Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Restless As We Are (Volume 12)

Some artists--say, any image-conscious local band--seek to be popular, but don't have a talent for pop songwriting.  Some--say, Coldplay--want to be Important, but don't have a talent for serious artistry.  And while it's totally redundant to critically dump on Coldplay, I'd honestly love to love them.  Chris Martin is a gifted pop songwriter who writes great melodies at his worst, and who writes great songs ("Fix You") at his best.  

Neverminding what the Grandma Grammy says, Coldplay's talent is not one of Artistic Importance (a fact made even more clear by their performance on Sunday compared to Radiohead's***).  Their only hope of becoming important is writing the type of songs that come naturally to them.  Take off the army-chic-designer-camo, Patches Martin.  Lower the raised fist.  No mas on the jazzercize stage histrionics.  Stop writing nonsense about "cavalry choirs."  Keep writing "Barbara Ann," because you ain't making Pet Sounds.  Do what you do, do it well, and give a lot of people a lot of harmless pleasure.

See, Viva la Vida Loca succeeded not because it meant something, and not because it tried to.  It succeeded because--as always--it had great pop melodies.  As a record that was meant to be an "artistic breakthrough," it's an unmitigated failure.  But it was still a commercial success, because the songs were still pretty and memorable and, thus, everywhere.  People will overlook a hell of a lot if the melody's good enough.  The problem isn't that Coldplay has no talent; it's that their talent is currently misplaced.

And what I'm trying to say is this: perhaps no 90's band had more misplaced talent than the Smashing Pumpkins.


As is so often the case with pop trends, a few great artists kick down the door while a dozen more wait in the wings, ready to walk right in.  After Nevermind changed the landscape in 1992, the public was hungry for the uberpop-grunge of Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream.  The record was an A&R rep's dream: thirteen songs of radio-friendly alternative rock.  Smashing Pumpkins were the right band in the right place at the right time, led by the immense songwriting gifts of Billy Corgan.  While he chose to write alt-rock songs, his strengths lay in melody.  He was a hugely gifted pop melodist with a grunge backing band.

Only problem was, he wanted to be Important.  Because grunge meant something to a new generation of music fans, it was essential that grunge songs "meant something" themselves.  They had to be serious, angsty, sad, angry--an alternative to hair metal in every way.  So Billy Corgan wrote great pop songs about depression and anger and sang with a scowl.  

By the time 1995's double-disc opus, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness came out, we should've seen it coming.  I didn't, because I was twelve and I didn't think about stuff like that.  I loved "Cherub Rock" and "Today" and even "Disarm" and now there were new Pumpkins songs to rock.  I remember playing the record and thinking that it felt big, from the symphonic swell of "Tonight, Tonight," to the psychedelic dreamscape of "Farewell and Goodnight."  I thought, "wow, they're really making a statement."  And they were.  After the death and dissolution of many grunge front-runners, Corgan saw an opening.  He pushed himself to make a huge, sweeping, concept-double-album, a post-grunge masterpiece.  In many ways it was successful, because his talents as a pop songwriter were at their height.  He couldn't write a limp, un-catchy song if he wanted to, and the first wave of singles ("Bullet with Butterfly Wings," "Tonight, Tonight," "Zero") were powerful, impressive, and on 96X constantly.

And though I liked it, I wasn't buying it.  Even as an angsty middle schooler, I remember thinking that the "rage" of "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" sounded contrived.  It sounded awesome, too, because it was such a great melody.  But Corgan was trying too hard to be important, to speak for a generation that had been spoken for.  By 1995, I got my "rage" from Rage Against the Machine.  They could sell it.  I didn't need importance from the Pumpkins, just memorable songs.  

Then the haunting, gorgeous, anti-ballad "1979" came out.  It was a snapshot of a single teenage night, the simultaneous excitement and loneliness of adolescence, the joy and pain that accompany nostalgia.  It was also a musical breakthrough, a sonic bridge between their straightforward rock and future forays into electronica.  The production was pitch-perfect, the melody (of course) great, and the song transcendent.  Not surprisingly, it has aged better than any of their singles, including "Today" (the "wall of grunge" production--sounds dated today).  

"1979" was an important alternative to contemporary rock, because it depicted pain as beautiful rather than rage-inducing.  This, I think, is where Corgan naturally comes from as a writer.  Looking back, the Pumpkins' best songs were those that celebrated beauty in sadness, the strange and lasting pleasure of melancholy ("Disarm," "Today," "Muzzle," "1979," "33," and even the "Landslide" cover).  By trying to speak for the supposed anger of his generation, Corgan too often didn't speak for himself.  His naturally immense talent for pop songwriting should've carried the Pumpkins into the Rock Pantheon, but a misguided quest for "importance" prevented it.  

The best bands, of course, are popular and important, and I always hope for both among artists I like. While pop-appeal can be manipulated, contrived, deliberate, ironic, or tongue-in-cheek, Importance can't.  If you're gifted enough, you can become a popular band writing songs you don't necessarily relate to; but you can't become important unless you create from the heart.

I don't care what the Grandma Grammy says, someone should send Coldplay Martin the memo.

Shake these zipper blues,

***On the great list of Things I'll Never Understand, under Japanese Gameshows and above Foot Fetishes, is the Coldplay-Radiohead Comparison.  Comparing Coldplay to Radiohead because both are English and atmospheric is like comparing a gerbil to a lion because both have four legs.  And yes, I understand Coldplay sites Radiohead as an influence and no, that doesn't change what they are.  

1 comment:

Michael said...

Yeah, you know, I never got the coldplay-radiohead comparison either.

I remember thinking the song "Just" was sort of similar to "Shiver" off of parachutes. But in retrospect, and after having listened to both again, the only thing they have in common is that they're a little faster than the songs that surround them on their respective albums.

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