pearl jam ten

Why Pearl Jam Couldn’t Kill Their Fame

Although Pearl Jam and Nirvana vied for grunge dominance in the ’90s, Pearl Jam valued something much better and more lasting than money and fame.

Ten
Pearl Jam
Epic
27 August 1991

The fact that Pearl Jam often worked against their fame (refusing to make music videos, turning down TV appearances, suing Ticketmaster, not living the “rock star life”) may not be up for debate, but why they would act so self-defeating is. The band’s attempt to keep things low-key didn’t keep things low-key – they went on to be remembered as the biggest US rock band of the ’90s.

If you automatically reject that idea, it’s likely because when you think “biggest” you think “best” or “most legendary”, and you’re objecting because that biggest band is clearly Nirvana. As outlined in Steven Hyden’s entertaining 2016 book on musical rivalries, Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, the two bands were largely pitted against each other as opponents. The rivalry boiled down to a contest between cool, dangerous outsiders Nirvana and overexposed, safe mainstreamers Pearl Jam. The thing they had in common apart from falling under the grunge umbrella was, it appeared, some sort of aversion to fame.

In fact, to the extent that Pearl Jam and Nirvana vied for grunge dominance, and to the extent that grunge defined a decade of rock, Kurt Cobain’s and Eddie Vedder’s rejection of fame could be said to signify a larger shift away from the fame clamoring of the ’80s. While there were certainly exceptions, grunge on the whole was much more suspicious of mass adoration than ’80s favorites like glam rock and hair metal.

While Cobain’s distaste coincided with his infamous personal demons and seemingly made him allergic to fame in any packaging, Vedder’s repulsion had a specific target: he wanted nothing to do with the sort of fame that distanced him from his fans. It’s impossible to talk about Vedder’s allegiance to his fans, and his insistence on being intimately connected to them, without considering the metamorphosis of the underlying meaning of Pearl Jam’s 1991 heartbreaker “Alive”.

The debut single from their 1991 debut album, Ten, “Alive” tells the story of a boy who finds out his father is not really his father, and whose mother initiates a sexual relationship with him because of how he resembles his deceased “real daddy”. Thematically, it’s one of the darker songs on an album that also sinks its teeth into depression, suicide, and murder. As Vedder wrote it, the song’s oft-repeated line “I’m still alive” is the narrator’s way of expressing that he is cursed. 

As Vedder wrote it, “Alive” is a rejection of the narrative “whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger”. In refusing to treat matters such as a ruptured family and molestation as fodder for character development, it adopts the position that, sometimes, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you wish it had. The song is unflinching and savagely honest in the face of pain. You could even say it’s subversive for how it takes a historically jubilant, mettle-flexing motto and twists it into mournful foreboding. With a behemoth hook. 

Vedder has said publicly that the part of the story about a boy discovering his father is actually his stepfather is autobiographical. “Alive” wasn’t just some melodic grunge rant. It was Vedder grappling with events that hit him in the vulnerability of his adolescence. It was personal.

Fans, however, didn’t hear “Alive” the way he intended it. They heard the more popular translation of its key phrase. To them, the song’s message was, “Nothing short of death can do me in”. If Vedder had written it as a cry for mercy, his fans sang it back to him as a battle hymn.

When he learned of this, Vedder didn’t try to correct people’s so-called misinterpretation. He liked fans’ take enough to adopt it as the official meaning of the song. If living had been a curse in the song as Vedder wrote it, Pearl Jam audiences had “lifted the curse”.

It may be a stretch to say fans also lifted a personal veil of darkness for Pearl Jam’s frontman, or it may not. By any account, Vedder learned, very early in the band’s run, that it was possible for fans to add to and elevate his work. It doesn’t seem illogical to conclude that he came to view their interpretation as a necessary cog in the creative machinery. It also doesn’t seem completely romantic to assume this led to a self-sustaining cycle of respect between Pearl Jam and Pearl Jam fans.  

Looking at the band through this lens, many of the supposedly anti-fame stances they took throughout their career are unremarkable. For instance, after the video for “Jeremy” was released, the band pushed back against label pressure to make other music videos. In her 1998 book, Five Against One: The Pearl Jam Story, Kim Neely quotes Vedder reminiscing about the days when people first heard songs with only their imaginations to supply visuals. He celebrated fans’ creation of their own visions as a form of self-expression.

If Pearl Jam turned down a startling number of interviews and TV appearances, it’s likely because they weren’t interested in becoming personalities. Once the band cultivated a creative one-on-one relationship with the fan base, what did they care whether general audiences had the chance to like them because of “who they were” as unveiled by journalists? If they didn’t want their music videos warping fans’ perception of songs, it stands to reason they didn’t want a slew of media appearances warping fans’ perception of Pearl Jam’s work. It’s also hard to view Pearl Jam’s band-wide moratorium on jackass “rock star behavior” as unrelated to that fealty they consistently demonstrated toward their fanbase.

