Will Billy Corgan, the Uncoolest of Rock Musicians, Achieve Cool Status with 'Ogilala'?
Corgan's willingness to be himself regardless of the critical and social blowback he suffered for doing “unhip” things made him a singular weirdo within a ‘90s rock scene stuffed full of weirdos, loners, and ennui-saturated youth. To this day, and with this album, he continues to be himself. Are you cool with that?
There are a handful of things I believe unconditionally. First, with all due respect to the '60s and ‘70s, the early '90s supplied the most interesting collection of rock music ever recorded. Second, the fashion choices that accompanied that era’s musical currents are not nearly as alluring as they appeared in real time. Third, William Patrick Corgan is exactly who he says he is, an unassailable rock genius who fronted (and continues to front) one of the most underappreciated bands of all time. In recent years, Corgan has become so adept at not only assessing his own musical legacy, but articulating exactly what made other rock musicians worthy of remembrance, that when he now says things like “For as long as I can remember, the delineation point between songs I wrote for myself and songs I'd pen for whatever band was something I couldn't explain”, I find myself inclined to agree with him -- even if the expressed sentiment leaves me more confused than I initially was. Sometimes you just have to trust those who excel in their professions.
Besides being one of the most Corgan-esque statements ever recorded for perpetuity -- is there another rock icon who would casually use the word “delineation” while describing his or her songwriting process? -- the aforementioned sentence was part of an announcement previewing Ogilala, Corgan’s second solo-album and a piece of work that seems designed to address one of the key issues that has dogged Corgan throughout his career as a recording artist: a penchant for dabbling in elaborate, some would say superfluous, postproduction techniques. Ogilala, which hit record stores shelves and digital music platforms today, has been promoted as collection of spare, stripped back songs that, according to Corgan, “want little in the way of adornment.” The album was recorded under the auspices of super producer/reclusive Zen master Rick Rubin, and Corgan has suggested Rubin played an integral role in crafting its ostensibly austere sound.
The notion of a Corgan album that doesn’t feature myriad overdubs and/or impassioned forays into electronica can, upon initial consideration, seem antithetical to everything the former alt-rock poster child strove to achieve on-record as the chief songwriter and founding member of the Smashing Pumpkins, and one can’t help but interpret Corgan’s decision to forgo the sonic maximalism found on much of his past work as a sly middle-finger to the community of myopic critics who have long used the Pumpkins' intricate sounding records and rococo iconography as an excuse to unfairly marginalize Corgan’s unique talents and ignore the band’s indelible contributions to the alternative rock scene of the early ‘90s -- as well as rock music in general. In the run-up to the release of Ogilala, Corgan promised the album would offer fans and critics alike a taste of his musical prowess reduced to its bare essentials, a decision that, given Corgan’s history and the way his past work has been described in the press, seems like a conscious attempt to shift the prevailing narrative arc of his career.
To fully understand the potential significance of Corgan’s (alleged) renunciation of the intricate production values that have always been a hallmark of his recording process, you must first understand how Corgan has long been perceived within the critical community. When he broke onto the national music scene in the early '90s as the lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter -- not to mention chief creative force -- of the Chicago-based alternative rock group the Smashing Pumpkins, Corgan struck many earnest acolytes of the burgeoning alt-rock scene as a quintessential embodiment of musical ideas and personal qualities that distinguished it from the synth pop and lascivious hair metal that had flourished in the ‘80s -- as well as the underground hardcore scene which served as the anti-commercial counterbalances to the Poisons and Guns ‘N Roses of the arena rock world. Like their grunge contemporaries, the Pumpkins amalgamated elements of classic rock, heavy metal, and punk -- a Rolling Stone review of the band’s debut albums Gish said the music conjured “visions of Jimi Hendrix sitting in with the Stooges” -- then filtered the resulting mixture through an overarching aesthetic of vigorous self-deprecation, gloomy introspection, and welcome despair.
As Kyle Anderson notes in Accidental Revolution: The Story of Grunge, Corgan fit the archetypal description of “early-nineties front man” as well, if not better, than Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder. The Pumpkins' early music utilizes all the representative sonic signifiers of the ‘90s grunge/alternative scene: loud/quiet dynamics, languorous tempos, glum ambience. Fans of the genre embraced the Pumpkins, hence the group’s stronger than average record sales and ubiquity on alternative and college radio stations. Sub Pop -- the godfather label of grunge -- released one of the band’s early singles. And the annual alternative tour Lollapalooza eagerly welcomed the Pumpkins as headliners in the summer of 1994. All of these achievements serve as irrefutable proof that the Pumpkins were one the cornerstone bands of ‘90s alternative rock.
