Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan’s self-serious artist persona was often placed in stark contrast to Corgan the goofy wrestling fan
In a recent New York Times interview, Smashing Pumpkins lead singer Billy Corgan spoke of the band’s “Shiny and Oh So Bright” tour as a brand-building exercise, a reminder to the audience of what Smashing Pumpkins has to offer as they prepare some Rick Rubin-produced material for release later this year. Taken in this light, the band’s Aug. 4 tour stop at PPG Paints Arena, which was laden with visual components, demonstrates how reliant the Pumpkins have been on iconography over the years.
The band hit the stage — appearing in formal attire as if having just stepped off of some steampunk dirigible from Corgan’s imagination — were focused as a laser beam as they delivered an exhaustive overview of the highlights of the Smashing Pumpkins’ thirty year career in the grandiose and theatrical fashion fans have come to expect. If the performance was stiff and felt over-rehearsed, the audience didn’t seem to mind.
After opening with an intimate solo performance of one of the band’s biggest hits, “Disarm,” and a stylized slideshow of Corgan throughout childhood, he was not subtle about letting the audience know he was there to deliver exactly what they came for, kicking off the show proper with an animated introduction that featured all the visual touchstones from the Pumpkins’ past. From the ice cream truck of their “Today” video to the woman on the crescent moon that adorned the cover of the album that propelled the band to super-stardom, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness to the Zero motif.
The most pervasive icon of all was Corgan himself, who worked his recognizably bald visage into illustrations inspired by everything from religious iconography to the arcana of the Tarot. The media presentation figured prominently throughout the concert, much of audience reaction was prompted by some visual component.
With the band ensconced within various gilded-age Art Deco-inspired trappings, it became clear that Corgan is still striving for a sense of timelessness that he thinks he can achieve by eschewing modernity. The past offers many emotional reservoirs from which he can draw water, but Corgan reflexively places himself in the wastelands, alone and adrift. “Tomorrow’s just an excuse away/ so I pull my collar up and face the cold on my own,” he sang on “Thirty-three,” the lyrics painted on the screens behind him. Despite his affected delivery, this slavish adherence to distance places him at a hermetic remove from experience.
His conception of that timelessness feels very dated and ultimately lacks coherence. It reads simply as a fondness for old-timey stuff. If he is commenting on standards of beauty with his endless onscreen parade of flapper girls, maidens crowned and gowned, and teary beauties, replete with oh-so-carefully streaked mascara, his presentation of them is so seamless as to disinvite meaningful criticism. They are to be gazed upon, it seemed, and little else. A low-point was an extremely tone-deaf callback to the days of heroin-chic, when one of the women simulates tying off and fixing. At several intervals throughout the performance, Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath appeared as a carnival-barker-of-sorts, announcing what would come next. As a narrative device, it might be telling to be shepherded by a character-type associated with grifting. As a recurring guest on right-wing provocateur Alex Jones’ Infowars show, Corgan may fancy himself a pusher of boundaries, but his intentions are not really evident in his delivery.
When the band hit its marks, which it did consistently, the audience responded in kind, particularly to the delivery of the big hits. The members hit their stride two-thirds of the way into the show with the anthemic “Cherub Rock.” It was one of the few moments of the concert that felt loose, natural, and utterly fitting of the arena venue. Vacillating between energetic numbers and the slower, more pensive stuff, however, the band struggled to maintain momentum. In the most dramatic moments, amid the moving guitar solos and at their most in-sync, it felt like the members were harnessing a vein of emotion, tapping a resource outside themselves. Moreover, they seemed anchored to their little territories of the stage. Only Corgan moved freely. Vamping, strutting, and beckoning the audience for more adoration, Corgan’s self-serious artist persona was often placed in stark contrast to Corgan the goofy wrestling fan. At one point, he stalked the stage in a flowing, silken nightshirt, resembling an ambulatory Nosferatu Pez dispenser.
Corgan has a history of saying that the Smashing Pumpkins were denied their due place among the greats; an oversight he sought to correct in his selection of cover materials, which included a lovely cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” in which a cloaked Corgan serenaded a cosmic video backdrop, and a stripped down version of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” for which a glowing shrine was marched through the crowd.
On the whole, Corgan was successful in reminding audiences that, of all the nineties acts against which he is measured, his choruses were the catchiest and his theatrics were the most grand. Given the hodgepodge of his imagery and the opaqueness of his perspective, the resonance of those choruses feels in-substantive or at least not fitting the grandeur to which he aspires. In hindsight, maybe it’s the Zero motif that is his greatest contribution, as null and void as the times that spawned it.