30 Years On: Siamese Dream and In Utero

1993 was a good year to be a music fan: MTV was arguably at the peak of its cultural influence, CD's were flying off the shelves every day, and music fans were spoiled for choice when it came to what they could listen to. If you were among those who enjoyed alternative music, you were probably anticipating the releases of Siamese Dream by The Smashing Pumpkins and In Utero by Nirvana on July 27 and September 12 of that year. 30 years on, these albums are widely acknowledged to be two of the most significant albums in the grunge and alt-rock oeuvre. We’re going to take a trip down memory lane and see how these albums resonated back when they were released, then travel forward and see what their impact is today.

Back in 1993 there was Nirvana, and then there was everyone else. Many bands were trying and with only to various degrees of success, to ride the wave that Nirvana pioneered, the The Smashing Pumpkins being one of them. Carving out a name for themselves in this vast shadow, their sophomore album, Siamese Dream,  incorporated grunge while also weaving inspiration from other genres throughout, creating a softer and much more hybridized sound that critics at the time appreciated. The biggest difference critics noted, however, was in the attitude. The Smashing Pumpkins had a much more reflective and resigned perspective in their songs despite (or in spite of) the heaviness of the subject matter, whereas a lot of the other bands had material that was angrier, nihilistic and brash,  similar to that of Nirvana’s tone. In their own way, the band succeeded in taking the pulse of Gen X’s existential angst; the critical, commercial success of Siamese Dream establishing The Smashing Pumpkins as major players in the genre. 

In 2023, the album has aged very well. Melodically, it features a coherent flow that connects the album from beginning to end, with lyrics and themes still resonating in a major way. It all comes together to create this authentic and anthemic album that encapsulates certain emotional experiences of despair, loneliness and discontent that everyone grapples with at some point in life. Siamese Dream succeeds in connecting with the listener,  precisely because the songs' intensity of feeling comes from the band’s deepest emotional wells. Siamese Dream is probably a less widely known album, as The Smashing Pumpkins only achieved its greatest success later on in the decade with Mellon Colie and The Infinite Sadness. But in the big picture of The Smashing Pumpkins’ legacy, this album was an inflection point that arguably laid the groundwork for what the band would become known for.

As for the band that started it all, they were already superstars. The release of In Utero stood as the culmination of not only Nirvana’s fame but the ascent of grunge as a whole into the mainstream. Brash, defiant and stripped bare, In Utero leaned into exactly what made Nirvana so successful musically and then pushed the boundaries as much as they could. When it was released, the reaction was polarized, the lack of understanding about its abrasive and seemingly less accessible sound fueled much criticism. This caused many to compare it unfavorably to Nevermind, their breakout album. Relistening now, I admire their audacity in sticking to their guns, creating an album that was purely based on their vision and essentially telling the fans to either take it or leave it– reminding the public what the ethos of grunge is all about. In Utero does more with less, deftly going back to basics instrumentally while also providing a roller coaster of sound to listen to. The album also showed a kaleidoscopic range of emotions from fiery catharsis and cool introspection, to airy listlessness and earthy passion. Most poignantly, I can hear the cries for help in a saga where the ending is already known, played out for our consumption in real-time.  After the tragic suicide of Kurt Cobain and the subsequent disbandment of Nirvana in 1994, two things happened simultaneously: Nirvana’s iconic status was permanently etched in amber and the passage of time distanced Nirvana from the klieg light of fame’s scrutiny. During that process, there was a reappraisal of their discography and In Utero was the primary beneficiary. Once properly placed in the context of the band’s turbulent personal issues, critics have noted that the album features some of Nirvana’s most haunting and confronting songs, both lyrically and musically; and receiving the plaudits and cultural recognition they deserved. Plenty of ink has been spilled on Nirvana’s legacy in pop culture but my personal summation is this: without Nirvana, rock as we know it would have been a very different genre.

These albums were critically acclaimed back then among Generation X, and they still hold up now among Gen Z because the one constant from generation to generation is the universal, unwavering sense of rebellion and disillusionment.  Looking back, the alternative boom that these albums were a part of in the early ‘90s was a time of meteoric proportions. To the mainstream, this zeitgeist was invisible at first, bubbling under the surface. Then it was discovered, first by the tastemakers and then by the masses. Finally, those who hopped on the bandwagon tried to capture that energy and recreate it in a sterile environment. But the gulf in authenticity was like comparing a sparkler to a supernova, and fans were able to tell the difference between the posers and the real thing. Inevitably though, like all phenomena, the alternative zeitgeist ebbed away as society kept moving on toward the next big thing and those left in its wake had a choice to make: either jump on a new bandwagon, or try and keep riding this one—even 30 years on.