In the 20 years since the Smashing Pumpkins released their third studio LP, there have been albums that matched its stunning ambition; albums that sold as many millions of copies; albums that led to music videos that were just as creative and unforgettable; albums that ripped open pop music and rock ‘n’ roll at the seams to encompass thematic and musical ideas and moods not previously thought possible; and albums that took hold of the national consciousness and wouldn’t let go for months. But in all those years, only Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness has accomplished all five of those achievements. And we may never see it happen again.
Imagine if Taylor Swift’s 1989 was two hours long and made by a bald goth named Billy who, instead of perfecting ancient forms of pop idolatry like Swift, expanded the vocabulary of pop music so that it spoke to outcasts like him. As ever, “Haters gonna hate.” But unlike Swift, Billy Corgan probably hates you back. In a pop cultural landscape lacking rock bands on such a bigger-than-life scale, perhaps the contemporary pop star closest to Corgan’s spiritual lineage is Drake, who shares with the Pumpkins frontman a much-imitated nasal tenor, a confessional streak (rarer among Drake’s peers than Corgan’s, but still), and a public persona that teeters precariously between ego and self-loathing.
But as artists the two are cut from a very different cloth: Corgan is the pioneer, while Drake would rather refine and perfect existing forms of hip-hop and R&B. In that sense, Kanye West is a more likely candidate to release a modern-era Mellon Collie. But while Kanye is all seething anger and irony — particularly on his most adventurous and experimental recent work — Mellon Collie owes its startling and overwhelming commercial success to the same factors that gave flight to Titanic, Forrest Gump, and other wildly popular blockbuster movies. Following the instant commercial and critical classic Siamese Dream, Corgan strove to raise the stakes even higher. And he did so by embracing the full spectrum of human sincerity and emotions — see “1979”‘s suburban grocery-store-liquor-soaked nostalgia, “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”‘s impotent adolescent vitriol, “Tonight, Tonight”‘s drama club optimism, “Thirty-Three”‘s proto-indie Romanticism, and the risible but authentic angst of “Zero.” And those are just the singles.
But like those popular Best Picture winners, Mellon Collie’s efforts to go wide and appeal to everyone all the time have earned it a number of detractors who accuse it of shallow sentimentalism. Indeed, the few modern albums that match its ambitions, like Joanna Newsom’s Have One On Me or Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, go both wide and deep. And those records’ more specific and focused appeal make them too odd to attain blockbuster status, in this era or any other. Perhaps the closest contemporary analogue to Mellon Collie’s sincerity and sprawl is Arcade Fire’s Reflektor. But that album was only a modest critical success, and commercially it just missed the first week sales metrics of their previous album, The Suburbs.
This bears the question: Will an album ever again match the ambition and popularity of Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness? A few factors outside a band’s control weigh heavily against the possibility. To begin with, although the album as an art form is still alive and well, it’s no longer the dominant vehicle for music consumption. In its place are SoundCloud or YouTube embeds, single tracks henpecked from Spotify or iTunes, or playlists curated by friends and experts or sorted by proprietary algorithms like Pandora’s. Online piracy took much of the scarcity from the calculus of music appreciation. The cost of a year’s subscription to Spotify today would, in 1996, buy a person fewer than 10 new albums. So music consumers — particularly young consumers for whom music matters most — gave those records the attention they deserved. Those pressures, coupled with the increased homogenization of MTV and Clear Channel, made 1996 a banner year for listening to albums front-to-back, and crafting them like the Pumpkins did with this in mind.
A big part of Mellon Collie’s success stemmed from the unprecedentedly creative and high-budget music videos for songs like “Tonight, Tonight” and “1979.” For the better part of two years, you couldn’t turn on MTV without seeing one or both of these joyous, unforgettable clips. Whereas offering videos as exclusive “extras” like Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj recently did kneecaps their cultural impact. On the other end of the spectrum, YouTube and more recent video initiatives from Facebook have lent music videos bigger potential audiences than ever before. But the signal-to-noise ratio on these platforms is high, and without the curatorial element of MTV and VH1, there is a relatively small number of music videos each year — think “Thrift Shop,” “Gangnam Style,” and “Call Me Maybe” — that achieve the ubiquity once afforded to upwards of four or five videos from the same album. And by the time these rarefied clips go viral, there’s a good chance that a consumer’s first exposure to them is through some remixed meme. Songs like “Call Me Maybe,” accompanied by an army of Sesame Street parodies and dashboard-cam karaoke clips, are overplayed before the viewer has even seen them once.
And as for those massive social media listening parties devoted to surprise releases, they only work for the world’s very biggest artists. Moreover, they are just as likely to grab an idle listener’s attention as they are to inspire a sense of FOMO, an anxiety that, as more and more content keeps getting pumped through the Internet’s pipes, often gives way to what I’ll call FIAMI (“Fuck it. Already missed it.”) Listeners who don’t choose to be there on the ground floor — or were asleep or at work when the album broke — might never seek out the album, having already missed out on that communal experience. This is especially true when the social media mob, eager to reach a consensus, write off an album if it doesn’t sink in immediately — after all, this is the Internet and if you haven’t reached an opinion worthy of a hot take yet, then you might as well have not listened at all. None of this lends itself to albums generating the kind of lasting cultural impact that Mellon Collie had.
Yes, the sincerity of Mellon Collie resonated in part because of the Clinton-era optimism, but at the end of the day, it comes down to quality, and from those nearly unimpeachable singles to deeper cuts like the Modest Mouse-predicting dirt folk of “To Forgive,” the visceral Deftones-esque squall of “Bodies,” and the demented stomp of “X.Y.U.,” Mellon Collie not only provided offerings to no less than a dozen different gods of guitar music — it also achieved a startling consistency and sustained flow that would keep it in heavy rotation for the rest of the decade.
Despite this sprawl and pomp, there’s a smaller but perhaps more meaningful legacy it offers to modern listeners: It stands as one of the last, most purely authentic and enjoyable documents of that dubious era of ’90s guitar rock, which was already in the process of being co-opted from the outcasts and placed in the hands of obnoxious party brats like Fred Durst. But again, the album’s macro legacy, following through on its ambitions and crafting a commercially and artistically viable epic that’s not only as big as the ocean but also flows as naturally, is more critical than ever before. Because while these attributes were taken for granted in the ’90s, arriving as they did at one of the greatest eras in history for album-making, they are quickly becoming indicative of a lost art. Even My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy didn’t think this big. So here’s hoping the Kanyes and Beyoncés and Drakes and Taylors of today — or even some rock bands aspiring to their level of impact — give Mellon Collie a spin this weekend. Maybe they’ll even turn around and make one of their own.