Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Alternative 90s: The AV Club's Retrospective: 1992

Here we continue to react to the Steven Hyden's take on the Alternative 90s. We started with Part 1 here.

In covering 1992, Hyden focuses almost exclusively on Pearl Jam, using them to highlight the double-edged sword that is massive mainstream popularity. Hyden does excellent research here and has penned what is so far the best column in the series. The backstory on Pearl Jam is far more fascinating than I realized.

Honestly, the band never interested me that much. By the end of my freshman year of college, they were by far the most popular band in the world (of college freshmen) to the point where there had to be a painstaking explanation prepared for every guy wearing a dirty white baseball cap that couldn't understand where I was coming from. And this is really the whole point of Hyden's latest. How could a band that seemingly had no desire to be universally liked end up being the most popular band of its era? And what the hell are they supposed to do once they find themselves in that situation?

But first the setup. Hyden talks about how they arrived:

"I hated that the chorus didn’t tell you what 'even flow' was supposed to be, and the line about thoughts arriving like butterflies sounded like a bad Natalie Merchant lyric. Still, the video for 'Even Flow' succeeded in doing for Pearl Jam what the 'Pour Some Sugar On Me' video had done for Def Leppard four summers earlier: It made you wish really hard that Pearl Jam would come somewhere near your town very soon."
And that sounds about right. All of Ten is basically a series of riffs lifted from one Jimi Hendrix song - Voodoo Chile (Slight Return). That happens to be one of the greatest songs in the history of everything, so they certainly could have chosen worse. (Incidentally, hearing Even Flow can't help but remind me of Adam Sandler's caricature of Eddie Veder. That happen to you?)

There's no denying that Pearl Jam was the right place at the right time. No reasonable fan would consider them virtuosos in any respect. But to this day Eddie Vedder makes for a compelling frontman, the most accessible of the Alternative movement.
"As Vedder and his increasingly marginalized supporting cast distanced themselves from the record’s gauche chest-thumping by churning out progressively restrained, more 'mature,' and less expressive music, Ten was dusted off by other bands and recycled again and again. Today, Pearl Jam is a popular touring band and intermittently successful on the charts; Ten, meanwhile, is still all over modern-rock radio, though only a handful of the songs are actually by Pearl Jam."
The point is, it's nearly impossible to stay on top while doing something in earnest. I would add that it doesn't help if you're not a very talented band to begin with. As much as I am ragging on the band here, you have to give them credit. They could have gone the route that nearly every popular band from the 90s went. To "Jonas Brothers" it up. But they took another path.
"Pearl Jam isn’t the first veteran rock band to see a decrease in fans as it got older. But it’s the best example of a band deliberately expediting the process."

Hyden finishes by noting that with 20/20 hindsight we can easily identify that the band (and therefore the year 1992) represented a fulcrum for the direction of Alternative music.
"For three years, Vedder occupied a unique and important place in mainstream rock; that he allowed it to be taken over by people like Scott Stapp isn’t unforgivable, just unfortunate."
It's impossible to argue with that statement.

Part of me will forever associate Seattle with the early 90s grunge scene. My brother lived there for several years. I've visited twice. I've made many friends from that city. But even though it should have, my impression hasn't changed. Maybe because of the age I was and the way a person forms perspective. It's 2010, and I still view the Emerald City through flannel-colored glasses. That's not just unfair but ridiculous. And yet I'm sure that millions of people around the country think the same way.

Back to the topic at hand. Pearl Jam never meant very much to me, even as they were capturing all the hearts and minds surrounding me. Hence, I don't find myself caring that much about their story. In fact, I often forget they even exist. Futhermore, I forget that they were not only a part of the movement, but one of the two or three most important bands in it. But like I said, it's a fascinating story. This is a superb piece and you can tell Hyden is building to something even better. I can't wait for the next one. Good thing it comes out today.

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