pearl jam and the curse of social responsibility


So now we have a reissue of Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten, replete with bonus tracks and DVD and booklet and whatnot. Yes, it marches on: the unstoppable advance of the past into the present . . . and now, apparently, the future.

What struck me about this reissue is that it is “the first in a string of releases leading up to Pearl Jam’s twentieth anniversary in 2011.” Usually I would rant and rail against this preemptive, presumptive strike at masturbatory self-congratulation . . . but I can’t. If any band deserves a pass on this kind of behavior, it’s Pearl Jam. And it all has to do with some law of unintended consequences.

I remember being shocked in 1994 when Vitalogy dropped (love that term) and several of my friends didn’t get it because they were “over” Pearl Jam. Over them? It had only been 3 years since the whole alternative movement erupted! There it was, though: Pearl Jam wasn’t what the cool kids listened to anymore. Basically, between “Jeremy” and “Daughter,” too many cheerleadery types liked them.

But! (I would argue) they’re the only “alternative” band that actually does any “alternative” things! They stopped making videos after their first album, started skipping awards shows and other celebrity events. While their peers succumbed to intraband rivalries/martyr fantasies, Pearl Jam kept plugging along, churning out albums. And yet their fight against Ticketmaster was seen as an act of hubris; they weren’t praised for taking a stand against a predatory monopoly, but mocked for overstepping their bounds. Who the hell did they think they were?

My demographic demanded our bands try to fight the good fight and be socially responsible, and as soon as one band did, most of us dropped it as fast as we could. Pearl Jam, in trying to live up to the ideals all those bands—and supposedly we ourselves—espoused, had become toxic. I didn’t understand that at the time.

Now I get it. Social responsibility, willingly fading into obscurity, disdaining celebrity moments—all the things alternative music had promised—isn’t what your average teenager is looking for. Suddenly Pearl Jam was doing things that implied a world greater than the musical sphere, and we scuttled away from that. In the end, we wanted bands who (1) provided an identity and (2) rocked out more intelligently than, say, Poison. That was all.

Suddenly liking Pearl Jam seemed to imply all sorts of moral responsibilities. Eddie and the boys were doing what was expected of it, and therefore no longer revolutionary icons to us. Empty rebellion was more important than meaningful action. Lesson learned.

. . . This of course in no way explains how U2 has managed to remain relevant, but I suspect it has something to do with the overpowering earnestness they showed from the get-go. And maybe that’s what this Ten reissue/20th anniversary buildup is all about . . . yes: I seem to remember a similar reissue of The Joshua Tree once upon a time. . . .


4 thoughts on “pearl jam and the curse of social responsibility”

  1. I think you’re right, and what’s more, I think this is precisely why the gays never rose up en masse to embrace punk as rightfully their own, instead opting to stick with mindless disco crap.

  2. Stumbled across your site/blog and have to say that I am highly entertained by your wit, writing and hopeful cynicism (whatever. maybe.) and totally enthralled by the fact that there’s a contemporary out there who’s literate AND embraced the grunge era/ethos AND came out semi-productive AND somehow productive AND somewhat accomplished. Huh. There may be hope for me yet. Thanks.

  3. um… now that I reread my earlier comment, I see that it didn’t turn out quite right. Apparently I’m subconsciously focused on your productivity; could be because I’m struggling through my last term of undergrad while working full-time (and have for years, now — it’s been a long haul) and am finding myself 4 weeks behind. And not being remotely productive, myself. Ah, online self-psychoanalysis. Crap.

  4. i’m glad you’re entertained . . . especially when you’re simultaneously schooling/working. thanks for writing.

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