5. “Tonight, Tonight” by Smashing Pumpkins (1995)

The JOAT 50 Song Countdown is a blog series where every weekday for 10 weeks I am posting a brand new long form essay where I have ranked and written about my 50 favorite songs of all-time. From Adele to Zac Brown Band, Patsy Cline to Plasma Canvas, Ludacris to Rise Against, this series offers a personal essay about the 50 songs that hit me the absolute hardest.

I’ve had trouble writing this entry, and I’m not sure why. It’s possible the reason is that I’ve written about this song – er, music video – before. It just so happens to be my favorite music video of all time. But the section about this video in that piece is less than 300 words long, and as I read it back now, I don’t even think my writing is that good. It’s mostly expository information about the video’s plot intermingled with trivia about who made it and how. Ok.

I’ve written and re-written the introductory paragraphs of this piece probably 10 times, and something keeps compelling me to write about higher powers and metaphysics, which is extremely off-brand for me. You know those people who say, “I’m not religious, but I’m very spiritual?” My own personal twist on that is that I am neither religious, nor particularly spiritual. It’s not that I don’t believe in the existence (or the possibility of the existence) of a higher power, it’s that I don’t really spend any time concerning myself with the question. I kinda don’t care.

Life is a gift. What we have right here, right now is a blessing. And whether all of this is as a result of the continued collision of subatomic particles combined with scientific happenstance, coincidence and natural evolution, or whether this is all the divine plan of an all-knowing creator who is cognizant and controlling of every single living thing on the planet… my feeling is that either answer renders the amount of agency I have over any of it pretty much exactly the same.

It’s entirely possible my idiot brain is too fucking small to even begin to contemplate the larger questions, their origins, their meanings, or their implications. If that’s the case – that I’m actually too dumb for any of these gigantic questions – then I’m actually relieved.

  • Hey, does God exist?
  • I dunno. But either way, I’m not too worried about it.

That’s fucking freeing. To me, the central preoccupation about “life beyond” feels exhausting and ultimately fruitless in its pursuit of answers. And here’s the thing. As long as whatever beliefs you hold aren’t used to hurt others, deny their humanity, or belittle another’s, I respect them and you. My lack of interest in the subject matter is for me, and me only.  

So why am I using this space ostensibly reserved for talking about the 1995 Smashing Pumpkins song “Tonight, Tonight” to ruminate on the nature of my metaphysical beliefs? It’s because I find this song so hauntingly beautiful and moving, my mind opens in a way it normally doesn’t and feels like I’m personally tapping into a river of cosmic and ethereal beauty I rarely see. I can’t explain it, but I know that for me this song just hits different.

I feel like a total fraud even dipping my toes into these waters because I do so infrequently, and am uncertain of my footing. I fear I’m treading dangerously close to that scene in American Beauty where that weird kid next door mythologizes and romanticizes a video he took of some trash blowing in the wind. I know that scene is trying to say, and what it represents in terms of the movie’s overall narrative, but it’s always rung hollow to me because I never bought the idea that this footage could ever inspire that much profundity.

Yet every time this song comes on, I feel like I leave my body. Sure, some of that is the incredible music video that literally transports us to the moon and then the bottom of the ocean, two places literally no one reading this will ever see, much less in the fantastical way they’re conceived here. This video aired roughly 18 times a day on MTV in 1995.

More than that, it’s the song’s deceptive simplicity. Only a snare drum. An elegant string section. And front and center is Billy Corgan’s piercing, inimitable voice. His message? The fundamental, all-encompassing transformation of falling in love and giving yourself over to another person. It’s fitting that the video narrative sees a couple jumping off a spaceship together, fighting moon monsters together, riding a rocket ship together, plumbing the bottom of the ocean together, and ultimately finding rescue and refuge together. In the most successful partnerships, the whole becomes much greater than the sum of the parts, and no challenge is too great. Nothing is unconquerable as long as you’re together.

The song concludes with the following line:

Believe in me as I believe in you
Tonight, tonight

It’s a declaration of devotion and a vulnerable plea for the same in return. It’s not that the song’s narrator lacks confidence in the reciprocity, it’s that until the narrator met a partner so thoroughly fulfilling that the impossible became possible. The overwhelming magic of it all leaves us searching for answers that will never come, at least not in a way we can explain. And not that an answer really even matters because some things are almost totally unknowable, and even though we can’t know them, it doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate them fully.

I feel unbelievably blessed to have the life I have, and it’s impossible not to feel the impulse to attribute that to some unseeable force or some warm, guiding benefactor. It’s a lovely wavelength, and one I’m not consciously tapped into often.

“Tonight, Tonight” offers me a temporary pass to a higher plane of existence. Maybe that’s hokey. Maybe that’s a lot to hang on a simple rock song. Or maybe that’s the point of all this. Great art opens our souls in ways we don’t understand. And maybe if we dwell in that lack of understanding, we actually open new avenues to a deeper appreciation of ourselves, our lives, or the unseen tissue that connects us all.

Up next: Number 4.

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