Opinion: Pearl Jam Deserves More Credit

When most people think of iconic grunge bands, Nirvana is most likely the first band that comes to mind. For others, maybe Foo Fighters, Alice In Chains, or Soundgarden would be named too. To me, the iconic grunge band is undoubtedly Pearl Jam. Despite their musicianship and popular appeal, they always seem to be shorted. I think that the choices Pearl Jam made during their career are to blame. I also believe that Nirvana in particular plays a huge role here, and I’ll explain why.

Ten - Pearl Jam | Songs, Reviews, Credits | AllMusic
Ten is a blessing and a curse for Pearl Jam.

I can’t really move forward without going into Ten, Pearl Jam’s perennial high bar. With Ten, Pearl Jam was immediately established as one of the driving forces of grunge music, and to this day the album is regarded as one of the best of all time. When you have such an explosive and popular debut, it’s pretty hard to match after, at least in the eyes of the public. As a result, Ten is still Pearl Jam’s most successful album.

Other bands quickly rose in the grunge scene, including Nirvana, who had become popular around the same time. Really, Nirvana had blown up just before Pearl Jam, and with record labels eagerly capitalizing on the new movement, Pearl Jam was facing stiff competition. Pearl Jam’s second album, Vs., did perform well thanks to the success of grunge, but the industry was changing rapidly. This combined with Pearl Jam’s unorthodox methods of releasing and promoting music, along with their frequent rejection of success, means that they have been overshadowed in the long term.

Pearl Jam’s politics and contrarian nature definitely explains their status today. The band is very politically active, and would often resist the music industry’s system. The most notable example of this is their heavily publicized legal battle against Ticketmaster, during which they fought against Ticketmaster’s dominance over the industry and its unfair prices. Besides this, Pearl Jam is known to attack political issues head on, making their political views clear through their lyrics and live shows. Most recently, the band was encouraging people to vote for Joe Biden to prevent Donald Trump’s re-election in 2020. Regardless of their stance, Pearl Jam’s outspoken politics are bound to incite controversy, something which the band has never been afraid of.

Pearl Jam's 1992 MTV Unplugged still rocks with righteous, relevant anger |  EW.com
During Pearl Jam’s MTV Unplugged session, Eddie Vedder wrote “PRO CHOICE” on his arm with a sharpie. This sums up Pearl Jam’s unabashed politics nicely.

Their catalog in general can also explain their status today. Pearl Jam frequently preferred to be more creative with their music, often experimenting and crafting music that always evolved. The group has often had a couple songs here and there that are far removed from their normal material, such as “Bugs”, off of Vitalogy, their third album.


This song was lovingly referred to by the band as a “wank-off accordion piece” and was created because Eddie Vedder walked into a thrift store and found an accordion. He randomly played something, spoke gibberish over it, and joked that it should be the first single. I wish that all bands had this level of confidence.

Pearl Jam has also experimented using various genres. For example, the meditative acoustic song “Elderly Woman”, the worldbeat inspired “In My Tree”, or the fast and punk-y “Spin The Black Circle”. This might have alienated the average listener of Pearl Jam, who was hoping for Ten 2, 3, and 4. As time passed and Pearl Jam kept producing albums, they seemed to stray further and further from their debut, winning over devoted fans and further discouraging listeners who wanted popular music.

Though they had established themselves as rock trailblazers, Pearl Jam lost to Nirvana in the long term. Just before Pearl Jam made it big, Nirvana produced the spark that led to the rise of grunge: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. The song was straightforward, angry, and soon very popular.

Kurt Cobain, despite being rather iconoclastic, was established as not only a popular artist but as an icon for a young and restless generation and the face of counterculture. Nirvana’s music in general was also more accessible and simple, allowing listeners to enjoy it regardless of how much they knew about music. Eddie Vedder was a counterculture icon himself, but Cobain’s style proved immensely popular. Of course, what happened after that changed everything

Kurt Cobain’s death, arguably the biggest reason for Nirvana’s enduring success, turned him and his bandmates into legends. Nirvana became larger than life after that, something that Pearl Jam probably couldn’t have done unless Eddie Vedder died young too. As macabre as it may seem, a lot of these artists that die young are immortalized after death and become enigmatic figures. In fact, Kurt Cobain is part of the “27 Club”, a group of artists who all died at the age of 27.

The 27 Club has since become a cultural phenomenon, and the artists on this list have inspired films, novels, plays, and a lot of speculation. Cobain is among the most heavily debated deaths on the list, as it is believed that he did not commit suicide, but was murdered. The significance of Cobain’s death alone leads me to the conclusion that Pearl Jam couldn’t have maintained relevance among the general public if they tried. Various other bands, including Alice In Chains or Soundgarden, were trailblazing legends in their own right, and many of these groups have faced tragedy as well; Alice In Chains frontman Layne Staley and Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell have both died of drug overdoses, and the list goes on. It’s unfortunate, but tragedy generates media buzz.

My point in bringing all of this up is to say that Pearl Jam deserves more credit for their work and as a part of the cultural zeitgeist. The band has talent and an expansive, enjoyable catalog. Despite this, they are still in the shadow of their contemporaries, especially Nirvana. I hope they can be known as more than just a “cult band” someday. I mean, how can they have over 10 million monthly listeners on Spotify and still be so unfamiliar to people? By all accounts, it doesn’t make sense! Anyway, put my frustration to rest and go give them a listen, would you?

7 Comments

  1. Mike b

    Finally Someone says what we have all been thinking abs wondering for years. The Nirvana shadow just doesn’t make sense: compare the two albums Nevermind and Ten: not even close. Then compare Vs. to InUtero: Vs triumphs by a massive amount. Then Kurt does and we then get Vitology and the incredible No Code. Then compare the two live….PJ live is unlike anything ever seen before from 91-95 just out of this world good.

    Death is tragic yet at times it blinds the mass public of the truth. Nirvana was incredible but Pear Jam was and still is ungodly.

  2. Aj Hoe

    “Pearl Jam deserves more credit” as if they’re not one of the biggest bands in the world and don’t have millions of dollars. They were once more popular than Nirvana, so no lol

  3. BillS

    Were you even alive in the early 90’s. At the time that Vs came out Pearl Jam was arguably the biggest band in the world. They have their own Sirius Satellite radio station. Pearl Jam is also in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. Eddie fronted the Doors when they were inducted into the RnR Hall of Fame. Younger people may not know who Pearl Jam is but anyone who was a teen or young adult in the 90’s knows PJ. They are not and have never been a cult band

  4. Darren DeLoach

    Pearl Jam is literally one of the greatest rock bands ever. When looking at everything from writing, arrangement, individual instrumentalists, vocal performance, feel, tone, and so on, they are in rare air. The “grunge” label was a huge albatross as well. Pearl Jam was and is just a rock band…period. Nirvana emitted their punk, noise, and alt rock influences while Pearl Jam was more Zeppelin, Neil Young, and Hendricks.

  5. Kristi Cave

    I agree with every word! I am a huge fan and have been since the onset. I am 57 and will never stop listening to the Jam❤

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