I’m not much of a Smashing Pumpkins fan, but I absolutely love Siamese Dream. In fact, I was shocked by how much I liked this album the first time I heard it. The song I had most associated with the Smashing Pumpkins was “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” a song I found incredibly stupid. (It begins with the words “The world is a vampire / Sent to drain,” arguably the worst metaphor I’ve ever heard, and also includes Billy Corgan screaming “Despite all my rage I’m still just a rat in a cage” over and over, and very unpleasantly at that.) I loved Siamese Dream so much that I was excited to listen to their double-disc blockbuster Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, which contains the aforementioned “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.”
Well, I gave up on that one before I could make it through all 28 tracks. (The damn thing’s two hours long.) I found it self-indulgent and lost interest rather quickly. Siamese Dream, however, is terrific, and I would go as far as to call it one of the best alt-rock albums of its era. It fits perfectly into the grunge landscape of the early ’90s, but it would be a mistake to label it grunge — it’s grander than that. It’s a finely textured album, featuring first-rate production by Butch Vig, who produced Nirvana‘s Nevermind two years earlier. It’s not hard to view Siamese Dream as an expansion of that sound, blown up extra large with walls of loud distortion and quiet, searching, lonely guitar lines. If you read music criticism, you’ll inevitably come across references to the Kurt Cobain Loud/Quiet Dynamic™ that he borrowed from the Pixies. (It’s usually worded something like that.)
It’s irritating to me that it’s heralded as an advancement for the human race when shifting between loud and quiet sections is pretty much a trademark of classical music, from what little I know of it. (Music critics tend to be overly dramatic in their descriptions, is what I’m trying to say. We don’t see eye to eye.) Nevertheless, the music press is correct in that this practice of shifting between quiet verses and loud choruses became something of a standard for post-grunge, a commercial, radio-ready genre that emerged after the initial wave of grunge bands burned out in the mid-’90s. Bands like Bush and Live were among those that first emerged, and the genre continued to be profitable and popular throughout the rest of the ’90s and even into the ’00s as Nickelback and Creed (*gag*) reigned supreme, and today alternative rock radio is still dominated by bands sharing these same characteristics. (Hence its decline in relevance.)
What’s interesting about the Smashing Pumpkins is that they aren’t a grunge band — they’re from Chicago — even though they released a single (“Tristessa”) early in their career on the Seattle-based Sub Pop label that released Bleach, Nirvana’s first album. In fact, their debut album Gish, which was also produced by Vig, was released mere months before Nevermind kicked off the grunge revolution, and Gish never got much attention as a result. For the Smashing Pumpkins’ breakthrough, Siamese Dream had to suffice. I’ll always remember the Smashing Pumpkins from the Simpsons episode “Homerpalooza,” where Homer travels on the Hullabalooza tour — a jab at the real-life Lollapalooza tour — getting cannon balls shot into his gut as part of a freak show act.
When Homer meets Billy Corgan, Corgan introduces himself as, “Billy Corgan, Smashing Pumpkins,” to which Homer unwittingly replies, “Homer Simpson, smiling politely.” The Smashing Pumpkins are shown performing “Zero” from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness at one point, a song I’m not crazy about. I wish they had picked a song from Siamese Dream instead, but the episode aired in 1996, so it wouldn’t have made sense. (Other guests in that episode include Cypress Hill, Sonic Youth and Peter Frampton. They also apparently asked Pearl Jam and Neil Young to appear, both of whom declined the offers. I’m not sure how they would have made good use of Pearl Jam — they don’t seem particularly Springfieldian — but I’m sure they would have since they had such good writers back then.)
I lived and breathed The Simpsons when I was growing up. My entire sense of humor is based on those first nine or ten seasons. I became acquainted with pop culture through their parodies of it. They were so good at executing those parodies that you didn’t have to get the references to think they were funny. I watched the reruns so many times that I can’t remember the first time I experienced most episodes. The “Homerpalooza” episode was undoubtedly the first time I encountered the Smashing Pumpkins, yet I can’t remember the first time I saw that episode. But I remember the first time I heard Siamese Dream a couple of years ago, and even though I had heard the singles — “Cherub Rock,” “Today” and “Disarm” — on the radio countless times, I was blown away. The scope was just massive, and it’s not surprising that when they decided to go even bigger with Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, I just wasn’t buying it. Oh, well.