Music education always & always looking forward.

Ice Cream Truck Calling: Descending Perfect Fourth in The Smashing Pumpkins' "Today"

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I have a lot of things I'd like to say to Billy Corgan. This is standard for my generation of Pumpkins fans, who argued over message boards and Listessa (the fan email listserv) on dial-up AOL internet before Mark Zuckerberg graduated high school. As a teenager, I read so many Angelfire website pages (pre-blogs) penned by fellow teenage fans about "what I'd like to say to Billy Corgan." I have a strong feeling that, given much of what Corgan has said lately and to whom he has said it, he would not have done well had he emerged in the Age of Twitter. 

I could go on and on ad infinitum about The Smashing Pumpkins. I did listen to a podcast about the 25th anniversary of the album Siamese Dream, where journalists Steven Hyden and Ian Cohen discussed the genesis of the album and wondered where Corgan went wrong. The biggest summative statement that came out of that for me was, "How did we get these albums out of this guy?" As a teenager whose emotional core was formed from the Pumpkins' mid-90s output, I am left wondering the same thing.

That being said: when you have kids first learning to play guitar in your classroom, especially any rocker kids who find their way into jazz band, you're going to hear this opening riff. You can't escape it. It is to the current generation of young guitarists what "Stairway to Heaven" was to young guitarists of Corgan's generation. 


Intro: One of the most successful groups of the 1990s, The Smashing Pumpkins helped to define the alternative rock sound of a generation. Also having come into fame at MTV's arguable creative height, the band won many accolades for their music videos. "Today" is a perfect example of this, pairing the iconic look of the Billy Corgan-captained ice cream truck and a peak-90s oversaturated color landscape. "Today" was a critical darling single, an alternative radio & MTV staple, and although it was a follow-up single, it capitulated Siamese Dream to no. 10 on the Billboard Top 200 Album charts and helped the album to sell over 6 million copies worldwide. The album was also nominated for a 1994 Grammy for Best Alternative Album. The band won two additional Grammys during their tenure and has sold over 30 million albums to date.

Analysis: The very first interval heard in the song is a descending perfect fourth -- Eb to Bb -- played, as some might refer to it, way up high on the tiny strings. The I-V-I-I chordal outline in that single measure riff almost sounds like it could be a child's nursery rhyme. Built off of the simple cadential outline, the brief solo guitar intro riff (that Billy Corgan said he came up with on a lark) contrasted with the overdubbed wall of guitars heard later in the song. The loud-quiet-loud format existed well before The Smashing Pumpkins became famous, but it could be argued (and the sales numbers back it up) that Corgan & crew perfected the formula. 

Considerations for Teaching: True to the rest of Billy Corgan's early lyrical oeuvre, the lyrics are purposeful opaque. "Pink ribbon scars" "my belly stings" are not individually offensive lyrics; none of the words in the song necessarily are. However, despite the cheerful utterance of "Today is the greatest / day I've ever known", Corgan has been very direct in stating that this song is about suicidal ideation. Proceed with any lyrical analysis of the song carefully.

The video also contains images of people making out in a heavily suggestive way, so also probably hold off on showing that in the classroom.

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