Article by Corenski Nowlan
I used to think that James Iha was a girl. There. I said it. Not a particularly attractive female but none the less not packing man parts. I was twelve (the highly hormonal age) when the music video for “Today” was playing in high rotation. James Iha’s cross dressing raised recess debates among the kids in my sixth grade class who were cool enough to watch Much Music (or were allowed to by their parents). In my defense, I was a notch above my classmates on the gender identification scale, because I did point out James’ flat chest, and dirt-stache. Recognizing masculine cheeks bones and jaw lines was beyond me. I settled the argument when I purchased Siamese Dream (on cassette!). Upon review of the liner notes, we determined that Billy, James, and Jimmy were man names. D’Arcy was the only girl name, and obviously she was the hot blonde…
It was a different time. There was no Wikipedia. No internet domestically available and the general public really, really adored the Smashing Pumpkins. The band could do little or no wrong especially when it came to their music videos. In the second half of the 90’s, the media’s love affair with the band dwindled but what did not change was the acclaim that their music videos amassed. Adore, and Machina / The Machines of God were not received favorably by critics or fans, but music videos for the songs “Ava Adore”, and “The Everlasting Gaze” are fan favourites from the band’s catalogue. They achieved a lasting legacy that is arguably larger than that of the songs, or of the albums that spawned them.
This is the reason why the image of James Iha in a dress was not permanently and irreparably imprinted on pop culture. To clarify what I mean, I present Exhibit A – the Hanson brothers. When the video for “MMMBop” dropped, it was universally accepted that the lead singer of this new teenie-pop band was a prepubescent girl. I would wager that anyone who was in a middle school or high school in 1997 probably heard at least one presumably hetero-boy decree, “that chick from Hanson is hot!” I knew one guy in high school who had a straight up crush on Taylor Hanson. He was a cousin of mine, and judging from late night, drunken jokes by old acquaintances, it is apparent that he has not yet lived down this ill informed infatuation. Hanson will always be remembered for the gender ambiguity represented in their first music video. Always. I mean like, it’s the first thing most people think of when they think of Hanson, even fifteen years later.
When the lineup for the super group, Tinted Windows was announced, I still heard people express, “the singer is that guy from Hanson, who looks like a girl,” or something to that general effect. James Iha though? He was James Iha from the Smashing Pumpkins, no attachments of androgyny in anyone’s remembrance. It should also be noted that Taylor wasn’t purposely trying to look like a girl. So why have such gender confused connotations stuck with him, but not James? I assert that it is because the Smashing Pumpkins’ music video library is so awesome, that everyone forgot about how unflattering that dress was on James. Baby blue and one of his shortest ever haircuts; really? Hard to believe that the man is now an up-to-the-minute fashionista of the New York art scene.
Of course I’m bordering on the playful, ludicrous side. Apart from young children, no one really thought James was a woman. Additionally, cross dressing was actually a thing in 90’s music videos, popularized by Nirvana, perfected by Marilyn Manson. No one pokes fun at Dave Grohl, same as they don’t at James Iha. Now, Taylor Hanson… unfortunately I wasn’t joking about. With that said, I humbly concede, in full awareness that I have exhausted the gag. I will, however, say that glam-rock James from “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”, zombie James from “Zero”, or vampire-count James from “Ava Adore” are ultimately more compelling personas than summer dress James from “Today”.
The Smashing Pumpkins arguably perfected the art of the music video, proving that it could indeed be an art form, and not just a corporative-mandated commercial. The band boasts one of the most eclectic collections of clips that any group has ever produced. They have invoked the guises of hippie, hipster, glam, and goth. Their videos range in quality from good to bad to downright incredible. Grainy, atmospheric, low budget indie pieces like “Siva” are reminiscent of decades past. Flashy, futuristic, digitally over-edited pop culture run amuck hodgepodges like “The End is the Beginning is the End” is the bastard child that every 90’s band seems to have (sad to admit that as it’s one of my favourite songs). Then there are gems like “Tonight, Tonight”, which are genuinely gorgeous works of film making, and do what great music videos should do; act as a visual companion to enhance a song’s message and meaning.
There were people who made mantra, the lyric, “video killed the radio star,” (The Buggles 1979) alleging videos were making music secondary to image. The cultural impact of the visual medium is up for debate, but in terms of my favourite band there is a truism at work that cannot be denied; the original Smashing Pumpkins lineup is more memorable than the new lineup, and it is partially because of music videos. The classic lineup is beloved not only by fans, but by the public at large. Anyone nostalgic for the 1990’s is susceptible to bouts of giddiness should they see that tire from the beginning of “1979” start a rollin’. James Iha, D’arcy Wretzky, and Jimmy Chamberlain are every bit as synonymous the average person’s vision of the Smashing Pumpkins as Billy Corgan. If you watched MTV or Much Music in the 90’s, you probably have a mental composite of the band that is made up of screen shots from their various music videos.
