It's a commonly accepted piece of the rock 'n' roll myth that every band wants to hit the big time. Who among us wouldn't want to experience a life where the toughest task of the day is playing guitar, and the reward was plenty of money and an endless stream of groupies and sycophants?
So when Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder reacted to the success of "Vs." -- an album that sold more than a million units in its first week of release -- by griping about being on the cover of Time, most rock fans thought he was nuts. How could any sane person, they wondered, complain about success?
Particularly when success comes as easily as it has for Pearl Jam. In less than three years, the band has gone from playing grubby dives in the Pacific Northwest to selling out arenas in a matter of minutes. "Ten," Pearl Jam's debut album, has sold more than 6 million copies in the 119 weeks it has been on the Billboard album chart and shows no sign of slowing; "Vs." is likely to do even better, having moved more than 5 million units in a mere 23 weeks. (That's as much as Janet Jackson has sold in twice the time).
For some rock fans, those figures mean only one thing: Sellout. As they see it, Pearl Jam is a corporate rock creation, cobbled together for the sole purpose of bilking money from clueless kids desperate to be in on the latest hip band. As Nirvana's Kurt Cobain has complained in countless interviews, Pearl Jam is just "jumping on the alternative bandwagon."
But are they?
Let's compare Pearl Jam's record with that of the avowedly alternative Nirvana. Since last fall, both bands released new albums. Nirvana talked with Rolling Stone, Spin, Details, Alternative Press, Creem and others; most were cover stories. But Pearl Jam talked only to Rolling Stone and Spin; even Time was reduced to using quotes cadged from the British music press. (The band continues to decline interview requests.)
Nirvana has released two videos from its latest album, the first being a high-budget rendering of "Heart Shaped Box," the second a version of "All Apologies" from the band's appearance on "MTV Unplugged." Pearl Jam, on the other hand, has done no videos for its new album, forcing MTV to make do with a performance clip from last year's "Video Music Awards" broadcast.
In fact, Pearl Jam has done everything imaginable to avoid the usual trappings of mass-market success. Its current tour, for example, is surprisingly modest, restricting itself to mid-sized venues instead of the arenas the band could easily sell out. Nor have any singles been pulled from "Vs." (though "Dissident" is currently an Album-Rock radio smash, while "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" has held steady on the Modern Rock radio charts).
Will this policy of restraint and refusal work, though? Can Pearl Jam continue to act as if the trappings of big-time rock 'n' roll success were something a band could opt out of?
It's hard to say. On the one hand, being rich, famous and miserable has never been the sort of thing that appeals to a fan's sympathy. Most Americans, after all, agree with David Lee Roth's view that even if money can't buy happiness, it will pay for a boat big enough to sail up alongside it.
On the other hand, a large part of Pearl Jam's appeal stems from the honesty of the band's music. These aren't just catchy pop tunes dressed up with hipster attitude and loud guitars. Pearl Jam's songs address real emotions in a vivid and comprehensible way. And by evoking those feelings through music, the band affords its listeners a sense of catharsis they can't find elsewhere in popular culture.
So maybe, just maybe, the band will be able to help the fans comprehend why bigger isn't better and understand how hard it is to be massively popular without giving in to the lure of the mainstream. Granted, the folks at Time probably still won't get it. But hey -- who said they were supposed to?
When: Tonight at 8
Where: The Patriot Center, George Mason University
Tickets: Sold out
Call: (703) 993-3000
Jam with the Jam
To hear excerpts from Pearl Jam's current album, "Vs.," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) LTC 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6240 after you hear the greeting.