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Despite these accomplishments -- and the fact that, contrary to Corgan’s claims otherwise, the band’s work received mostly positive reviews from mainstream and just-outside-the mainstream press outlets -- the Pumpkins were always trailed by a vague, yet pervasive media narrative questioning their artistic credibility and the legitimacy of their claim to the “alternative” label. This narrative partially stemmed from the contempt a handful of alt-rock insiders like Steve Albini, Bob Mould, and Kim Gorton -- and much later on Sheryl Osborne -- held for Corgan. (Each of those individuals excoriated the band and/or Corgan on the record.) It also partially stemmed from critics’ unwillingness to write about the Pumpkins without reserving at least a few sentences and/or paragraphs for leveling odd potshots at the band in general and Corgan in particular. As acclaimed rock critic Steven Hayden noted in his book Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, “Every article about the band addressed the Pumpkins’ ‘credibility issues’ and inherent lack of coolness.” The classic example of this sort of writing is Michael Azerrad’s profile of the band for the December 1994 issue of Spin magazine, an article that ostensibly celebrates the Pumpkins as the magazine’s choice for artist of the year but spends a curious amount of effort insinuating Corgan was nothing more than a lame poseur and Cobain wannabe.
Why so many critics felt the need to dress down Corgan and his bandmates even as they begrudgingly acknowledged the Pumpkins musical talent and popularity with alternative music fans is a difficult question to answer definitively. Some would say the press corps’ unwillingness to grant Corgan the same cool kid status as mainstream icons like Cobain, or even critical darlings like Steven Malkmus, was simply the result of his alleged habit of acting like a self-aggrandizing asshole. The Pumpkins front man certainly had no qualms about giving himself a lion’s share of the credit for his band’s success; he had a habit of going on the record with quotes like “I took a drummer who didn’t even know what alternative music was and took two people who could barely play their instruments and made a band. That’s not to say they didn’t do anything, but I created something beyond the sum of its parts.” Such petulantly toned opinions did not ingratiate Corgan with journalists who saw the ethos of the ‘90s alternative music scene a necessary correction to the egomaniacal rock star paradigm that had ruled the roost in the previous decade. (Of course, Corgan also went on record at least once saying drummer Jimmy Chamberlain was the best musician in the group, proving he was capable of generously appraising his bandmates.)
But assholery in rock music was far from a novel concept by the time Corgan became famous, and so it seems unlikely that the press’ condescending treatment of the Pumpkins -- as well as the untrammeled ire directed at the group by the Mould’s, Albini’s, and Gordon’s of the alt-rock world -- is not the reason why so many people agreed that the Pumpkins didn’t possess the right brand of alternative cool. It seems much more likely that the Pumpkins were always treated like outsiders looking in because unlike so many of their alt-rock peers, they had no compunction about going into the recording studio and using elaborate overdubs and other extensive post-production techniques to infuse their raucous, grungy and painfully confessionalsongs with the sonic polish and technical sensibilities of art and prog rockers.
The ‘90s were a time when the album-oriented rock (AOR) and art rock albums that had been so popular in the '70s came to be considered the nadir of the rock tradition, an unfortunate digression into overly pretentious waters and a digression for which early punk music served as a much-needed antidote. It’s safe to say that most of the music journalists working in the ‘90s hailed from the Lester Bangs school of criticism, which to this day requires its disciples to revile any rock that aspires to the realm of art while celebrating any and all bands that strictly adhere to the form’s origin as a simple, stripped-down, often sloppy expression of youthful rebelliousness. (These sorts of critics are essentially the music community’s version of Constitutional Originalists and Bangs is their Antonin Scalia.)
Critics at the time venerated the simplicity of punk and the callous indifference of indie musicians who didn’t care whether they knew how to play their instruments or sing in tune. They mischaracterized 1991 as the “year punk broke” and elevated bands like Pavement and Fugazi to the status of cult heroes, all while rolling their eyes at the Pumpkins' attempts to, in the words of Corgan, treat each of their albums as “a permanent work of art”. (Any misguided fools who think Nirvana’s music was just punk rock, man, and doesn’t owe significant creative debts to the ‘70s arena acts so many '90s rock journalists and overtly hipsterish indie insiders loved to savage should take a moment to read Cobain’s 1994 interview with David Fricke in which the doyen of grunge professes his lasting affection for anti-punk albums like Back in Black, Led Zeppelin II, and Aerosmith’s Rocks but somehow neglects to mention Black Flag. Or go find the Melody Maker interview in which Cobain cites un-punk musical forces like King Crimson’s Robert Fripp and electronic music producer Brian Eno as significant influences.)