Since the reformation of the band in 2007, the Smashing Pumpkins have been plagued by bad press simply due to the absence of a couple of first generation members. In 2009, the criticism was perpetuated by the departure of another legacy member, Jimmy Chamberlin. Since then, Billy Corgan has been the only familiar face, even though Jeff Schroeder has been in the band for nearly six years. The newest album, Oceania, and its supporting tour, have been positively reviewed more than anything Corgan has done since the mid 90’s, but is it helping to change public perception? A common phrase associated with the new lineup is “rent-a-band.” There’s Not-James Iha, Obligatory-Hot Girl on Bass #… (ah, well we lost count of bassists, but who cares she’s hot!), and Not-Jimmy Chamberlain, who’s like a sixteen year old kid that worked at McDonald’s or something. Or so the legend goes…
Member changes are nothing new to the Smashing Pumpkins. Chamberlin had his infamous hiatus in the second half of the 90’s, but to be fair the video for “Ava Adore” is so damn awesome that no one really noticed Jimmy wasn’t in it. Am I wrong? In 1999, Melissa Auf Der Maur made personnel swapping look effortless, as she replaced D’Arcy without reappraisal. For me, the transition was so flawless due to the splendidly stunning videos for “The Everlasting Gaze”, and “Stand Inside Your Love”. Then skip ahead to “Tarantula”. Enter Jeff and Ginger. Meh. “That’s the Way (My Love Is)”? Passe. “G.L.O.W.”? It’s alright. “Superchrist”? Pointless. “Owata”? Oh, what a beautiful fright… like “Try, Try, Try”, “Owata’s” real downfall was that it did not feature the band. At least Billy appeared in “Try, Try, Try”, but his scenes were randomly thrown in and not visually cohesive. It felt tacked on. So what’s wrong with the Zeitgeist-era videos? I am apparently one of the rare fans who actually really likes the album, but the music videos are nothing special. Not terrible, just not as good as the earlier videos, or as artistically inspired. So are the new videos toss-aways, or have they not been given a fair chance? The older videos were overplayed on TV and in the DVD players of fans who have the video collection. Is the quality of the videos the issue, and if so, is that due to budget restraints? Quality directors, props, etc are expensive. The Smashing Pumpkins no longer have major label backing, not that the big guns put forth much in the way of funds for music videos these days. There’s no money in it. No revenue from advertisers, because music video stations are all but dead. Can we blame the internet, and in particular YouTube? When I was a teenager, I would turn on Much Music, and a VJ would tell me that a new Smashing Pumpkins video was coming up. That could mean it would be the next to air, or it could be another half an hour, or hour away. If I wanted to see the video, I had no choice but to continue watching their network, and sit through whatever tripe the programming gods saw fit to subject me to (*cough*… Hanson). Technology has empowered people with the ability to watch what they want, when they want.
Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of options when it comes to watching the new Smashing Pumpkins. There’s lots of live material, but it makes me envious of the crowd, and a little angry about how economically and geographically disadvantaged I am (I’m sort of poor, and a ten hour drive from any major concert destination). It pains me because I so badly want to see the current lineup in action. My exposure to the new members has been minimal. I still vividly remember the old band. I love them because they are permanently etched in the inner reaches of mind. I cannot let go of them because I have consumed copious amounts of media displaying James, D’Arcy, Jimmy, and Melissa, every bit as prominently as Billy. The Smashing Pumpkins were not just rock stars, they were pop icons. They were one of those scarce few bands to whom image was as important as the music, without the image overshadowing the music.
The fact is, there’s not a lot of official media featuring the new members. Thanks to repeated viewings of If All Goes Wrong, I’m pretty comfortable with Jeff, and I was comfortable with Ginger. I’m not really familiar with Nicole and Mike. Never saw them live. They haven’t appeared in any music videos. There’s no DVD which features them. Back in the 90’s the full band used to do interviews together all of the time. That’s not the case with the new lineup. Billy almost exclusively handles all television appearances radio, and print interviews. I’m not one of those people who bemoan the new band, and are resentful that they are not the old band. I’m very much the opposite; I love everything they’ve done since the reformation. I want to like the new members, I just have not had an opportunity to really get used to seeing them, and thinking about them as being the Smashing Pumpkins.
Consider this an open letter to the band. Showcase this new incarnation! Make music videos. Please! Make me love Jeff, Nicole, and Mike! Depict them as so epic that it erases my memory of the old members. If it’s a matter of money, try on the crowd sourcing phenomenon, or recruit help from the uber-talented, obsessively dedicated SP fan base. Perhaps I am being foolishly nostalgic, but I believe in my favourite band. They’ve abandoned a medium which they helped to define. The medium is not as relevant as it once was, but I believe that it could be redefined, and I believe the Pumpkins could be the band that does it. So here’s to wishing that “The Celestials” or “Panopticon” get the old school music video treatment they deserve.