Conflict: Democracy and Pearl Jam’s Vs., 25 Years On

Conflict: Democracy and Pearl Jam’s Vs., 25 Years On

“I wish people would forget that we come from Seattle. It’d be nice if they thought we came from Cleveland or something like that.”

Stone Gossard, Pearl Jam guitarist


It is not cool to be a Pearl Jam fan in 2019. Once icons of the early-‘90s grunge phenomenon that made flannel a household symbol of authenticity and anti-capitalism, the band has since evolved into a staid institution of mainstream rock. While the tragic deaths of Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and now Soundgarden’s respective leads have spared their legacies from total commercial co-optation, Eddie Vedder must alone endure the irony of being “still alive” after the end of alternative culture. Pearl Jam’s gradual slouch into mediocrity seems the last glaring emblem of grunge’s failed promise to oppose the industry’s attempts to tame and profit off its music. The band has produced nothing but increasingly slick and radio-friendly dad rock for the past two decades—yet they continue to reap in accolades, raising millions for high-profile causes and getting named 2018’s Band of the Year by Consequence of Sound. This mood of nostalgic complacency reigns in a video from Pearl Jam’s Fenway Park show last year, in which Vedder, draped in Red Sox attire, descends to clasp the hands of Bostonians who can afford to pay three or more figures for a concert ticket. Someone first exposed to the band in this context might think that a Pearl Jam show resembles a Trump rally. As five middle-aged white men, Pearl Jam cannot even offer the consolations of representation.

In the midst of all this inflated fanfare, it’s hard to remember that Pearl Jam was once an ad-hoc band of total unknowns, distinct not only for their spirited take on hard rock  but also their compassionate affect. While Nirvana’s members were guarded and aloof onstage, Pearl Jam was ecstatic, with Vedder given to wild crowd-surfing stunts that absorbed audiences in spectacle even as they cultivated intimate contact. Both bands were skeptical of media hype and fought to resist the commercialization of their music, but Nirvana’s open misanthropy and cheeky subversion tactics contrasted with Pearl Jam’s earnest protests. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the band’s public legal battle with Ticketmaster demonstrated their commitment to accommodating as wide an audience as possible. As hindsight brings into focus the strains of elitism lurking beneath the ‘90s’ liberal zeitgeist, Pearl Jam’s approach appears remarkably grounded and egalitarian. Culture journalist Chuck Klosterman remembers that “Nirvana was seen as the band that hated its own people…Pearl Jam was seen as the people’s band.”*(1)

In an age of liberal discourse that maligns populism as the force that mobilized a white, middle-American underclass in favor of ethno-nationalism, this is a seriously loaded and confusing epithet. Who are “the people” for whom Pearl Jam supposedly stands, anyway? Philosopher Giorgio Agamben notes how in the context of democracy, the term “people” has two contradictory meanings: on the one hand the citizenry or body politic (as in “We the People”), and on the other “the poor, the underprivileged, the excluded” (as in “the common people”).*(2) The word contains this ambivalence whenever it’s used, so that “rule by the people” implies that the true subjects of democracy are precisely those who are shut out from it. This tension, which makes democracy both possible and inherently unstable, stages politics as a constant and ever-renewing struggle in which the ‘little people’ fight for recognition and inclusion within the ‘big People’—and the moment they attain it, it is no longer most rightfully theirs.

Over the years, Pearl Jam has straddled the line between these opposing audiences—the mainstream majority who shell out for arena shows and the punks who pack DIY venues in small cities, as they did on Pearl Jam’s first tour, which made 32 out of its hundred-odd North American stops in the Midwest alone. The ambiguity of their status as insiders or outsiders is one of the many complications the band has endured as widespread appreciation for their music catapulted them into a new form of life. This experience has often shaped their music, perhaps nowhere as directly as on Vs., their second album, which marked a major turning point in their career and reached its 25th anniversary this past October.

In March 1993, Pearl Jam was preparing to record their second album under circumstances unlike any they had encountered before. The success of the band’s platinum-selling first album, Ten, had buoyed them through an extensive world tour and now landed them at a luxury recording studio complex called the Site. Sequestered in a remote California town, Pearl Jam was tasked with making a record in the face of intense anticipation, media scrutiny, and unfamiliar surroundings, complete with a golf course and sauna. The dissonance of this situation perturbed Eddie Vedder, who remembers how the setting clashed with his ideals: “It was a hard place for me at that point to write a record…I was more into people and society, and chaos and confusion, and answering the question ‘What are we all doing here?’” The band’s hard-won recognition and popularity threatened to preclude them from the essential conditions of their art: mobility, proximity to street, and contact with ordinary lives and concerns.

