A few weeks ago, I got a little drunk after my bartending shift at the Boiled Owl. It was a Wednesday night, or rather, an early Thursday morning, somewhere between 4:30 a.m. and 5, and I was sitting amid my houseplants in my apartment patio, sipping rum, smoking weed, and growing increasingly maudlin from listening to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the Smashing Pumpkins’ multiplatinum double-album from 1995. Nostalgia is a helluva drug, and like other hellava drugs, it is never really good for your long-term mental health. Yet there I was, seven tracks in, hoping “To Forgive” (and later, “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans”) would blunt the crush of momentary ennui the way it did when I was 18. It did not, and I went to bed feeling just as rudderless as ever.
How I got to those feelings isn’t worth mentioning, but I can tell you how I turned to an album that might very well be the apex of the ’90s alt-rock extravagance as a coping mechanism for middle-aged lassitude. It’s because of Yellowjackets, a TV series about a high school girls’ soccer team forced to turn to cannibalism to make it through the winter of 1996 after surviving a plane crash over a Canadian forest while en route to a championship tourney in Seattle. The show flashes back and forth between the mid-’90s and the survivors’ present in 2021, with the soundtrack filled with era-appropriate hits. The Wednesday that I got all sad-faced over Mellon Collie was a couple days after my girlfriend and I had finished watching the show’s Season 2 finale. I won’t spoil it, but the final scene is cued to “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” by Radiohead (off their 1995 album The Bends), which raised the hairs on my arms and put a lump in my throat.
Certainly, getting emotional over a song that was important to you when you were a teenager is nothing new, and I am not the only former 18-year-old to have lived through moments of personal significance that were pinned to a Radiohead song. But I spent the day after watching that finale skipping here and there through the show’s official Spotify playlist, and I realized it was not only bands I liked from the early- and mid-’90s that affected me. “Mother, Mother,” an anxious, angsty one-hit wonder from Tracy Bonham that I used to low-key loathe, also pressed that wistful button in my brain. Same for “Lightning Crashes” by Live and “Bells for Her” by Tori Amos. I didn’t like them when I was in high school. Why was I clinging to them now?
I suppose the obvious answer is that those songs, as well as their cohabitants on the Billboard charts of the 1990s, were so ubiquitous that whether I liked them or not, I heard them all the goddamn time, and they composed the soundtrack of my youth. What made me laugh about Spotify’s Yellowjackets playlist is that there are not one, not two, but at least three songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, which triggered memories of seemingly every mom I knew wearing Phantom of the Opera sweatshirts when I was a kid.
I saw Phantom in Sacramento when I was in seventh grade, but I don’t remember it because I fell asleep. I do recall many times spent lying on my bedroom floor at my family’s old house or that of my freshman dorm room at TCU, absorbing every note of Mellon Collie, willing whatever sadness and uncertainty had accumulated in my head to disappear in the decay of every distorted chord. And I guess maybe that was what I was going for after work that night, sitting in a quiet spot during a liminal hour, wishing for the music to work its former magic, to somehow make me feel as if my middle 40s are not just as uncertain and riddled with decision paralysis as my late teens. I didn’t get that, and in hindsight, wishing for Billy Corgan’s voice to make you feel better in 2023 is like believing there are other cures for hangovers besides water, sleep, and/or traveling back in time. I guess a little bit of nostalgia doesn’t hurt, even when it’s for a time when you were sad. At least now I know that sitting through 28 Smashing Pumpkins songs will not unlock some magic bullet (with or without butterfly wings) to cure what ails me. Only getting up the next morning and moving ahead can do that.