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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

Looking back on my adolescence through "1979"

The nostalgia the Smashing Pumpkins evoke isn't rose-colored, but that's fine, if not good; it means their song helps me honestly reflect.


Some songs have a feeling baked into them, between what their instrumental elements and their lyrics create. It's hard to deny, for example, the pure angst in a pop punk anthem like… well, "The Anthem" by Good Charlotte, or the palpable string-driven romance and lust in Barry Manilow's "Could It Be Magic" (a song I'll likely discuss down the line on this site).


One wouldn't normally think of nostalgia as being one of those baked-in elements. Nostalgia is all too dependent on the individual listener and their own experiences, right?

Well, normally I'd say that's the case, but then the Smashing Pumpkins' "1979" comes on, and I can't help but hear the nostalgia in it.

I have never had any deep-rooted attachment to the Smashing Pumpkins or "1979." I mean, I really like a lot of the band's music, and "1979" is certainly a highlight of their catalog, but I can truly say I don't have a particular attachment to the song. All the same, I get nostalgic for experiences I've never had when I hear it. Billy Corgan's lyrical narrative is definitely the biggest reason for that, and I can point to a few instrumental elements that augment his narrative and evoke those particular feelings in me.

For me, the nostalgic feeling comes through instrumental simplicity. Something about Jimmy Chamberlin's backbeat makes me think of a simpler time when people around me were beginning to explore music for the fun of it. James Iha's guitar and D'arcy Wretzky's bass tones act similarly; they're electric but clean, and they play simple lines that feel easy to sing along and/or play back. The last key element for me is the organ-like keyboard Billy Corgan adds in the chorus. In playing the same notes despite the chords changing underneath it, the organ line seems carefree, as it goes along the same way no matter what else is happening around it. Especially in the aftermath of the first verse, the line and its character point to the naïve perspective adolescents often carry through their daily lives, living for the moment and staying steadfast in their desires and actions despite whatever consequences may come their way.


I point to adolescence because of the song's title: "1979" is the year Billy Corgan turned twelve years old, a time in one's life where real change begins to happen in multiple ways. Said change often manifests itself in a degree of rebelliousness and recklessness, something the song's various elements (and its official video) combine to suggest. Plenty of Corgan's phrasings evoke these sentiments. "Cool kids never have the time" is the first of them, combining the ever-flexible and often misunderstood nature of being 'cool' with the all-too-fast passing of time. This line and the last of the first verse, "We were sure we'd never see an end to it all," simultaneously speak to time flying by and the nature of memory, suggesting the moments people cherish most when they look back at their youth may not be what brings the high in that adolescent moment. All the same, people of that age often live an all-gas, no-brakes life, with eyes only on immediate gratification. The chorus' opining on mortality comes in retrospect, as if Corgan is looking back and wondering why he lived the way he did... and how the heck he's still alive to tell about it.


As I think about how I've lived and how my youth is (in my mind) over and then some, the bridge speaks to me the most. The lines "Faster than the speed of sound / Faster than we thought we'd go" are almost painful for me to sing and hear, because it makes me think of the harm I caused myself in living and acting how I did. I really neglected to take care of myself a lot during my teenage years, pushing myself too hard while neglecting to grapple how I was hurting both myself and the people around me. In a time of one's life that's supposed to be filled with happiness and opportunity, I often closed doors to such opportunities for myself with just how little I cared for my own well-being. Thankfully, I still do have some great memories from that period, in large part because of the friendships I made and continued to build throughout my youth and adolescence. These friendships also contribute to some of the pain in looking back, as I also realize how I used and then neglected many of them. I've previously written about how I cling onto the hope of reigniting those friendships and truly repaying many people's kindness to me, but in looking back through "1979" I wonder if those teenage years represented a peak I can no longer match as life separates us further and further from our hometowns and the groups in which we were involved in our youth.


"1979" may have been released five years before I was born and written about a time long before that, but its message resonates with me in 2021 as strongly as ever. As the song closes with the couplet "The street heats the urgency of now / As you see there's no one around," and as I write this article late at night, I think about just how much I both miss those younger days as well as how much I missed out during them. Alas, hindsight is 20/20, and I have to cherish the memories I made then no matter the pain some of them may evoke.

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