On Pearl Jam’s “Ten” And ’90s Revisionism

Apr 10th, 2009 // 61 Comments

Pearl Jam‘s Ten was recently reissued, and the $200 limited edition version had a ludicrous slew of extras (though it would be kinda cool to have the original Vedder audition tape); even the basic edition includes an entirely new mix of the album. Most publications took the opportunity to review the album as a chance to look back on Pearl Jam’s career, or on the legacy of grunge. Critics who tend to run with a mainstream rock kinda crowd generally gave the album high marks, but the more muso members of the commentariat took a different view. For one thing, not having really kept up with the band’s career in the last decade, they tended to see Ten as a sort of singular achievement and almost treated it like a reissue from some long-dead band. In a way, that makes sense, of course: for those like me who hit adolescence with Pearl Jam, the album is as irrevocably consigned to the past as The Goonies. But it got a very different treatment than other reissues.

Take Pitchfork, for instance. The ‘Fork tends to give high marks to reissues: Dinosaur Jr.’s You’re Living All Over Me (9.1), Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted (10.0), Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation (10.0), Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson (10.0), etc. It makes sense; all are iconic, canonized albums, even if the Dinosaur Jr. one kinda sucks. Pearl Jam, however, got a different treatment, receiving only a 6.7 from Stephen M. Deusner. While respecting the album’s importance and trying to sincerely describe the band’s appeal (“the earnestness with which Vedder sang and the band played these songs belies the decade’s reputation as a period of pervasive irony”), Deusner nevertheless can’t resist throwing a volley of snarks at everything from Vedder’s melodramatic tendencies and questionable subject matter to Jeff Ament’s hat. (I find it hard to make too much fun, given that I was wearing jams at the time.) While he seems to really like the album it’s ultimately too embarrassing to get behind fully, like your parents when you’re a teenager.

The pattern continues in others’ takes on the album. Julianne Shepherd’s liveblog of the album makes the same swing from jokes (“is he singing about Viagra? I guess it wasn’t invented then, so no”) to embarrassment (“My roommates are DEFINITELY getting skeptical at my loud song choices right now”) and concludes that the album wasn’t all that after all (“THEY WERE OK IN JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL”). Meanwhile, Mark Eglinton at The Quietus questions the whole idea of grunge, calls the album “corporate,” chalks its success up to timing rather than quality, and pronounces himself thoroughly unimpressed by an album with “some half-decent tunes.”

Now, I’m sure all of these responses were genuine, and certainly our tastes in music can change drastically from when we’re teenagers to when we’re, uh, older than teenagers. (Shepherd’s especially, given that she precedes her evaluation with excitement about receiving a DVD called Cocaine City 12, featuring rappers I have never heard of.) At the same time, though, all of these takes seem to share a conviction that our teenage selves’ adoration of the album was somehow inauthentic or inaccurate. (Shepherd, in a passage I’m quoting both because it is indicative of this and also awesome, writes: “I’m not sure if my love of these tracks comes from being a rural teen desperate to hear any song that was vaguely interesting or if it is actually a great album or if it’s cause my first real boyfriend, Jeff Chavez, god love you wherever your ungoogleable ass may be, listened to it constantly when we were youths falling in baby-love.”) Like the aforementioned jams, liking Ten was an objective mistake, something we should have known better about and something that our older, wiser selves can see for the folly it was.

Maybe this is so, but it goes against my own experience rediscovering the album. About five years ago, I purchased it on a whim and blared it from a cheap boombox in the kitchen, and it sounded great. I wouldn’t say it sounded good, necessarily, but that was never the point of Ten. It wasn’t supposed to be something of quality, but something of feeling, something that made you feel like NOBODY GETS YOU and THE WORLD IS HARD and WHY DOESN’T ANYONE LOVE ME. And these things are stupid and adolescent, yes, but they’re feelings a lot of us still have, at least if Tumblr is anything to go by. Ten is, and was, ridiculous, but it is also true, and we critics, and indie-rock listeners in general, increasingly seem to have a hard time understanding how those two things could go together.

