Friday Fun: My Top Ten 90s Songs, #7

#7:  "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" by the Smashing Pumpkins (off of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995))

I initially had at #7 the song "Come as You Are," off of Nirvana's breakthrough album Nevermind.  I realized, in the course of attempting to explain why I had a Nirvana song at # 7, that I had done so out of some weird sense of obligation.  The general consensus is that Nirvana is the most important band of the 90s, the one that ended the reign of hair metal and ushered in a period where being rich and famous as a rock star was seen as a terrible burden to be avoided, as opposed to a cool lifestyle to aspire to.  All of that may be true.  But it doesn't necessarily follow that this makes Nirvana's music tremendously enjoyable or rewarding to listen to.  It's not that it is bad by any means--I like Nirvana better than the other titan of the Grunge scene, Pearl Jam--but I think it is at best really, really OK, if that makes any sense.  And their best song is a cover of a David Bowie song "The Man Who Sold the World," off of their unplugged album.  Moreover, listening to Nirvana songs is, frankly, kind of a bummer.  You end up feeling vaguely dissatisfied with your life and the world around you, and that is not a particularly pleasant feeling.

The Smashing Pumpkins didn't exactly traffic in feel-good music, either.  But rather than the vague ennui of Nirvana, the Pumpkins brought what seemed like genuine rage.  Now, it was never entirely clear exactly what Billy Corgan was mad about, but you could tell he was mad.  And the rage was non-specific enough that you could fill in the blanks and substitute whatever you were mad about into the song.  In this, Corgan was appropriating a trick perfected by Michael Stipe of R.E.M., who I have talked about before and who will be appearing on this list in due course--writing the song in a way that makes it seem like it is referring to your specific situation, even though obviously this is impossible.  Corgan made it seem like he was mad about the stuff you were mad about, whatever that happened to be.

One of the best uses of a song as theme for a TV show was the use of "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" as the theme for the ridiculous but utterly compelling show Whale Wars, about the mission of the radical environmentalist group the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.  What made that show utterly compelling to watch was the barely controlled rage of the people on that boat, combined with a sense of powerlessness.  These people had given up everything to sail in terrible weather around Antarctica and chase down Japanese whaling ships, while ultimately not being able to do much of anything other than annoy the Japanese.  There was no doubt in my mind that if the Sea Shepherd folks had been able to salvage some World War II era gun or torpedo launcher, they would absolutely would have sunk those whaling ships.  But they didn't, so they couldn't, and they knew that.  Which is what made the show so compelling to watch--the weird juxtaposition of total commitment and thorough impotence.

Or, to say it another way, "despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage/then someone will say 'what is lost can never be saved.'"  Or the intro hook:

The world is a vampire, sent to drain
Secret destroyers, hold you up to the flames
And what do I get, for my pain?
Betrayed desires, and a piece of the game

Throw that in with a thoroughly angry guitar sound, and you would have thought that the song was written specifically for the show.  Which of course it wasn't, but that's why the song works so well.

Now, I get why people don't like the Smashing Pumpkins more.  Their catalog is uneven--you can pretty much just get the "Greatest Hits" compilation and ignore the rest.  Also, and this should not be understated, there is the fact that Billy Corgan is from all accounts a completely insufferable and impossible person.  All you have to do is watch one interview with him and you will immediately recognize that Corgan is fully convinced that he is a genius.  That's pretty tough to take, particularly when one can have serious doubts Corgan's genius status.  Corgan does rage really well; other topics, less so, I think.

Nevertheless, when he lands it, he really lands it, and I think he lands it with "Bullet with Butterfly Wings."


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