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.
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.
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.
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?