated from spiritual, financial, and emotional support from other people and things. Salvation wasn't to be found in the social sphere: rather, it was achieved by being "true to yourself", living authentically in accord with one's own values and desires.
The self-actualization that for the '60s youth was the secondary outcome of their political revolution was, for '90s youth, both a means and an end in itself. Certainly, part of this inversion was born of watching as our parents, many of them former hippies, slowly settled into the established order that they had disdained as if it was their favorite easy chair: at least on the surface, it seemed they ultimately accepted the idea that material affluence equated to personal happiness. Another factor was that Gen X was required by their parents to be more self-sufficient: so many of us lived in houses where both parents worked or one parent was absent. Thus, our goal came to be spiritually self-sufficient and self-contained – to be content with the people that we were, and dedicated to charting life paths that were in ethical accord with those identities.
The music was the soundtrack of this project. The growth of independent record labels and production studios during this period (Caroline Records, Sub-Pop, and Matador, for example) were one expression of the drive for self-sufficiency. The production of alternative music had begun because the broader culture of commercial record production didn't allow many artists to make the kind of music they wanted to make, which was tantamount to a system that disallowed authentic self-expression. Thus, many artists began to record, produce, distribute, and perform their own music in an effort to circumvent the artificially imposed standards of taste and sound that the industry imposed.
By 1991, when it became clear that alternative rock was a cash cow and when what had been independent labels were now signing major label distribution agreements, the internal contradictions that would crash the alt-rock wave must have been plainly evident to many of the Gen Xers who were the architects of the movement. But they weren't evident to me.
To me, the frontmen (and women) of my favorite bands were something like Priests of Selfhood: their lyrics took on the status of scripture, a collaborative roadmap to self-actualization.Thirty years later, the lyrics read like obsessive navel-gazing with a monomaniac fixation on the question of personal authenticity. And so, Scott Weiland asks rhetorically, "Where you goin' with that mask I found?" "I'm not like them, but I can pretend," sings Cobain. Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor seethes: "Am I not living up to what I'm supposed to be?" Chris Cornell admits similar concerns "I'm only faking when I get it right." REM's Michael Stipe remarks on the use of "a simple prop to occupy [his] time". Courtney Love ups the ante, claiming such profound inauthenticity that she transcends the concept altogether: "I fake it so real I am beyond fake."
The problem of authenticity was of such concern because happiness could only be achieved by living a life that accords with one's truest beliefs and desires. It couldn't be found in success, or social status, or romantic relationships, or religious faith, or work. Happiness was not to be found externally. Because self-sufficiency was a high virtue, happiness was a matter of the heart. And often, the beliefs and desires that the self discovered were ones that ran counter to social norms, cultural traditions, and family expectations.
On some level, the beliefs had to be non-conformist – a person's willingness to defy others' expectations and sustain some cost as a result was the primary way to signify that one was being "true to the self". In Pearl Jam, Eddie Vedder's lyrics were relentlessly self-searching, and he gives a nice summation of the spiritual project of the alternative moment: "Will myself to find a home – a home within myself."
But ask a Pearl Jam fan to name a love song by the band. That person might eventually come up with something that they will classify as a love song, but it will take quite a while. And that's telling. The fact that Pearl Jam never wrote a love song underscores the general disinterest in external means to personal happiness. Ultimately, the insistence on personal authenticity results in a narrow, monochromatic emotional palate.
In the Smashing Pumpkins, I discovered a person who was pursuing self-actualization while also engaging with the full range of human experience. Corgan wrote about love, faith, anger, ambition, depression, joy and all the rest. Siamese Dream was a grandiose epic, the documentation of a deeper plumbing of the self in pursuit of personal authenticity. Thus, in "Today" Corgan sings "I wanted more than life could ever grant me – bored by the chore of saving face." On "Rocket": "I torch my soul to show the world that I am pure deep inside my heart." On "Hummer": "Happiness will make you wonder: Will I feel okay?" On "Mayonnaise", the ninth track, Corgan finally voices what is arguably the record's thesis statement: "No longer will I follow. Can anybody hear me? I just want to be me."
Of course, these questions of identity are central to the teenaged experience, so it makes sense that adolescents would be uniquely drawn to these themes. (By 2000, Corgan essentially acknowledged that teens had been his primary audience, explaining a shift in his songwriting by saying "I'm not writing anymore for the tortured teen.") The problem isn't that '90s alternative rock addresses these topics. Rather, the problem is that the fixation on these themes encourages a fixation on the self among an audience that is already excessively self-absorbed. The music suggests that not only does the self have an ethical obligation to search for itself, it suggests that the search should be full of existential turmoil and tumult if it is to be authentic.
As a teenaged listener, I didn't have the critical capabilities to see the larger picture of the values and virtues that alternative culture advocated. It was forming me unconsciously. I became a modern Romantic: an emotive, independent, non-conforming, do-it-yourselfer who lived in my own imagination. But ultimately, I was becoming a selfish person. I was transfixed with "how I feel", constantly introspecting about "who I am". At 19, I began writing a ridiculous, thankfully unpublished book I called "The Contemporary Individual", and I partly blame Billy Corgan for that embarrassing fact. It's not that he is worse than other lyricists of the era – the problem is that he's better. Corgan was the grandest architect of the alternative ethos of authenticity. As a young man, trying to reproduce that ethos for myself, through myself, blinded me to external sources of human satisfaction. It kept me from getting over myself.
As I aged, it gradually became apparent that I don't even need to consider "who I really am". I am what I am: there is no self that is "hidden", waiting to be "discovered". Further, I began to realize that happiness is much more easily found in relationships with other people: sharing with them, caring for them, learning from them. When you're constantly wrapped up in some personal existential odyssey you lose the opportunity to cultivate relationships with others. Plus, you're a drag to be around.
Self-sufficiency, elevated to the status of a way of living, is a kind of handicap. A person needs other people: acknowledging that need – owning your insufficiency – is what it really means to be authentically human. And perhaps, Corgan had this figured out, too. The opening lyrics Siamese Dream reject the self-searching in favor of a being-for-others: "Freak out / And give in / Doesn't matter what you believe in. / Stay cool / And be somebody's fool this year." At 15, I read these lines as ironic parody. Of course you can't give in, Corgan seemed to say – of course it matters what you believe in. At 41, I read those lines literally. And happily, it seems like pretty good advice to me.
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