Thursday, November 18, 2010
Corganwatch: Malanachrony and the Inferiority Complex
I take Corganwatch seriously. I am subscribed to his mailing list. I have a Google News alert for his name, meaning that whenever the music blogs I read mention him, I get to read their news (which is usually about Jessica Simpson or the Rush documentary that he featured in briefly) twice. Sometimes, for my sins, I even check out his spirituality blog, though I can't do that at the moment because against all odds it is, at time of writing, down.
What this means is that I live my life in a bubble of Billy Corgan-related scuttlebutt, and sometimes it is easy to forget that the reason I do this is that nobody else in the world (not even Billy Corgan, if he so chooses) has to live their lives in this bubble. So when a Really Big Story about Billy Corgan breaks, it is tempting not to even bother relaying it - as obviously, I think from inside my bubble, everyone in the world has heard this story already and filed it in their "very important story" boxes between "there is a woman in New Zealand with a name similar to that of a woman in England" and "Steve Jobs does not know that his software has a 'Rip CD' button on it." It is easy to forget that out there in the world of regular people who don't think about whether Courtney Love ghost-wrote Disarm, there are plenty of people that don't know (though surely they would care!) that Billy Corgan recently talked some shit about Pavement via Twitter, that rare example of a nu-medium with which he is (regrettably) growing increasingly savvy.
Corgan's squabble with Pavement stems from some sort of notion that the band represent a corruption of "indie" ideals and "alternative" integrity. This speaks to the fervent strain of indie fever pulsing through the veins of Corgan 2.0.
The Billy Corgan from the era of a living Jonathan Melvoin, a fucking D'arcy/Iha and a giving-a-shit public wore his exclusion from the "indie" crowd on his sleeve. He made no secret of running the band like a business or demanding professionalism and a high standard from himself and his bandmates (on the rare occasion that he let them play their instruments). When his contemporaries were hating on Rolling Stone and Big Music, Corgan was chumming up with soon-to-be Nevermind producer Butch Vig; in an era of Hal Hartleys and Whit Stilmans, Corgan was by no means a Tony Scott, but he was at least a David Fincher.
But when the reborn, reduced-capacity Smashing Pumpkins took to public stages, it was with the "indie" flag flying: Corgan seemed to think that being "alternative" justified any cockamamie decision or hurtful act of bitchiness he could muster. (He would later offer a variation on this theme, tweeting that "complaining is the inherent great right of a musician.") In Billy's scheme, "indie" meant "living in a universe where Billy Corgan is immune to criticism," so that anyone who didn't enter that space was less "real" or "authentic" than Billy Corgan, a man who by this time was also claiming that his petulant stage presence was a "persona" in the tradition of Ziggy Stardust.
Pressured (no doubt at gunpoint) to share a bill with Pavement, a band who typified the old-school notion of "indie cred" since when Billy Corgan was avoiding being lumped into such a milieu, there was only one option: rather than decrying Malkmus et al as "not indie," Billy had to rail against his fellow fuzz-toned Stipe-acolytes as "bad indie:" not pretenders but abusers. If Pavement were George W Bush, then Billy Corgan wasn't Al Gore, cheated out of the crown that was rightfully his: he was John Kerry, a well-meaning would-be in the right place at the wrong time, forced to watch that crown legitimately awarded to people who misused the mandate it conferred. If "indie rock," in Billy's scheme, was Courtney Love, then Pavement weren't a sub-par cast-off like Trent Reznor or a heroic burnout like Kurt Cobain: they were a manipulative, demeaning ogre. They were Billy Corgan.
The trouble with all this is that it belies a severely outdated model of the "indie"/"mainstream" divide. Corgan's model of the dichotomy, a binary that evidently influences so much of his thinking and creativity nowadays, is an ironic throwback to a time when such a paradigm was valid: ironic not because Billy Corgan did his best work at that time, but because while he was doing that work, he actively didn't give a shit about that division.
In the 1990s, we talked the fuck out of the "indie"/"mainstream" divide. The most public evidence of the discussion was the cinematic "indie boom" of Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures: a massive shift in public and industry perceptions of cinematic importance in which movies and studios that would once have been too gritty, too talky, too foreign or niche-oriented became, for a few brief shining years, the darlings of Big Cinema. This was the era not just of Tarantino and Spike Lee but of Merchant Ivory, Vincent Ward, Christine Vachon and Jane Hamsher and the Weinsteins and Jane Campion. "Indie" became a buzzword for young cinephiles eager to cut their teeth on fare they perceived as tailored personally to them, not dreamed up by committee in an LA highrise.
That was fine and good, but that discussion only went so far before it had to rub up against the awkward truth of the matter: everyone was indie now. By the late 90s, it had become fashionable to point out that it was fine and good to celebrate indie darlings like Welcome to the Dollhouse or Four Weddings and a Funeral, but it bore remembering that the "indie" label applied equally to Se7en (starring Brad Pitt and directed by the man behind Alien3), Scream (starring actors from Friends and Party of Five and directed by the man who launched the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise) and Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (no qualification necessary).
By the time New Line Cinema swept the Oscars with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the fact that the movie was an "indie film" by an "indie studio" didn't even bear consideration. This was the new paradigm: the creation of Hollywood blockbusters was a service outsourced to independent contractors, the same as everything else.
Billy Corgan is not irrelevant (as he consciously wastes no opportunity to remind us), but he is woefully anachronistic (as he unconsciously see above). While Corgan 1.0 was bypassing the whole "indie" farrago in favor of selling shitloads of the exact records he wanted to make, his contemporaries were wrestling with the angel of authenticity and, more often than not, coming to conclusions that Corgan 2.0 would have deemed "inauthentic." By adopting a mythologized version of the "indie" mantle long after contemporaries like Pavement had outgrown that notion, he puts one in mind of the Vietnam draft-dodgers who grow fat and old, turn hawk, and defend unnecessary wars by bemoaning their lost opportunity to bond with their fellow men in the sacred crucible of the soldier's nobility. He got to avoid a messy fight from which there was no escape without getting your hands dirty, but in later life, he still gets to cling to an ideal under whose standard he never marched to begin with. It's hard to condemn a figure like that too harshly: it may be a delusion, but the fact remains that for him, the war never ended.
 Oh, what, you're going to complain about hubristic author insertion in a story about Billy fucking Corgan?
 Let us not pretend that I am the only person to talk this week about the amusing contradictions of this situation.