The song “Smashing Young Man” by Collective Soul was a top ten hit on the Mainstream Rock Chart  but its most powerful and lasting impact has been to document the hostility of douchebaggery of one particular “smashing young man” as well as provide an anthem for dealing ironically with arrogant people who think too highly of themselves. It is also a song that I tend to sing rather ironically about myself, to add personal meaning to the larger meaning.
There is a significant amount of controversy about the song. For one, though it was long denied by Collective soul lead singer Ed Roland , the song is about Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins . It was long denied partly because Ed Roland as a whole seems rather disinclined to comment specifically on the inspiration of his songs, especially when they reflect negatively on others. This is a virtuous position (though not one I personally take), but the song makes much greater sense when one sees the influence of Billy Corgan’s hostility on Collective Soul. The Smashing Pumpkins were once a tremendously influential modern rock band, and they were already successful when Collective Soul had their first hit with “Shine.” Immediately, and without investigating, Billy Corgan loudly insulted the band Collective Soul and claimed in a lawsuit that the band had ripped off their song “Rhinocerous” in “Shine.” As it happens, the song “Shine” came from a 1987 Ed Roland demo that long preceded the obscure “Rhinocerous,” and the lawsuit was dismissed.
It is fairly straightforward to understand the lyrics of “Smashing Young Man” in light of their inspiration by the leader of the now defunct Smashing Pumpkins. The first verse reads as follows: “Beggar’s description/ Of what I’ve been missing./ Exploit your position./ Don’t think I didn’t listen./ Hey I hope you’re feeling/ A little better now. [Instrumental part.] Success is so tragic,/ Pain is your gadget./ Your tongue’s just lashing,/ Just bitching by habit./ Hey I hope you’re feeling/ A little purer now./ Hey I hope you’re feeling/ Securer now .”
It’s pretty easy to understand this song being written in light of the lawsuit (one of several that Collective Soul has endured). First, Ed Roland sarcastically comments that the hostility of Billy Corgan for him and for his band exceeds Corgan’s ability to describe what Roland has been missing by being charitable. Despite his lack of a public response, though, Roland wants Corgan to know that he has paid attention to what has been said and how Corgan has tried to exploit his position through the lawsuit and through his rants. He then says that he’s hoping that after the dismissal of the lawsuit Corgan is feeling a little better to know that Ed didn’t steal his song after all because he wrote his first. He then steps up the comments, pointing out the tragic fact that success hasn’t brought happiness to Corgan, but rather increased his suffering. He then says that Corgan’s lashing out at Collective Soul is just a bad habit of ranting, and not reflecting anything genuine or well-thought out. He then comments that he hopes Corgan is feeling a little more pure at having defended his supposed intellectual property rights as well as finding out that his song wasn’t stolen after all, so there is no need to be insecure.
Now comes the chorus: “Help me I plea/ I don’t understand/ Your ways and your means/ You smashing young man./ Help me to see/ The good you have planned./ You’re wearing me thin,/ You smashing young man.” Here we see rather straightforwardly that Roland simply doesn’t understand how Billy Corgan acts or the purpose for his behavior. He doesn’t see how it is good or productive or useful, and he is (perhaps sarcastically) asking Corgan to explain himself and his purpose for such negative and hostile behavior when no such hostility is merited. Personally, I really like the like “you’re wearing me thin,” as it is an ironic personal reference to me.
The second verse reads: “You preach synthetic-like/ Peace is an oversight./ It’s nothing to ignite/ Your self-lit spotlight./ Hey I hope you’re feeling/ A little special now./ Hey I want to tell you/ I think you’re special now.” It would appear as if Roland starts the second verse by mocking the preachy tone of Smashing Young Pumpkin songs considering the rather hostile tone Billy Corgan sneered at his own band. He’s saying that rather than being a preacher of peace, you spew self-righteous hostility in order to show off and put the spotlight on yourself by starting feuds. This is a rather pointed but worthwhile insight. Additionally, Ed further twists the knife by sarcastically commenting that he agrees with Billy Corgan that Corgan is “special,” though probably not in the sort of “special” that he originally intended to be. Oh well.
Finally, the bridge reads: “I don’t recall asking for guidance./ I don’t recall wanting to./ I don’t recall bowing before you,/ But I’m so impressed/ With the kindness in your attitude.” Here the bridge comments on the ironic nature of the Smashing Pumpkins lead singer presuming himself to be a guide to life and superstardom when it is obvious that this is not the case. There seems to be an implicit condemnation of Corgan’s arrogant presumptuousness, while also an ironic dig at his unkindness and bad attitude towards Roland and his band. Here we see that despite the nastiness of Corgan’s actions Roland gets the last laugh by turning it into an ironic masterpiece of understated rock. Even without knowing the lyrics one can sing along to the chorus, unaware that this is a masterfully witty putdown. Knowing all of that makes the song even better.
Suffice it to say, if you’re Billy Corgan, you don’t like this song. But if you happen to like Collective Soul as I do (both for their Christian worldview as well as their modern Southern rock sound), this song is a reminder that putdown songs work best when one has a sense of humor and a taste for witty wordplay. As I happen to like musical feuds (thanks to my own interest in conflict studies, whether it involves musical wars or more literal ones), this song is an excellent example of musical feuding done correctly. For that, Ed Roland deserves a lot of credit. If Collective Soul can put out a few more albums full of songs as good as this one, within five or ten years I may be writing about their deserving place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But that must wait for its appropriate time. Collective Soul is still together and still making worthwhile music long after Billy Corgan has faded into insignificance. I’d say that Collective Soul won this feud hands down.