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Let Us Now Praise the Wanna-Be's
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
There are few frontmen in rock and roll who have endeared themselves less to their fans than Billy Corgan, lead vocalist and guitarist for the Chicago-based group The Smashing Pumpkins. Always opinionated, always confrontational, Corgan's prickly nature and epic grandiosity have made him an easy target for music fans who weary of self-important, arrogant rock stars. Even in the midst of their massive popularity in the 90's, it was hard to love The Smashing Pumpkins; Corgan was just too off-putting, too pompous, too loud, too bald. And yet you couldn't dismiss him, either — for better or worse, his music helped define the alternative/grunge sound of the era.
Since I've always had a high tolerance for outspoken a-holes, Corgan's shtick never bothered me too much. I wasn't a huge fan of the band, but I liked them okay, I enjoyed Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness a lot and never got sick of hearing the singles on the radio (though "1979" and "Tonight, Tonight" did get really overplayed.) And though Corgan was a jerk, at least he was an intelligent jerk — even at his most bombastic and intolerable, you couldn't help but recognize the workings of a fairly complicated mind. And I'd much rather spend time with a difficult, intellectual lunatic than with an even-keeled, salt-of-the-earth type who held no strong opinions about anything.
And frankly, Corgan is hardly the first talented a-hole to front a rock and roll band. If I had to eliminate all songs from my library simply because the lead singer's impossible, well, there'd be no Pogues, no Guns 'N Roses, no Public Enemy, no Clash, no Pistols, no Oasis, no Hole, no Pulp, no Smiths, no Stones, no-probably-a thousand-other bands that I can't think of at the moment. Corgan was merely following in a great, time-honored tradition in rock and roll.
But having said all that in defense of Billy Corgan, I now must admit that the comments he made this past week in Austin, at SXSW, have probably pushed me firmly into the opposite camp. On the surface, his words were merely the usual cranky old rocker rant — a 40+ guy taking shots at the music business and the new artists, etc — but in his denunciations Corgan used that word, that one word, that dreaded "third rail" word that no rocker should ever use when describing another rock musician. For once spoken it can never be taken back and it can never be unheard.
So here we go: "I was part of a generation that changed the world — and it was taken over by posers," Corgan said, and there it is--the inevitable "poser" blast. ( I'm not even going to tackle the whole "changed the world" ridiculousness.) The "poser" thing is the single least credible criticism that anyone can toss at anyone in rock and roll, and yet it's constantly used as the ultimate musician put down. Rock and roll purists/snobs like to plaster the "poser" tag on anyone they feel lacks "authenticity" or "credibility" or "musicianship" while forgetting the very simple, elemental fact that "authenticity," "credibility," and "musicianship" are just about the least essential gifts that any decent rock and roller ought to possess.
Look, even if you do consider rock and roll to be one of the major art forms of the 20th century — and I certainly do think of it in that way — you have to agree that nobody should treat it with the same reverence that's reserved for other, more conventional art forms. It's not jazz, for God's sake. It's not cinema. Rock music's irreverence has always been it's greatest, most sustaining strength; the fact that any talentless goofball can theoretically produce a great, hook-laden, 3-minute monster anthem ought to be something that's celebrated, not traduced. I get so weary of aged killjoys like Sting who blather on about musicianship and skill and the depth of his intricate lyrics. . . I mean, Good Lord, it's not a seminar. It's a song. And I, too, appreciate sharp lyricists, I love Richard Thompson's cruelty and Bryan Ferry's arch self-loathing, but it should be noted that the greatest 45 in rock history — "Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones — has a couplet that goes "Hey hey hey/That's what I say." Not exactly the most challenging bit of wordplay ever created by a legendarily talented writing team. And yet the lyric is not just great, it's better than great: it's perfect.
It was hard not to get impatient watching Bon Iver's Justin Vernon twist himself into knots while accepting a Grammy for "Best New Artist" at this years awards ceremony. Vernon was obviously worried about how his Grammy win would look to the hipoisie, if he would lose any of his hard-earned "indie cred." (Previous "Best New Artist" awards went, infamously, to Men at Work and A Taste of Honey — not exactly the company that Bon Iver was hoping to keep.) It was a little ridiculous, seeing how pained Vernon was to be there. I wanted to scream, Dude, either accept the award, or don't accept it, but please: quit acting like it's some monumental moral dilemma. And if you're overly concerned about how the purists are gonna take you, if you're worried about being labelled a "poser," well, maybe you should start looking for a new line of work.
The thing that really kills me about the whole "poser" thing is that every rock and roller — every last one of them — is a poser on some level. The most revered rocker in punk history, Joe Strummer of the Clash, saw himself in exaggerated, hyperbole-laden ways; right from the start he insisted on proclaiming himself a "punk rock Warlord." What could that be, if it's not striking a pose? And if he was really so concerned about being "real" and "authentic," then why didn't he perform under his given name, John Mellor? Changing your name to "Joe Strummer" is the very definition of being a poser, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with it. It fit, it was perfect, and it helped the Clash live up to its pose as "the only band that mattered." Being called a poser ought to be a badge of honor these days, and not the deep insult that too many rock and rollers take it to be.