Archive for the ‘Zeitgeist’ Category

I wanted to make a point of attending a live rock show at some point during the semester (a pithy attempt at fieldwork, perhaps).  I’m not really the concert-goer-type, so I had to select my first real rock experience carefully.  I chose the Smashing Pumpkin’s Zeitgeist tour (Normal, IL 10/04/07) and hoped for the best. 

In light of what I have read for the class so far, particularly Theodore Gracyk’s Rhythm and Noise and Albin Zak’s The Poetics of Rock, I must admit that I was a little worried about seeing my favorite band live.  Would I be disappointed if the live version did not sound like my well-indexed recording?  Gracyk seemed convinced that most modern rock music lives primarily as a recording, and that live shows become a lackluster attempt to recreate an impossible sound.  Zak would have me believe that the sound of the Zeitgeist album that I was coming to know is an entity created in a sound studio, meaning of course that I couldn’t expect the same caliber of sound live (since Billy Corgan can not sing multiple parts nor play multiple instruments at once). However, after the show, I am left with a completely positive and exhilarated point-of-view.  In fact, I was so very pleased with the live performance of both the Pumpkins and the opening act (the Bravery) that I decided to forego my previous plot to post a comparison of the live versus the recorded and instead use this live experience to comment on ideas brought up by Philip Auslander’s work Performing Glam Rock. 

Auslander mentions the three layers of a popular performer: the real person, the performance persona (on- and off-stage presentation), and the character (a figure portrayed in a song) (4).   

As to the real Billy Corgan, I cannot attest to much since I do not know him beyond his performance persona.  Yet, I feel like I can speak to slight glimpses of a Billy Corgan that seemed different from his on-stage persona.  Anyone who knows much about the Pumpkins and/or Billy Corgan can notice how steadfast Corgan holds to his persona.  Each band he’s formed, from the two-versions of pre-2000 Pumpkins, to Zwan, to his new Pumpkins band symbolize the persona Corgan is trying to present: Corgan plus male guitarist(s), female bassist, and Jimmy Chamberlin on drums.  Auslander compares feminine and masculine coding between performers on stage (discussing the relationship of David Bowie to guitarist Mick Ronston) (140-141).  In the Pumpkins line-up, Corgan takes on the feminine coding in contrast to the masculine coding of the drummer Chmaberlin.  Compare wardrobe choices: Corgan appears on stage in white Capri pants, knee-high striped socks and white leather boots, along with a long-sleeved striped shirt covered by a white blouse.  Chamberlin, to contrast, is wearing a white sleeveless shirt, accentuating tattoos and defined bicep muscles.  Yet, perhaps this is the reason for the female bass player: to counter Corgan’s feminine persona with an even more feminine persona on stage.  Mary Ann Clawson suggests that the bass guitar may have become a “feminized instrument,” due to the “supportive nature” of the instrument to the lead guitar and the female “intrinsic willingness to subordinate” (qtd. on 202-203).  If this is true, this adds to the complexity of the Pumpkins-persona, which leaves me to not question Corgan as the alpha-dominate persona of the group.  Even more so than perhaps previous bassists for Corgan, Ginger Reyes seemed to embody a female “sex object;”, Corgan received heckles from male members of the audience to “introduce the bass player” (198).  Of course, this might have been Corgan’s way of saying “the bass player’s name is not important, just the roll she’s filling.”   In fact, with all of the iterations of Corgan’s bands, the persona seems to remain the same even as the actors change; Corgan is the only link.  Corgan is the total embodiment of a “band leader,” taking the time during the concert to meticulously adjust the levels on his guitar and address the stage engineer in a way that still seemed to be part of a performance.  He is the alpha and the omega, the artist as perfectionist. 

And yet, occasionally Corgan would seem to “let his guard down,” even if it was completely staged and choreographed.  Mid way through the show, the entire band left the stage and Corgan reappeared solo with an amplified acoustic guitar.  He spoke candidly to the audience (insulting the Cardinals and commenting on how “no one buys records anymore, not just [his]”).  Near the end of the show, Corgan invited audience members from the back rows to sit in the open seats of the pit.  At the very end, Corgan walked the entire length of the stage to thank the entire audience, even taking the time for some of the audience who could get close enough to say a few words and pose for a quick picture.  This Billy Corgan contrasts the stage “demi-god” persona who portrays both masculine and feminine rolls on stage.  This is a humble Billy Corgan deeply dedicated to his art and his fans.  But, even with this small glimpse, the audience still must wonder “is this part of his persona too?” 

As to the nature of the characters presented in Pumpkins songs, using the live show is not the most successful source for discussion.  Live shows are not the place to learn and/or listen to lyrics (I could barely recognize any lyrics beneath the wash of amplified sounds).  Plus, with the aging of the band, I wonder if “1979” represents the same character it did 10 years ago anyway.  I must also admit, that when Corgan turned to the audience to sing the first verse of “Today,” I sang the approximated version of the lyrics as I had (poorly) translated them from the radio: “Today is the greatest / Day I’ve ever known / Can’t live for tomorrow / The Day I’ve [la-la] grown / I’ll burn my heart out / Before I get gone” (compared to the real lyrics: “Today is the greatest / Day I’ve ever known / Can’t live for tomorrow /  Tomorrow’s much too long / I’ll burn my eyes out / Before I get out”).  So again, seems like the character of the song is completely obliterated in a live performance if an audience member (like me) doesn’t know the words anyway. 

