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21 September 2012

Billy Corgan on the Community Function

May I grab a moment of your increasingly internet-fractured attention span and focus you on this interview between T. Cole Rachel and the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan on, ahem, the “state of the Alternative Community” — communities being something I care about a great deal.

Here it is thanks to Stereogum. (Thanks Stereogum!)

Here is an excerpt I particularly like, and bold-face on the parts I really really like:

“Once I entered the world of honesty, circa 1992, there was sort of no going back. It’s a nice fantasy to think if someone got me some media training, I would have avoided a lot of these controversies that are really meaningless and continue to be meaningless. Secondarily, I think there’s something to be said for being principled. Like I think of Lou Reed as being principled. I think of Neil Young as being principled. There are those actors in the world for whom the principles they live their life by, in the long run, mean something. And I think that the principles that I live my life by do mean something and will look better in hindsight. Because when I was at South By Southwest … first of all, in alternative rock music, generally speaking, there have been very few bands in the past 10 years that have made OK Computer-level records. I guess you could say Arcade Fire made one, but there’s been a real scarcity in great, A-level work that crosses over into the mainstream. That’s very interesting, because I don’t think it’s a lack of talent. And if anything, you could say that technology should afford the ability to make ideal records even more easily than we used to be able to make when we had to do it all on tape. Secondarily, the main alternative voice for at least seven years now, and you could argue possibly longer, has been Pitchfork. And they have not produced the level of movement commensurate to their power. So what does that say to me? That system doesn’t work. Now it might work for the kids down in Wicker Park or Echo Park. It might work for the guy with the handlebar mustache. But it doesn’t work overall in the way that the Stooges work, the way that the Velvet Underground worked, or the Cure worked, or Depeche Mode, or pick your fucking any band that made it across the divide from being underground to being iconic. I think there’s something to be said for having made it across that chasm years ago, and standing on the other side, and saying, “If you’re going to lambast me for refusing to live by anybody’s rule but my own, I’m going to point out the hypocrisy of your message.” I don’t have any problem with alternative culture; in fact I’ve championed alternative culture for twenty-five years because I am part of alternative culture. But isn’t it funny how alternative culture likes to turn its back on those they don’t consider attractive. There is a narcissistic subtext to alternative culture that runs through its veins. Why do most people turn to alternative culture? Because they grow up in a family system or community system that doesn’t recognize their specialness or sensitivity or uniqueness, and they find that there are voices in the alternative community that represent them — whether they’re gay or lesbian or the pretty, overweight goth girl, or the outcast or whatever. They look at alternative culture and they say, “That’s the land of lost toys, there’s the place for me.” And we’ve seen this thing happen over the last 25 years — afforded by the Internet — where that narcissistic streak has become a business model. And for every Pitchfork, there are 400 bearded bloggers that are writing the same shit, if not worse. But it doesn’t work. Or the Pitchfork Festival will draw 60,000 people and not 12 [thousand-ed.]. It doesn’t work because you’re not going to be able to take Coachella and run that everywhere. You’re still leaving out a huge portion of the audience that isn’t so hung up on Sally’s haircut. There are a lot of people who grow up with no access to common alternative culture. They probably know the girl who works at the vegan place and that’s their exposure, and she goes, “Oh check this band out.” They’re not on some website, they’re not down at the club, but those are the people that we need to draw in, and those are the people that turn away at the gates because of the negative tone and dispossession. That’s why people like me make sense to people like that, because I’m in a nether land between those worlds. But why am I here? It’s like what I said in the Rush documentary. Why are 8,000 people going to show up and hear me play knowing that I’m a pain in the fucking ass? Well, maybe it’s because I’m a pain in the fucking ass.”

So, generalizing about “alternative culture” is kinda dangerous. End of the day, it really is a mixed bag, isn’t it? (If you didn’t figure it out already, the picture up top is Mr. Billy Corgan with Mr. Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.)

Still, I happen to think, amidst the inevitable loggerhea and windbaggyness of an unedited Q&A, the guy is making some good points here.

Let me be clear: I have not listened to the Smashing Pumpkins outside of that first single they had on MTV’s 120 Minutes. I remember liking it.

(Yep, I still like it.)

Point being, I really don’t care & have no skin in the Billy Corgan game. But I have few quibbles with what he’s saying here. I would (in a devil’s advocate kind of way) argue that The National, Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver are all “significant” bands birthed (or at least midwived (midwifed?)) by Pitchfork, but his larger point that online engagement is generally weak engagement, and leads to weak cultural moments = so true!

At the very least, can we agree that the pull of the online world is “weak” in a mass cultural kind of way? By way of example, I have had members of Arcade Fire’s “team,”
open my eyes to how much bigger a band like Mumford & Sons are compared to a more “indie” success story such as the Arcade Fire. And I mean bigger and more significant on *every level* — sheer popularity, concert draw, national impact, the ability of random people on the street to hum along to their tunes.

I mean seriously “Who is Arcade Fire?”

Why is this? More or less, it’s because Mumford & Sons’ songs are high-fidelity enough to be played on the radio. The underground may not treat them with the same respect as their Grammy-winning peers but, by virtue of popularity & offline reach, Mumford & Sons have a larger cultural impact. Maybe the same could be said of, say, the reach of Bush or Stone Temple Pilots compared to Nirvana during the grunge era — but I think it’s easy to make a case that, while the underground hipster utopia built in internet time is now larger than the underground of the 1980s and 1990s, its bite is somehow…less…



Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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