To counter the alienating effects of the Site, Vedder took his weathered pick-up on long excursions to nearby towns, living out of the truck for days at a time. “Go,” Vs.’s frenetic opening salvo, is the arresting soundtrack to a scene in which the car begins to break down. Mike McCready’s lead guitar keens like an ambulance siren as Vedder pleads, “don’t go (out) on me now,” desperate not to lose the key thing just when it matters most. In retrospect it’s possible to hear a kind of melancholy beneath this delirium of panic, a raging cry against a creeping inevitability.

Vedder wrote most of the lyrics to Vs. on these driving trips, channeling the angst of the band’s predicament into emotional stories about other people. This act of self-effacement is a rebuke and deflection of the media spotlight that singled him out, instead directing the pathos of Pearl Jam’s music towards the anonymous, left behind, abused, and forgotten. Songs like “Daughter” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” call attention to overlooked lives that burst with vitality even as “hearts and thoughts, they fade / fade away.” Often taking the first person—and, on these ballads, a female persona—Vedder’s voice inhabits these folk archetypes without a hint of vanity or saviorism. When he ventriloquizes the elderly local woman whose former lover has returned to town (“Me, you wouldn’t recall / for I’m not my former / it’s hard when you’re stuck up on the shelf”), there’s the equalizing sense that Vedder’s yearning for recognition is no different from hers. Vs. elides the isolation of international fame with the loneliness of rural invisibility.

Pearl Jam approached their craft with all the righteousness of punk outsiders, unafraid to assert their anger and resentment at unjust political realities. Vedder’s strong moral sense is captured on the ironic anthem “Glorified G,” a scathing indictment of the American gun-masculinity crisis. (The song doubles as a call-out of Pearl Jam’s then-drummer Dave Abruzzesse, a gun owner whose fame-thirsty rockstar antics deeply offended Vedder.) “W.M.A.” conveys Vedder’s outrage that his privilege as a “white male American” means that the police will always leave him be, even if he’s less respectably-dressed than his “brother.”

Both songs evince a political awareness that, while impressive for the time, sounds naïve and self-righteous in light of the grave and intractable state of gun violence and police racism today. It’s in these performances of indignation that Pearl Jam look their most ridiculous, limited, and ugly: conceited Gen X white men screaming in your face about social problems from which they are largely removed. The affective faux pas has the potential to corrupt some Pearl Jam lyrics far beyond Vedder’s intent. The worst case in this instance is definitely “Animal,” the song about the band’s hostile “five-against-one” relationship with their manager that has long been misinterpreted as a song about gang-rape.

Such moments on Vs. foreshadow the dilemma that haunts the band all the more today: as the “people’s band” accrues power and influence, it becomes harder to take their political sympathies seriously.. Echoing through the stands of the Brooklyn Barclays Center, Pearl Jam’s ballistic roast of owning-class “Rats” sounds hollow and dilute. This is an extension of the paradoxical heart of  Vs., whose very name symbolizes conflict itself: winning a struggle also entails losing it, as the fight moves from the present into the past. Champions no longer get to be underdogs.

But this irony also exudes its own kind of appeal. The twists of time and fate have only amplified the poignancy of “Rearviewmirror,” arguably Vs.’s standout track—another car scene that throws into relief the elation, pain, and absurdity of leaving an experience , yet still having it behind you. If the passion and magnanimity of the band’s early work has receded behind the sheen of their celebrity, then Pearl Jam is in fact perversely underrated. And the legions of average, ordinary, and utterly mainstream fans the band has reached through Top 40 rock radio—they’re onto something good.

The exaltations and traumas of fame (not to mention age) have proved transformative for Pearl Jam, and they’re not the same guys. Except that they are the same guys: Eddie, Stone, Mike, and Jeff (Dave was replaced by Matt Cameron in 1994). They carry the band’s history in their bodies, recalling it at every performance with the awe-inspiring dynamism that comes only to musicians who have been playing together for decades. Pearl Jam fans, old and new, fill stadiums around the world understanding this premise—that the live experience of Pearl Jam today draws its meaning from a past that it can hardly approximate, let alone retrieve or revive. But to assemble, amiably and with purpose, in full acceptance of irreconcilable  differences and contradictions: isn’t this an act in the spirit of democracy?

*1. Chuck Klosterman, Killing Yourself to Live (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), 225.

*2. Giorgio Agamben, Means without End: Notes on Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 28-29.  

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