We seem so afraid of looking stupid that we shy away from anything that seems embarrassing, that seems ridiculous or strange or less than self-aware. It is as if, at the age of, uh, more than 19, we are still at the mall with our parents, falling behind and looking down and trying not to be noticed because they are laughing loudly or wearing stupid clothes. It mainly turns out, though, once you get older, that your parents are a blast, weird and funny and interesting and a hell of a good time once they have stopped (legitimately) worrying all the time about how you are going to ruin your life. I look forward to one day embarrassing my kids and having them lock themselves in their room and blast whatever the current version of Pearl Jam is. And maybe, when I am feeling unappreciated, I will steal it from them and blast it myself. Angst is a peach at any age, and as long as you know not to take it seriously, why not enjoy it?

More importantly, though, let’s not pretend like the ’90s were something other than what they were. Yes, there were some great indie bands at the time, and the albums they produced should certainly be celebrated. But as much as I like Pavement, I would hate to get to a day when people thought they were more important than Stone Temple Pilots, because they weren’t. The pop of the ’90s was embarrassing and stupid and trite, just like the pop of every decade, but it’s alive enough still that we can prevent it from being sanitized like pop always, slowly, is. The ’50s are fully converted to it-was-all-good nostalgia now, and the ’60s are mostly there; the ’70s are at about the halfway point with the rehabilitation of disco and the oversampled presence of punk, while the ’80s are well on their way given current trends. But the ’90s still stand; many of the era’s big bands are still touring and even somewhat important, and revivalism has not yet allowed the good sounds to be elevated and the bad ones to be forgotten. But I think there was ultimately something valuable in even the stupid parts of the ’90s—at least the pre-Korn era—and as long as we remember why we liked what we liked instead of chalking our tastes up to the folly of youth, we might be able to remember that pop is nothing without the folly of youth.

Ten: Deluxe Edition [Pitchfork]
LIVEBLOG: PEARL JAM’S “TEN” [Cowboyz 'n' Poodles]
Pearl Jam: Ten (Reissue) [The Quietus]

  1. spankyjoe

    @Lucas Jensen:

    I think that’s a valid point to make about music criticism: whether or not it’s truly possible to review a work of art on its own merits and without considering the context of its era. After all, like you, I wouldn’t blame Eddie Vedder personally for all of the soundalike baritones that flooded the market in Pearl Jam’s wake, but good gravy, he’s the first guy I think of when someone does a Nickelback song at karaoke.

    It’s funny that you mention how your esteem of the record has gotten worse with age, as I’ve actually had the opposite experience. I disliked Ten as compared to its other “Seattle” brethren because of production and overall lack of a heavy sound. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to appreciate that a little more, and I really like the redux for finally stripping all the gloss off of Ten and holding it up as a boogie rock album saddled with an over-serious frontman.

    Maybe the best way to go about criticism is to embrace those personal biases and be upfront about them. Make everyone aware of where you’re coming from, as opposed to trying to maintain an Olympian sense of detachment. I don’t know if you’ve ever stumbled upon This Is Not Pitchfork, but that site takes the concept to its logical ends – Michelle, in her own words, “isn’t reviewing albums so much as reliving them.” It’s definitely thought-provoking, even if you disagree with her tastes.

    (We’re way into the weeds now, but, yeah, Mike wrote a great piece. Cheers!)

  2. dsven

    I’m late in the game here, but had to say reading this article and the ongoing discussion has been extremely awesome. Intelligent, articulate, polite debates about music is why I keep coming back to Idolator.

    My 2 cents; I was kind of like Spankyjoe, I didn’t really “get” Ten when it came out. I’m sure it was partly that it was overexposed, all my friends (including many that weren’t really “into” music) loved it, and I was just kind of…meh.

    However, listening to it years later, I think it actually is a very solid album. Sure, I skip the Even/Alive/Jeremy/Black singles since I know I’m going to hear them on the radio in 10 minutes anyway, but other tracks are pretty damn good.

    But I’ll admit, it’s hard to “rediscover” an album that never really went away, as per previously mentioned incessant airplay on every modern/classic rock station.

  3. KikoJones

    @Lucas Jensen: It would be foolish of me to disagree with you regarding the biases of writers; and it’s not just publicists seeking out sympathetic reviews. As a music fan I would, on a regular basis, go back to the critic I generally agreed with to get their take on an album I was interested in. (Back in the day that was JD Considine, or Kurt Loder, etc.) And yes, you are so right: if that Ten review had appeared in Paste there is disappointment but no real brouhaha.

