News & Politics

Pearl Jam's 20th Anniversary: Two Decades of Activism, Strong Spirits and Inspiration

Cameron Crowe's documentary shows a band without compromise.

There aren't too many American bands whose following can measure up to that of the Grateful Dead—particularly ones off the jam-band circuit. But Pearl Jam is on track to be just that. With an extensive catalog of bootlegs, fans who tour with them from show to show, and an emotional connection with their audiences built up over the last 20 years, they may be the most important touring band that can claim the same tread as the Dead (with apologies to Phish). And it's not just because of their music, though the bluesy emotional wail of Eddie Vedder has indeed changed many lives. It's because they represent something to believe in, they stand for their values, and they have not ever compromised throughout their two-decade career, even when it has meant losing money.

Pearl Jam: 20, the new documentary by Cameron Crowe, is an unequivocal celebration of Pearl Jam—Crowe is a longtime friend of the band, and doesn't seem interested in filling in certain details about, say, why so many drummers quit or got the boot. But it's also clear that they're a band worth celebrating, particularly for progressives who like their art to reflect their values. Formed in Seattle in 1991, the group was initially about catharsis—it rose from the ashes of Mother Love Bone, which had lost singer Andrew Wood to a heroin overdose, and most of Vedder's early lyrics dealt with learning his real father was a family friend who had died years before he knew. They were at the heart of the movement the media identified as grunge, so they were thrust nearly immediately into the mainstream consciousness, after debuting with their first album, Ten. They refused to lip sync in videos and carefully managed their sound so it would not become canned or over-produced.

Even then, Pearl Jam expressed its progressive positions. The song and video for "Jeremy" was a sort of precursor to the anti-bullying movement while still reflecting the post-traumatic mood of a country coming off Columbine. And on a particularly impactful moment, when Pearl Jam filmed their '92 episode of MTV Unplugged, Vedder climbed atop a stool during an extended "Alive" jam and wrote the words "Pro-Choice" on his arm in marker, a real-time political stance in a feminist era.

Certainly they will remain famous for their stance against Ticketmaster, the protracted battle against extraneous fees and monopoly that led their national tour to small venues, money loss, and landed Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard before a senate judiciary committee. (As footage in the documentary shows, many congress members made it a point to mention they had never heard of Pearl Jam but supported their cause, despite the fact that the band was on its second multiplatinum album and had toured the world at that point. Oh, Congress!) The case against Ticketmaster was eventually dismissed, but Pearl Jam continues its boycott, even as the company morphed into LiveNation.

As Pearl Jam: 20chronicles the band's trajectory, it touches upon the many lesser known admirable traits and decisions the band members have made—though they've been around for a shorter time, their integrity is comparable to an E Street Band, for example. Upon winning a Grammy, Vedder's acceptance speech detailed exactly how little he thought the Grammy mattered. In a later interview, Ament reiterates their stance, and says Vedder simply said what they were all thinking. (The Grammy in question was later discovered, on camera, in a basement, by accident.)

No mention is made of Vedder's constant support for populist causes (I saw him play solo at a Nader rally in Portland, OR, circa 2001), but one scene does highlight their willingness to anger even their fans for the higher cause of their beliefs and ideals. During one concert held during the Bush II era, Vedder emerges for a performance of "Bu$hleaguer" wearing a rubber George W mask and a gold lame smoking jacket, presumably a Phil Ochs reference. For his verses lambasting the lies that led to the wars in the Middle East, he whips off the facade as some audience members boo the band. Vedder takes it in stride but does not back down. "You don't like that song," he remarks, before launching into another. "Okay."

Most internationally renowned groups spend their careers adhering to the demands of their fans—ultimately, consumers. Bands like Pearl Jam aren't as invested in the money aspect if it means selling out in any way. It's something they've tried to adhere to from the beginning, after Nirvana's Kurt Cobain (featured in the film), lambasted them for seeming too corporate at first. And certainly with their glam-metal background (Mother Love Bone) and more blues-invoking vocalist, it's easy to see why Cobain was put off: he was obsessed with punk ideals and bucking the system. But his early criticism of the band members, who eventually became his friends, kept them on their toes, particularly for Vedder, who later admits that he thinks about Cobain, and his influence, every day.

It's these sorts of principles—the carefully protected, self-consciously calculated decisions—that have helped connect Pearl Jam to their fans so fiercely all these years. Certainly their lyrics play into it—Vedder's evocative yawl conveys the emotion of his lyrics on a nearly primal level—but the feeling that one can trust a famous artist is deeply important to their longevity. Pearl Jam released an album almost 20 years into their career on their own label; they bootleg their own shows; and they never create a pre-meditated setlist, playing the same shows over and over on every tour (which is why so many people follow them from city to city—megafans like the unpredictability, and if they don't play your favorite show on one stop, there's always the possibility of the next one). These things matter: it's cliche to put a premium on honesty in a postmodern culture, but at the same time, it's a fundamental human desire. No one likes feeling like they're getting screwed over, whether by the taxman or their favorite singer. Pearl Jam: 20 shows that this band has mastered the art of being themselves.

The documentary is certainly a love letter to the band. Again, Crowe has been documenting them from the start, so along with the special early footage there is an overwhelming sense of not wanting to step on any toes. But for a film that aims to highlight the admittedly extraordinary career of a band of musicians who've remained scrappy even as they sell out stadiums, it's an inspiring look, one worth watching even for those who dislike the music. And while they might not have a Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor yet, it's clear that the band will retain its vast audience worldwide as long as they want.

One particularly cogent fan -- who couldn't have been a day over 22 -- at a show in Australia passionately articulated her adoration for them. As they continue to lead in the industry toward a fairer and more just working system between fans and artists, they pick up more along the way. And while they aren't perfect, they prove a point and act as inspiration to artists everywhere to stick to your guns. It's better in the end.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.
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