Truth be told, slickly produced albums comprised a significant portion the ‘90s alt-rock’s canon, which as Leslie Haynsworth argues throughout her essay,“Alternative” Music and the Oppositional Potential of Generation X Culture", always sought to denounce established tastes and expose the emptiness of mainstream material values from within the corporate system as opposed to outside of it. As John Amen noted in PopMatters last September, the songs on Nirvana’s influential album Nevermind bear “production values characteristic of the previous decade. The fundamental rawness of the material and delivery are frequently suppressed rather than complemented by what sound to me like compression, chorus, and mixing techniques reminiscent of late ‘70s / early ‘80s New Wave, or mid- to late ‘80s hard-rock recordings.” While Nirvana’s follow-up album In Utero achieved the sort raw and abrasive sound long found on less commercially viable records, Amen’s observations about the sonic textures of Nevermind can certainly be applied to just about every recording made by alternative groups like Pearl Jam Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains. Even bands like REM, who critics lovingly praised for their “authentic” repudiation of the commercial mainstream, regularly embraced the sort of pop hooks that would make Madonna blush with envy.
All of which is another way of saying that the Pumpkins' willingness to indulge Corgan’s attachment to high-gloss production values was not so out of step with then-vogue ideas about what alternative rock should sound like, though Corgan certainly went further than any of his peers in using the studio to amplify his band’s sonic signature and never hid his affection for the vulgarities of ‘70s prog rock or the veins of performance art that informed so many of those bands stage shows. Because Corgan was so upfront about his dislike of sloppy punk music -- he once told music critic Jim DeRogatis “I always had a problem with a lot of the punk ethic, because there’s more of an art to the presentation” -- and his desire to make epochal defining art records -- he once previewed the band’s massive double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by describing it as The Wall for Generation X -- that it became easy for punk loving critics to pigeonhole Corgan as an unfortunate example of AOR’s lingering influence. (Whether or not Mellon Collie is The Wall for Xers remains up for debate. But it should be noted that just as The Wall’s most iconic song expresses a core principle of early Baby Boomer culture -- mainstream society’s stodgy mores and debilitating social structures are the enemy of freedom and self-expression -- Mellon Collie’s first single speaks to the sensibilities most associated with Generation X and early ‘90s youth culture: ineffectual rage, disgust with the artifice of postmodern society, apathy stemming from the realization that you were powerless to impact the course taken by mainstream institutions.)
What these small-minded critics, as well as the indie insiders who similarly disliked the Pumpkins for self-identifying as artists, either failed to realize or willfully ignored is that while Corgan and his bandmates certainly viewed the recording studio as a useful tool for bringing specific, often baroque sonic ambitions to fruition, the band was not the sort of lame rock outfit that had to rely on post-production wizardry as a crutch. Just about every song the Pumpkins ever recorded, from the guitar rock of Gish all the way through the electronica of Adore, sounds just as compelling when rendered sparsely and/or acoustically. (How I would relish listening to Corgan and Mike Garson play the entire Pumpkins oeuvre on nothing but an acoustic guitar and keyboard.) On record, the band shares much in common with detail-oriented art rockers, but their music is no less interesting when stripped to its bare essentials. The Pumpkins also recorded a number of lo-fi B-sides and simple acoustic tracks that, when compiled into a single playlist, sound far more interesting than any album Pavement released, so there’s no question the band was capable of working in a minimalist style as well if not better than many of their alt-rock contemporaries. What made the Pumpkins such a unique quartet is they possessed an artistic vision akin to Yes but could channel the immediacy of a garage band on cue, a fact that deflates any attempt to categorize the band as a strictly AOR act incapable of communing with rock music’s simple, caustic roots.
What Corgan demonstrated from the very get-go of his career was a singular unwillingness to pay lip service to punk orthodoxy, even though aligning oneself with the suddenly modish punk tradition was the savviest PR move a band could make post-1991. He readily admitted that his musical heroes were less “edgy” artists, like the spunky metalheads in Van Halen and the dorky prog rockers of Rush (and this was back before liking Rush became cool). Chicago’s Mancow Morning Show href="https://shadybrook.wordpress.com/2015/07/12/nirvanas-smells-like-teen-spirit-sounds-like-bostons-more-than-a-feeling-and-dancing-tony-hodgkinson/">signature riffs, but wasn’t too insecure to sing their praises, even when doing so was considered profoundly uncool by the alternative community at large. Corgan always self-identified as an alternative musician and was confident enough in his convictions to slam the scene’s endemic insularity -- an insularity that seemed designed to limit eclectic artistic statements rather than empower them. This willingness to be himself regardless of the critical and social blowback he suffered for doing “unhip” things like admitting a fondness for Judas Priest was what made Corgan a singular weirdo within a ‘90s rock scene stuffed full of weirdos, loners, and ennui- saturated youth. And if it's not already clear from my writing, I wholeheartedly believe that’s a good and admirable quality.