For better or worse, “Ugly” is one Smashing Pumpkins song that often gets stuck in my head..
It’s a great song, but its lyrics are incredibly bleak. They are also blunt, straightforward, and powerful, in that they express a purity of raw emotion without flinching.
"I don't look in the mirror
I don't like what I see staring back at me
Everything is clearer
I'll never see what you see
It's not me
So beautiful and free
I'll never be what you need
I can't help it at all
I was born so beautiful
But now I'm ugly"
Perhaps it’s that raw expression that draws me to it so much. I don’t feel the way the lyrics describe now, but at one point in my life, I certainly did. It was a dark, lost time in my life.
The song takes the first-person voice and speaks of personal suffering and the utter loss of self-esteem and self-worth, along with the accompanying despair. There is an acknowledgement in the lyrics of somehow rationally knowing that none of those feelings are actually true (“I’m good enough, but I don’t care”), but that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because the feeling is so real, over-powering, and crippling.
Indeed, many things we feel in life aren’t a reflection of reality, but they affect us with their power all the same. Such is the power of emotion, which in turn is the power of the mind. What we think and what we feel can become our functioning reality, regardless of whatever the truth is. Hence comes the oft-repeated maxim, “Perception is reality.”
Yet for all its despair, there is a beauty reflected in the song as well (in the way only the Smashing Pumpkins can), as it alludes to the inherent beauty we are all born with as we come into this world. “I was born so beautiful, but now I’m ugly.”
As a parent of two children, I can definitely relate to this (not that my kids are “ugly,” ha). But I see in my children not only their beauty and innocence, I see myself in them too. As a child. And so in them, I see my own beauty and innocence that I was born with. I see the boy I once was and hope I still am. I see what was good in me before I became tainted by the grime of the world, before I began to accept its false notions.
And in that beauty and innocence, there was also freedom (as the song says, “so beautiful and free). Freedom from that mindset of the world we live in, freedom from its prejudices and “the judgment in their ways.” Freedom to simply be as you are, without fear. There was a certain kind of acceptance in that, from others and from your own self. It was so simple. And yes, so beautiful. So free.
Not for nothing did Jesus say “ Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:16)
Like many Smashing Pumpkins songs, “Ugly” confronts the topic of mental health, which is an issue at the forefront of our society unlike any other time. A great deal of knowledge exists in the psychiatric community, yet still so much is unknown. And although that knowledge trickles down into the public, arm-chair psychology is no substitute for treatment at the hands of an experienced professional. Many misconceptions still exist and having a mental health “problem” is still a stigmatized thing.
Maybe it always will be.
But strides must be made in this area if we are to make any difference in confronting our societal ills. The mass shootings, the sky-rocketing suicide rates, the wide-spread pharmaceutical addiction and abuse, and even just the general sense of unhappiness and depression that leads to poor decisions which reap unfortunate consequences.
Indeed, it often feels like the world is losing its mind.
But if a stark and straight-forward song about mental and emotional suffering helps bring any attention to these issues, it will be stepping in the right direction.