Ten years ago this month, in Chicago, Illinois, the Smashing Pumpkins began to record their third album, “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.” A child born in that year is fast approaching the age at which we heard that album for the first time. And what an age. Ready to greet us back then, as the hormones set in, was a musical inheritance of angst and irony. While Green Day and Nirvana may have sung to many of us in our broody bedrooms and gawky basement get-togethers in a way that the Smashing Pumpkins never did, no one can deny that “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” was music of our moment. It came to us first.
To whom did it come? We recent twentysomethings reading this paper – too young for Generation X and its afterbirth, too old for whatever inane podlings are populating our former junior high schools, rode (to tweak a metaphor from the late Hunter S. Thompson) the crest of some wave of more-substantive youth media, a wave that has long since broken and washed out.
We are “blessed and cursed at once,” as Billy Corgan sings, to have inhabited this media world just long enough to feel well-versed and comfortable and just late enough to see it fall apart all around us. It is telling that, not long after “Mellon Collie” became a big thing, Billy Corgan declared, like so many before him, that rock was dead. Albums such as Beck’s “Odelay” (1996) and Sublime’s self-titled album (1997) – two major albums in the broadest arena of mass music culture- never succeeded in reproducing the perfectly articulated angst of “Mellon Collie.”
What was it about “Mellon Collie?” “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” was the last album to speak to the idea of youth rather than to simply market itself to teen-aged children. Watching MTV today, where Carson Daly introduces a production-rock video by Kelly Clarkson in between “My Sweet Sixteen” and “Pimp My Ride,” it is amazing to think that ten years ago this channel was populated by music videos featuring thoughtful longhairs hoarsely banging out music that at least made the effort to deal honestly and creatively with the artists’ actual feelings.
The songs on “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” do not only generate nostalgia-by-recognition but instead, as songs with actual content, exist as part of the soundtrack to an intimate emotional landscape. Would the song “Tonight, Tonight” be as powerful a part of:
1. Adam B__’s memory of that night when his sixth-grade girlfriend broke up with him at her house and then, after his mother had picked him up in the car, Adam B____ put Q101.1 on the radio, only to hear “Tonight, Tonight” playing for the entire quiet duration of the ride home;
2. My memory that exists in reference to Adam B__’s sixth-grade breakup, a memory of a night when, years later, driving alone on the highway amid far happier circumstances, I happened to tune in to the same station playing “Tonight, Tonight.”
Would it be as powerful a part of this twinned memory if Billy Corgan had not sung, in plaintive, lullaby tones:
“Time is never time at all
You can never ever leave without leaving a piece of youth
And our lives are forever changed
We will never be the same
The more you change the less you feel”
It would not.
“Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” spoke to the horrible sadness of the youth who preternaturally understands the confounding realities beyond childhood’s end, to the youth who sheds whole parts and numbs the remainder. As safety and innocence suddenly give way to the strife of reproductive mammaldom, we are anguished by the knowledge of our inability to reverse our fate. In “Here is No Why,” Corgan sings, “In your sad machines, you’ll forever stay.” In “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” it’s “Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage.” These feelings are not the sole province of adolescence but are instead likely to persist like a chronic albeit often-dormant fever for the rest of our lives.
And yet all of the pain roaring out of this album is not without the intense sweetness, or rather, bittersweetness, that is the adult’s reconciliation with life. On the track, “Muzzle,” (a seriously mindblowing track that does as good a job as any lyrical assemblage, prior or since, to encompass this bittersweet totality of human existence) Corgan sings:
“And the world is drawn into your hands
And the world is etched upon your heart
And the world so hard to understand
Is the world you can’t live without.”
Here lies the difference between “Mellon Collie” and whatever noises exist at the center of popular youth culture ten years later: the Smashing Pumpkins were the last rock and rollers to give a shit. At least our strange, liminal generation will be able, years from now, to blow the dust off the old compact disc of “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” and pride itself on the unnerving distinction that its mass music was the last to provide adequate warmth and identification to the young people who need it most. Sadly, our current counterparts are suffering their youths deprived of the inalienable American right to rock out for serious.