In general, I can’t imagine my first big rock concert experience going any better.  Adding to my pleasant interpretation of the Pumpkins live sound and light show, I was inadvenrtantly hit in the head with Jimmy Chamberlin’s drum stick as he threw it from the stage after the last encore.  Now I have a new rock object to index this live performance in a way that the recording could never mean to me.  Not a bad way to end my first true rock experience.


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Zeitgeist: Rock’s Comeback-Kid

People v. Billy Corgan


People magazine certainly has its place in popular culture, perhaps best as a representative of general “mainstream” opinion.  In the issue published on July 16, 2007, Chuck Arnold writes a review of the Smashing Pumpkins’ new album Zeitgeist.  In his review, he makes three main points: “it’s not a real reunion” (the original Pumpkins disbanded in 1997), “it’s not much better than 2005’s lackluster TheFutureEmbrace” (Billy Corgan’s solo album), and “you’re better off dusting off Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” (Time Magazine’s “album of the year” in 1995).


After reading Lawrence Grossberg’s article, “Reflections of a Disappointed Popular Music Scholar,” I hope not to prove Mr. Arnold “wrong,” but to demonstrate why all of his claims are actually correct, but that it doesn’t diminish the effect of this new Pumpkin’s album.


First: “it’s not a real reunion.”  This is true.  The new Smashing Pumpkin’s album features only original vocalist/guitarist Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain (original guitarist Jimmy Iha and bassist D’arcy Wretzky are not members of the reformed band).  Why this is ok:  in Rock, “image” is everything.  According to Grossberg, “image and style have always been a crucial part of rock” (38).  Most people would not deny the fact that Billy Corgan represents the image of the Smashing Pumpkins.  This means that the other original members are not required to fulfill the realization of the band.  I would like to second this opinion with a fact pointed out in RollingStone.com’s review of this album: on the Pumpkin’s album Siamese Dream (1993), Corgan performed and recorded Iha’s and Wretzky’s parts anyway (posted by David Fricke on 7/18/07).  On the other hand, it couldn’t be the Pumpkins without Corgan.

 Second: “it’s not much better than 2005’s lackluster TheFutureEmbrace.”  This is a very subjective claim, but at least in terms of comparative record sales is most likely true.  The number of albums sold by either Corgan or the Pumpkins has certainly declined since the end of the 90’s.  Why this is ok: the possibility of rock has changed since the 90’s anyway.  According to Grossberg, popular music scholars still haven’t completely figured out what happened to American culture because of rock in the 90’s.  This leads to the tendency to apply categories to music that are less-than-appropriate (43).  The fact that the Pumpkin’s are still labeled as “Alternative Rock” (even by Mr. Arnold) shows that popular culture has not quite caught up to where music is now.  “Alternative Rock” emerged in the 80’s and early 90’s; it’s now 2007 – 16 years since the first Pumpkin album (a debate over what Alternative Rock is even “alternative” to anymore is a completely different discussion).  It is not surprising that these last two albums would sound more similar to each other than to previous albums (even though TheFutureEmbrace is better categorized as “electronic/industrial rock” than “alternative rock”). 

Third: “you’re better off dusting off Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.”  This point follows Arnold’s former claim and my previous rebuttal.  Apparently, the Pumpkins were “better” in 1995.  Why this is ok: why do I want my Pumpkins to sound exactly like they did 15 years ago?  Grossberg describes this as “residual” versus “dominant” (45-47).  Once upon a time, the Smashing Pumpkins were an active part of the mainstream.  However, this mainstream died-out for the most part by the end of 1994 (with the demise of Grunge music and the death of Kurt Cobain).  If you want to listen to mainstream “dominant” Pumpkins, you have to listen to an album that was produced during that era (ie Mellon Collie).  Today, I feel as though the Pumpkins represent a more “residual” band: “established in the past but still vital in the present, often in opposition to the current dominant culture” (46).  This just proves my point that it’s a good thing that the Pumpkins aren’t selling as many albums: they are still the alternative to current dominant musical trends (begging the question: can “rock” be “pop” and still be representative of rock ideals?).  The Pumpkins still epitomize rock even if they aren’t popular anymore. 


In conclusion, it seems as though the People want their Pumpkins to be exactly what they were 15 years ago.  Ironically enough, even if they were, my guess is that People wouldn’t like them any better because that’s what popular music sounded like 15 years ago, not today.  This response to the Chuck Arnold review was not an attempt to claim that Zeitgeist is the best album ever.  Instead, it was an effort to prove that the review was totally accurate, but ought to have been presented as a positive review rather than a negative one. 


According to Webster’s College Dictionary, zeitgeist means “spirit of the times, a general trend of thought or feeling characteristic of a particular period of time.”  Seems like the perfect title for what the Pumpkins have accomplished with this album.

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