Cool Kids Never Have The Time
by ARIANNA STERN
It is fortunate, if not a little miraculous, that the time in my life in when I was the most alienated was also the time when it was cool to style yourself as an outsider.
For someone who has seen even his grandest rock dreams come true, Billy Corgan sure has chosen a brutally self-negating credo for his 1996 campaign.
– Craig Marks, Spin June '96
My parents first separated in 1993 and legally divorced in 1994, which meant that from the age of five, I had two homes – one in homogenous, affluent Highland Park and the other in Chicago's working-class Uptown neighborhood. My dad's apartment had a severe ant infestation that kept anyone from leaving food exposed for more than 30 minutes, and at night I heard fights break out between our neighbors, some of whom were members of The Latin Kings.
Aside from my brother Josh, no one else saw the stuff of my childhood firsthand. My classmates' parents didn't want their kids spending the night in Uptown, and during the week, my mom's 80-hour workweek kept her from carting kids around. Not that my classmates were exactly crazy about me, anyway. Weirdness was not celebrated in elementary and middle school the way it was in pop culture, especially not when it was coupled with the bitterness I felt because I was struggling.
So the hour-long, traffic-addled rides into the city, the biweekly trips to a run-down Butera on the corner of Greenview and Wilson, the kid-prepared meals, idle hours in front of the television, and most importantly, my brother's and my inability to leave either home independently – all of that was ours alone, and very isolating.
In that strange and singular pocket of loneliness and boredom, pop culture wormed its way in, assuring us that it was okay to be an outsider, as long as you were funny, smart, and creative. Outcast status was a testament to your differentness, your specialness, and maybe even your greatness.
The Smashing Pumpkins were Josh's and my weirdo-heroes, with songs that combined the meandering beauty of shoegaze, pop hooks, and the aggression and catharsis of metal. It was an incredible comfort to see such strong, strange personalities win the adoration of millions. And strange they were: All four band members wore matching eyeliner in this memorable press photo, in which Billy Corgan and D'arcy Wretzky both don tight, silver pants. "Today" is a sexual pop jam about wanting to kill yourself; in the music video, Billy Corgan drives an ice cream truck through the desert, crooning about the scars on his wrists and how he wants to turn you on, he wants to turn you on.
I remember Kim Gordon once said some horrible thing about having to play for the jock in Iowa. That jock needs someone like Kim Gordon.
– Billy Corgan, Spin June '96
My mom's work schedule and my dad's sleep schedule meant that Josh and I had to look after one another. Keeping each other distracted and happy consumed all our energies, including those we should have devoted to schoolwork. We built forts and "sledded" down the stairs on a futon. I poured soda over Oreo cereal and ate it. We hurdled over the back of a green, velvety couch and watched music videos on TV, memorably "Tonight, Tonight" after my father had fallen asleep. In a decade supposedly obsessed with irony, Billy Corgan entreated, "believe that life can change, that you're not stuck in vain," as violins swelled melodramatically in the background. I loved its exaggerated optimism and imagination.
The real burn of childhood is its seeming endlessness. Kids have lesser capacity to imagine a bad thing changing for the better, because they haven't seen many things change. They haven't outgrown anything. During times when I literally couldn't imagine what lay ahead of me, and feared I would find more of the same, I saw famous adults and teenagers rewarded for their individualism. The Smashing Pumpkins were one example; so were Janeane Garofalo, Nirvana, Beck, Clarissa Darling, and The Kids in the Hall, among others. It was heartening for me to see, as a kid, so many people opening their eyes, ears, and hearts to a bunch of self-styled misfits. It imbued me with confidence and made me feel included. It made me feel like my differentness – which bullies spotted before I ever thought of it – made me more valuable, not less.
Though I often felt stuck during childhood, I felt in my bones the kind of momentum that every kid feels. I knew I would grow up, and as advertised, time cured nearly all ailments. By high school, my peers and I had enough independence that I lost the horrible inertia that gripped me as a kid. Once, I brought a group of my friends to an ice cream shop near my dad's building, and it felt like a victory for the younger me, a chance at visibility and inclusion.
Toward the end of the 90s, the United States fell out of love with the misfit. Banal pop culture had always coexisted with the idiosyncratic heroes, but the late 90s and early aughts brought a new language that mocked and belittled the persecuted. "Politically incorrect" humor gave powerful people a glimpse of underdog righteousness, asserting that women and minorities oppressed them by demanding too much. Billy Corgan revealed himself to be a defensive misogynist with little self-awareness. Anyway, pop culture's definition of a "misfit" was always aesthetic, not political. The Smashing Pumpkins and their ilk might have self-identified as misfits, but they were still a mostly white, mostly heterosexual, cisgendered, minus-sized coterie. Everyone is a misfit in some way or another.
As a teenager, I revisited the Pumpkins' catalogue, trying to understand the trajectory that extended from my childhood to then. It firmly refused to be understood. Mixed with the painful memories came a powerful nostalgia for the good aspects of my life, particularly that early friendship with my brother. I trusted him completely, a supportive and certain feeling of love. At first, I believed that if I revisited the songs enough, I could desensitize myself from the accompanying feelings, but it didn't work. I remember sobbing on my couch after listening to "Tonight, Tonight," thinking, this can't possibly be healthy. I had the same thought – and the same shuddering, tearful exhalations – while writing this.
I am a writer, in the business of explaining things, and I feel enormous pressure to be as talented and successful as I was different and strange. While I have outgrown almost everything else, I still feel the urge to counterbalance that hardship with brilliant writing that may be beyond my capacity to produce. The gifted-outsider concept was a beacon of hope, but also a commitment I struggle to fulfill. I left behind nearly all of my childhood except for the urgent need to explain myself, letting others into settings in which I was alone.
"Cherub Rock" - The Smashing Pumpkins (mp3)
"Zero" - The Smashing Pumpkins (mp3)
"1979" - The Smashing Pumpkins (mp3)