While it was befitting enough of the grunge era not to constantly flash their wealth and their women—the ’80s had crashed hard—Pearl Jam became known for moderation. That’s a somewhat difficult thing to become known for. They didn’t spend or party uncontrollably or whip crowds into a dangerous frenzy at shows, and fans noticed. It’s like today’s Foo Fighters fans can’t help but notice Dave Grohl’s blatantly paternal behavior. Fans of both bands have had cause to feel respected and safe, and perhaps partly for that reason have propelled Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters to stratospheric commercial success.

There’s a light in which the unkillable popularity of bands like these is simple to explain. A rock star who behaves moderately is better to love and even hitch your identity to, than the one you suspect may sleep with underage women and launches into rageaholic outbursts and generally takes whatever he can from whomever we can. 

If the nice guy can jam, why shouldn’t he win? At least, that seems to be the public’s opinion to a large degree in these times. Foo Fighters’ music is not as good as Dave Grohl. He’s winning because you’d take your daughter to his concert. While in certain circles, one of the worst things you can call an artist is “safe”—musically or, for that matter, in behavior—many people clearly pedestal “safe”. The question of whether there’s anything wrong with that is beyond the scope of an essay on Pearl Jam’s supposed efforts to squash their fame, but it’s worth thinking about. Is it a travesty for Foo Fighters to be as commercially dominant as they are when, say, Jack White is out there making unconventional modern rock.

Jack White vs. Foo Fighters isn’t one of the match-ups Hyden discusses in his book, but it does constitute a modern-day rivalry of sorts, between two men who are prone to support other musicians but whose defining bands were essentially backing bands. On one side, you have Grohl of Foo Fighters, who always does pretty darn well critically. The media’s reaction to him is a brotherly pat on the back. On the other side, you have critical-darling White, creatively willing to fail big to win big. The media’s reaction to him is standoffish about who he is as a person but reverent toward his music. Musically, White is brave; in character, he isn’t what you’d call cuddly. Musically, Grohl is pretty darn good; in character, I’d trust him to run into a burning house to save someone.

In the ’90s, there was no bigger musical rivalry in American rock than that between Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Both were grunge breakout stars. Both emanated emotional torture, Pearl Jam through their music and Nirvana otherwise.

Musically, Pearl Jam was and remains a mixed bag. “Alive” and “Even Flow” belong in the hook hall of fame. The cover “Last Kiss” belongs in the same grave as most songs Tim McGraw wrote after becoming a husband and father. As a guitarist, Mike McCready keeps it simple but searing. Depending on who you ask, Vedder vocally resembles Jim Morrison or Dave Matthews. Musically, Nirvana shattered the world.

Nirvana also burned out at a billion degrees, and its surviving beacon of star power went on to engineer the safest non-Christian rock band in the world. He had witnessed firsthand the ravages of being “cool”, i.e. dangerous, and wanted nothing more to do with it. Even people who don’t give a fig about rock know enough to look sad when Kurt Cobain’s name comes up.

You have to consider a lot when you consider why Pearl Jam rose to such fame and kept it despite opting out of many opportunities for exposure and refusing to live the loudly enviable lives people were accustomed to seeing rock stars live. Singles from their debut album, Ten, benefited from a hard marketing push. Musically, they gave fans enough grunge flavor to make them feel they had been admitted to the ’90s zeitgeist but with familiar enough melodies to keep the price of admission low. And they put on a hell of a show.

Another thing to consider is that, from the time of their first single, “Alive”, which preceded the release of Ten, Pearl Jam recognized that their fans held a valuable, almost editorial, role in their creative process, and respected them accordingly. When Pearl Jam went on to sue Ticketmaster, it was because they didn’t want their fans getting ripped off. When they shied away from the spotlight, they seem to have been preserving the purity of fans’ connection to their music. They cared about fans’ safety at concerts and weren’t known to take advantage of the adoration heaped upon them. For better or worse, they were the safe, respectful band people flocked to.

I say were, past tense, only to stipulate their ’90s iteration. The band is still together—they played concert dates as recently as late 2021—and Vedder is touring this year in support of his solo album, Earthling, slated for release in February. After all this time, Pearl Jam is still alive.


Works Cited

Billboard Staff. “Pearl Jam Tells Its ‘Story’ At VH1 Taping“. Billboard.com. 2 June 2006.

Hyden, Steven. Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life. Back Bay Books. 2016.

Neely, Kim. Five Against One: The Pearl Jam Story. Penguin Books. 1998.

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