Why were the Smashing Pumpkins and some of their '90s cohorts able to achieve a level of commercial success unknown to the alt-rock bands today? Sure, you have your boy bands and gangsta rappers, your Justin Timberlakes and your 50 Cents. But the recent Coachella festival outside Los Angeles featured the best of today's indie rock--think Bright Eyes and The Rapture. What, never heard of them? NEWSWEEK's Bret Begun talked with former Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan about his era of rock--and what's different today. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: If you survey the alt-rock landscape these days, there is a kingdom of good bands, but no king. Why?
Billy Corgan: You've had an erosion of mystique. You have to be on the cover of Maxim. Michelle Branch was on the cover of FHM. It's a constant series of compromises that takes away from the very essence of what it means to be an iconoclast. They just sign 40 guys who are better looking than Kurt Cobain and sing just like Kurt Cobain. But what you lose is the spiritual essence of the individual who seems to come from out of nowhere. All the great icons of rock have been incredibly insane individuals.
Is it impossible for a great icon to come along again?
What we're going to see now is a different archetype rise up. It's not going to be the Elvis archetype; it's going to be something we can't even imagine. It's going to be someone, maybe, who's more spiritual, somebody who doesn't want anything to do with corporate industry. Somebody who's an Internet star. Some kid who makes tapes in his bedroom and says, "F---the world. This is my version of it." And then people will latch on. All the music factories in the world can't manufacture that kid. To me, Elvis was the innovator. We've basically just been watering down Elvis. We've lost the desire to support individuals. In the early '90s, you had six or seven top people--Courtney [Love], Trent Reznor, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains. We all got assassinated because we didn't live up to some sort of idealism that never existed: a perfectionism of rock and roll attitude mixed with drug addiction. So what replaced us? Kids who looked the part, acted the part, but they weren't saying the same things. They've been successful, so why would the next generation go back to what we used to do?
Why be original, in other words?
There's just as many talented people in this particular generation, but the compromises are too great. The constant message to kids--particularly kids who are starting new bands--is: this is really not that important. The way you look is more important than your song. Being an individual? That's too much of a problem. Act like you're an individual, but don't sacrifice like an individual. Where's everybody putting their fingers in their ears? When you water down the basic image of what it means to be a rock star into something that's tattoo-ready and MTV-friendly, where's the rebellion? There isn't any. Rebellion is doing something where people like me have our fingers in our ears going, "This is s---." We're so blind, we don't even see the genius.
Is anyone on that trajectory?
No. Radiohead is constantly compared to Pink Floyd. I don't think that's a comparable comparison. If you're Radiohead and you're told now that you're the Pink Floyd, what else do you have to shoot for? You sort of retreat into your own vision. When Pink Floyd had "Dark Side of the Moon," it told someone like me, "Wow, you can be yourself and you can have all the success in the world." Where is that earth-shattering moment where everything changes? The Beatles did it. Elvis did it. U2 did it. Nirvana did it. Is this generation any less talented? Are they more into their cars or something? No. There's no reason to step into that light because there's no reward there for anybody.
When you were beginning, how did you measure success?
In 1988, when the band started, success was playing the Metro [in Chicago], which was 1,000 people. Sonic Youth played the Metro, Dinosaur Jr. If you were on that level, you were successful. The idea that you could reach a point where you would play the Riviera, which was 3,500, or the Aragon, was unfathomable. Much less arenas. Much less be on MTV more than once on "120 Minutes." So, in 1988, if you were on "120 Minutes" and you sold out the Metro, that was it. That was Dinosaur Jr. You were the top. When the sales came in with Nirvana, everything changed. In 1990, I think there were seven alternative-rock stations in America; now there's something like 90 and most are corporately owned.
The notion of "selling out," licensing songs, how has that changed? Fifteen years ago, that seems like it would have been unacceptable. Career death. Is all this completely different now?
I'm not romantic about the notion of "selling out." People who are not in your position deciding what is and isn't selling out I always thought was a crock of s---. The song I wrote, "Today," which ended up being a pretty big song--that song literally saved my life. I was completely suicidal, and I wrote that song in a cold bedroom on a day where it was like, "I'm either going to kill myself today, or I'm going to live because I'm sick of thinking about this." When I played it, it was an intense, extreme feeling. Last year, I was offered heavy, heavy money to license that song. I actually turned down two huge, huge, seven-figure-plus deals last year for two songs.
For "Today" and for which other song?
"Tonight, Tonight." That's a fundamentally difficult position to be in. At this point, it's just free money. Song's already been played. It's been exploited. The record company's literally begging me: go ahead and take these commercials. At this point in my life, I don't feel comfortable. Those songs are the reason I'm alive. If your music is not sacred to the point where it's a really, really, really heavy decision about whether or not you would allow somebody else to exploit it, then what's not for sale? For a long time there was this dream that you could hit this utopian point The Beatles hit. "All you need is love." You'd write that song that would change the world. That seems to have gotten lost. Now songs are just vehicles for personality. The song is not the sacred thing anymore.
Is the cultural climate one that would allow a musician to hit a "utopian point"?
Maybe the silver lining here is that people just don't need rock music like they used to. Maybe they feel better about themselves. The machinery of the entertainment business is so overwhelming. All people want to feel is that whatever they do is empowered. When everything is connected back to something, well, then where do you get that sense of feeling it was your decision? Maybe you hear a song on a McDonald's commercial and you buy the CD, but it's not like you heard about it in somebody's basement. When everything is everybody's, then nobody owns anything. This culture, I don't think, values the song. It doesn't value the icon. It values the moment and whoever feeds that moment. But we lose that it's human beings creating the moment. And when the culture thinks that it's the puppet master, then, of course, why wouldn't you have "American Idol?" One question that comes up a lot is, "How did you do it?" Like it's a trick. The code is 1-2-3, turn the knob to the left. It's not like that. But watch "American Idol." It says, "If you go 1, 2, 3 and turn the knob to the left, you win the whole thing." That's the wrong message.