Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 8, which looks at the backstory and legacy of the Smashing Pumpkins fan favorite “Mayonaise” with the help of Bill Simmons.
Billy Corgan—as distinct from his fellow ’90s rock stars, guitar gods and voice-of-a-generation types—was an airbrushed-van ’70s-prog guy, a high-concept and high-production-value guy, a “Pastel–Black Sabbath” guy. He was a ’70s guy overall, and not the punk parts of the ’70s. Think Yes. Think Alice Cooper. Think Cheap Trick. No time to play it cool; no time to be cool. The first Smashing Pumpkins album, Gish, came out in 1991, but more importantly to Billy, that’s the year Nirvana’s Nevermind exploded. In interviews it’s clear that Nevermind’s explosion was quite a traumatic moment for Billy. Any band that sounded remotely like Nirvana could now be famous, but that band would also be, rightly or wrongly, accused of ripping off Nirvana. Nevermind’s success validated Billy and the whiny rock band he’d already started, but it also made Billy’s own success immediately uncool.
He looked needy by comparison. He wanted it too much. It meaning anything, really. The spotlight. The hero worship. The direct emotional connection with 13-year-old dopes such as myself. Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, Trent Reznor, Thom Yorke—these are guys powered by self-loathing, and to varying degrees paralyzed by a reluctance, possibly even an embarrassment at how much attention we’re suddenly paying to them. Embarrassment was not necessarily Billy Corgan’s problem. “Today” was the breakout hit from the band’s second album, Siamese Dream, and the band’s most joyful hit overall—Billy once described it as “a happy song about suicide.” Siamese Dream was produced by Butch Vig, who of course also produced Nevermind. There’s a maximalism to these records—every electric guitar sounds like 50,000 electric guitars. Kurt Cobain came to regret this approach, immediately. Just a year or two later, he said, “Looking back on the production of Nevermind, I’m embarrassed by it now. It’s closer to a Mötley Crüe record than it is a punk-rock record.”
Billy Corgan definitely wanted to sound more like Mötley Crüe than punk rock. But Billy Corgan also had such specific and intense and unyielding ideas about how he wanted to sound that notoriously, on Siamese Dream, he insisted on playing most of the guitar and bass parts himself. Nobody’s gonna play drums like Jimmy Chamberlain, so he was irreplaceable. But D’Arcy Wretzky and James Iha were largely sidelined. Billy would argue that they failed to rise to the occasion. They’d probably argue that Billy was full of it. But the result, on Siamese Dream, is a rock band that sounds 200 feet tall but also doesn’t quite sound like a functioning rock band. It sounds like a morbid, tyrannical, outrageously talented person imagining a rock band in his head. There’s an unembarrassed enormity, but also a crushing loneliness radiating from the guy who wants you to know that he’s almost single-handedly responsible for that enormity.
There’s a song on Siamese Dream called “Soma” whose title is a reference to the teenage summer reading list classic Brave New World. Its chorus—“I’m all by myself / As I’ve always felt”—was quite an attractive notion to a 13-year-old: I’m invincible. I’m alone. No one can touch me, but why won’t anybody try? This record made me feel much better about myself when it wasn’t making me feel terrible. I have a vivid memory of standing in a Camelot Records in a mall in Ohio, paging through the Siamese Dream guitar-tablature book and feeling just disgusted with myself at how hard it all looked to play. I could never play that shit. The only guitar-tablature book that was gnarlier and scarier, actually, was Steely Dan’s greatest hits. Draw your own conclusions. Siamese Dream was a monolith, an isolation tank, a dunk tank. It did have intermittent and almost overwhelming moments of joy, like the song “Rocket,” for instance. But the most joyous moments, for me, tended to be much softer and quieter and isolating. I also vividly remember an endless summer afternoon in my bedroom, full of sulking and whining and whatnot, where I tried to play, just by ear, the guitar solo to a Siamese Dream song called “Hummer,” and I made it through the whole thing, and I suddenly felt like a rat in a slightly bigger cage.
Listen, it didn’t sound good, when I played it. I’m not bragging here. I’m still empty, just like God. But Siamese Dream—as distinct from Nevermind, or Vitalogy, or The Downward Spiral, or any other tortured Voice of a Generation classic you’d care to name—could wallow in an empowering way. It was so uncool it was impossibly cool; it was so vulnerable it was indestructible. And all those contradictions peak on “Mayonaise,” which is gentle as power ballads go, and humble as One-Man-Wall-of-Sound histrionics go, and attainable as Unattainable Guitar-God theatrics go.
To hear the full episode, click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Thursday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.