The Smashing Pumpkins performing live
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The meaning behind “1979” by The Smashing Pumpkins

“1979” by The Smashing Pumpkins, is a tale of nostalgia, with Billy Corgan taking a melancholic look at his adolescence. It depicts the uncertainty of everything you experience when you are a teenager, but it also embodies the carefree attitude you have at that age. 

This is what it shows on a surface level, but let’s delve deeper into the meaning of “1979”. 

The facts behind the song

“1979” is the second single released from The Smashing Pumpkins’ third studio album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The song, like all others on the album, was written by frontman and singer Billy Corgan. The song gained large success and managed to earn itself gold certification in the UK and the US. 

This song is the Pumpkins’ highest charting song, reaching 12 on the Billboard Singles chart. It is also to this day their most streamed song on Spotify and YouTube. 

The success of this song is down to its meaning and its overall feeling, and it is why it is so iconic, even to this day. 

What Corgan has said about "1979"

Billy Corgan on stage
Billy Corgan on stage (Credit: Eduardo Pelosi)

It’s about the transition out of youth into adulthood. I was 12 in 1979, and that was the year I transitioned into adolescence. It’s about that feeling of being on the cusp of something, but not quite there yet.” – VH1 Storytellers. 

This quote from Billy supports the idea we have already inferred, it is about waiting and looking forward. This may be slightly confusing because the song itself is a look back at Corgan’s youth

“It’s also about the feeling of being bored in the suburbs. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and there wasn’t a lot to do there. So, you’d just drive around and listen to music and dream about the future” – Rolling Stone

The quote above is an interesting one, as we will see later. Billy Corgan was 12 in the year 1979, and it is clear that he is talking about the song being representative of his whole adolescence as opposed to just one year. 

looking into the lyrics of '1979'

The initial verse paints a picture of Billy Corgan during his adolescence. Opening up with “Shakedown 1979” the song straight away defines a time and place for the listener. The mention of the year is clearly with the intention of the target audience of the band, as they would also immediately recall their teenage years too. After this, it moves through to meeting new friends, while feeling like an outcast

The Chorus of the song is extremely powerful, with Corgan almost envying the carelessness he had for his own mortality at the time. “We don’t know just where our bones will rest” outlines this, but it almost emphasises the fragility of life at the same time. Finishing the Chorus with a sombre but limited outlook on the time we have left in our lives. 

Linking back to what Corgan said about being on the cusp of change, the song emphasises the uncertainty of how fast life would and could move. “Faster than we thought we’d go” shows the speed Corgan believes his life has gone for him from this point, a common occurrence when people bring up memories. Admit it, you at one point have said “Really was that x years ago”.

See the full lyrics here.

What is backed up from the Music Video

The music video to “1979” is iconic. This is because it perfectly visualises the song

The video begins with a group of young friends in a tyre rolling down a hill. They then drive around their neighbourhood in a car, engaging in playful mischief and revelling in the sense of freedom that comes with youth. Corgan simultaneously drives around the suburbs, looking out of the car and reminiscing about his own past. 

The group of teenagers work together at every point of the video, generating a sense of togetherness, and a strong sense of friendship. The band also appears playing in different locations, which includes a house party. 

As you can see the whole video of “1979” delivers the meaning of melancholy and longing.

The meaning from "1979's" composition

Billy Corgan is an excellent songwriter, and this comes out in the music for this song. There are a few examples from the instrumentation that echo the meaning of the song, and show Corgan looking into the past. 

To begin with, the gated electronic drum loop at the beginning creates uncertainty, it is almost as though the song is saying ‘this is a faint memory’. It is only in the second verse that acoustic drums enter, fully defining the memory. 

The backing vocals singing “Today” throughout the song, paint a whistful picture to the listener. The faintness of this vocal line emphasises the feeling of a distant memory. The backing vocals also faintly double the chorus lines, adding another voice on each repetition, this embodies the memory getting stronger the more it is recounted. 

Another note, during the chorus a synth plays a heavily delayed descending sequence, this works to solidify the distant feeling of time the song is constructing. 

The Guitar Playing

Billy Corgan Playing the guitar
Billy Corgan Playing the guitar (Credit: matthewf01)

The guitars in “1979” also emphasise the meaning Corgan is trying to portray. The main riff is simple and straightforward, with an octave start that leads into a slinking and sliding progression, with an Ab pedal note in the 2nd half of the phrase. 

The guitar uses sus chords throughout but prominently when leading into the chorus. This resembles the link between Corgan now and the memories he has.

The clean tone used shows the innocence of the track, there is only one use of distortion and it comes in the bridge.  This is in the form of a distant guitar that fully utilises a fuzz sound. This is employed to show the uncertainty mentioned within the lyrics. 

“1979” and The Smashing Pumpkins are known for their layered production, with most Pumpkins tracks having up to 8 guitar tracks. The track features multiple guitar tracks, doubling one another. This is done to dial up the impact of the playing and enrich the overall sound with depth and texture.

As you can see Corgan’s guitar playing in “1979” perfectly captures the song’s nostalgic and reflective themes, evoking a sense of longing and yearning for the past.

This is why the song has stuck!

The success of “1979” is because of this cohesive attitude to the composition of the song. This is because the meaning of the song was outlined from the word go, allowing every other aspect of the track to fall into line. 

From the guitars, to Billy Corgan’s voice, to the production everything works together to form a cohesive atmospheric song. This is the reason that even to this day the song still receives praise, and has been saved to countless libraries. 

The song is still relatable and perfectly captures a time in one’s life of uncertainty and a time everyone has to experience. This is why the song is brilliant.

Head here to see where “1979” ranks on our Top 13 Alternative Songs of the 90s


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