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The Paranoid Pumpkin: Billy Corgan Then And Now

Twenty-five years after 'Gish', Billy Corgan has curdled into a right-wing conspiracy crank

It's been 25 years this week since Smashing Pumpkins released their debut album, Gish, and about a month since Billy Corgan compared social-justice warriors to the KKK. Corgan, the Pumpkins' frontman and only permanent member, recently guested on Alex Jones's conspiracy theory radio show, "Infowars," whose tagline is the Rollins-esque "There's a war on for your mind!" Angry young men often grow up to be angry old men, but Corgan's transformation into the guy yelling at iCloud was not the transition we were anticipating.

"Infowars" calls itself "the tip of the spear in alternative media — Circumventing the dying dinosaur media systems of information suppression." Jones is a 9/11 truther, a staunch Second Amendment supporter, and a self-contradictory Christian. He is the author of a book titled The Answer to 1984 Is 1776, the director of films like Police State 2000 and TerrorStorm: A History of Government-Sponsored Terrorism, and an executive producer of the 9/11 conspiracy documentary series Loose Change. He cameos in two Richard Linklater movies. Alex Jones is not your average talk radio blowhard. He's funny and very occasionally right.

Like a lot of libertarians, Alex Jones is possessed by the false idea that he is smarter than basically everyone else. His take on any firmly held factual belief is "but what if ... THE OPPOSITE." Whether Jones actually believes his own right-wing conspiracy theorizing is beside the point: He says crazy things and people listen. The further out you go, the more outrage you'll inspire, and for some people, controversial or negative attention is preferable to no attention at all.

Sometimes a change of faith throws a person's past into relief. When David Mamet came out as a conservative in 2008, I suddenly wondered if Glengarry Glen Ross was not a satire, as I'd always taken it to be, but an earnest endorsement of its characters' predatory worldview. Mamet framed his change of heart differently: as an evolution. "As a child of the ’60s, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart," he wrote. "These cherished precepts had, over the years, become ingrained as increasingly impracticable prejudices."

I once was lost, but now I'm found. When I was young, I thought I was brilliant and untouchable, and now that I am older, I see that the younger version of myself was an idiot. You're not cynical — you're overly intelligent, and everyone else is a sap. The wool has been pulled from your eyes, you can finally see how the world really functions, and, naturally, it's your civic duty to lecture everyone else. According to Mamet, he is not being reactionary and defensive, but rather enlightened. Nobody reacts violently to mild opinions. The more extreme, the more viral. You can see how this contrarian progression coded as maturation would appeal to someone like Billy Corgan, with his lifelong interests in esoterica and spirituality. Corgan's language has always been wordy and labyrinthine, as if the thoughts expressed become more intelligent the longer they take to explain.

Self-identified nerds can also be bullies. Just look at the backlash to the new Ghostbusters movie, or Minecraft developer Markus Persson's insistence this week that "mansplaining" is a sexist term (he went on to call people who argued with him "cunt"). It's not always white males who fit this specific mold, but it usually is. When asked for his thoughts on Trump, Corgan gives long answers evincing sympathy for Trump as a public figure who might be misunderstood — he suggests that it's not Trump's fault that there are so many disenfranchised-feeling racists to court. This is not wrong, in the same sense that had Hitler never been born, some other anti-Semitic German nationalist figurehead would have eventually come into power to channel the rage of the white German populace after the loss of World War I.

Corgan called Trump's campaign "chaos theory," and also called it "cool." He compared Trump's libertarian streak to his own in Rolling Stone last year: "It's like the music business: everybody gets controlled, and somebody comes along that fucks it all up." Corgan reframes Trump's antics as anti-authoritarian and punk, even though appealing to racists and rich people is as authoritarian as it gets. Corgan doesn't endorse Trump, but he doesn't call him a dangerous fascist, either. "I think it's good that he's fucking it up, because whether or not he's the guy, obviously the political class doesn't want him there, it'll open it up to a bigger dialogue."

Bizarrely, Corgan's admiration of Trump's political-party disruption tactics doesn't extend to Bernie Sanders, whom he's compared to Mao and derogatorily branded a "socialist." But maybe Corgan, in asking us to look at Trump through the prism of his time, is asking that we do the same for him. In 1991, when Gish came out, Corgan seemed like a sad, sensitive empath; the Pumpkins always felt particularly emotion-led, even in a field of alt-rock bands rebuking the overt jock sexism of hair metal.

Do I hear any of the current, paranoid, out-of-touch Corgan in Gish now? Not really. I still mostly hear the hazy psychedelic textures that made me love the album years ago — the "liquid peppermint" love songs and lacy romanticism, the soft-loud-soft devotionals to the self. But I do hear that persistent "I" in Corgan's lyrics that would come to dominate his persona, the self-importance that would soon curdle his band. Rather than lean into the softness evident in his music, Corgan hardened instead. Or maybe this is all just a ploy to get us to follow the Pumpkins again. To quote Corgan's own acid critique of Radiohead from 2008: "Publicity is better than music."