    But Pitchfork has a reputation for being holier-than-thou-gatekeepers, and while that may be a slight exaggeration, it’s based in fact. Regardless of Deusner being on the up and up–even though his “volley of snarks” included topics unrelated to the music itself and sparked Mr. Barthel’s post–the fact is PF gave Pearl Jam a 6.7 and other reissues from indie-friendly bands got 9.1 or better. And no one should be surprised. (Your assertion that the most recent Modest Mouse is “a turd” and yet it managed to get a 7.8, further fuels the negative PF perception for those of us who frequently find ourselves at odds with them.)

    Great discussion, guys. And Mike, thanks for a great post.

  4. spankyjoe


    Agreed. Understand the regard, don’t share the love. I’ll throw on Surfer Rosa once a year or so, but it’s not in my top 100 albums of all time or anything.

    @Lucas Jensen:

    We can quibble back and forth all day to no avail about matters of semantics in my word choices to describe the Velvet Underground et al, and I’ll submit that you probably know much more about indie/less mainstream rock than I, but I didn’t think I was going out on a limb in pointing out differences in sound, sensibility, audience, and attitudes between college radio faves and major rock radio acts.

    While acknowledging the places that the Pixies, Big Star, and Pavement have under the overarching umbrella of pop and rock, all of these bands went against major prevailing musical trends in rock music in their respective primes for the most part, and they all had off-kilter sensibilities to their sounds. I hope we can agree on that much.

    Saying that Pearl Jam’s place is in the boring mainstream rock pantheon wasn’t a statement I thought particularly controversial. Pearl Jam probably owes some of their mass appeal to the fact that they make “safe” musical choices. Look at the Melvins for a counterexample – they come from more or less the same musical scene as Pearl Jam, and they’ve made a career out of not making those “safe” musical choices, the same way Pavement et al have made similarly “unsafe” and unconventional musical choices (lo fi production, occasionally odd time signatures, unexpected vocal harmonies, what have you). For my part, I thought “arty” and “daring” were words that represented that particular type of choices. Fine – maybe those aren’t the perfect terms, but otherwise I think you’re missing my overall point.

  5. Lucas Jensen

    @KikoJones: But, honestly, is that different than any other publication? Mike Barthel, Maura, Dan, me, and others here at Idolator all have very different taste. I’m the guy here who didn’t like Ne-Yo very much, so I’m not gonna be the guy to write him up most of the time. One hopes for impartiality from all of the writers they read, that they will tackle every record fairly, but the fact is that writers bring with them a set of biases that are hard to shake off (and maybe shouldn’t even be).

    In my publicist days, I’d often try to find the different types of writers at each publication (he’s the hip-hop guy, she’s the punk person, he’s the experimental dude) because I knew that getting the wrong person to review a record usually meant a worse score. Of course, without having everybody review it, this was impossible to prove, but I saw enough of punk person dismissing indie folk records to know to get them into somebody else’s hands there.

    I think that most publications operate this way, but Pitchfork above all others gets saddled with the idea that there is some overarching conspiracy or drive to do certain things, like, for example, dismiss great works of the 90s as has been suggested here by many folks. I just think that we wouldn’t be saying the same thing here if somebody else wrote that review. If Deusner had that review published in Paste (for whom he also writes, I believe), I don’t think we have this discussion.

    Everybody has this idea that Pitchfork is always “out to get something,” particularly mainstream rock, but this is a site that gave that last Modest Mouse turd a 7.8, so I don’t know. I’m sure we can all find evidence of something to back up our respective opinions. They publish a lot of reviews by a lot of writers.

  6. Lucas Jensen

    @spankyjoe: I guess, ultimately, yeah, I agree with your point about Pearl Jam being Foghat or some other classic rock band. Sorry for quibbling on the arty and daring thing! Sometimes things just strike you.

    After reading all of this, I guess I disagree with the headline about the review of Ten being “90s revisionism,” which is the word you use instead of “reevaluation” if you don’t like how something was reevaluated. Is it not fair to look back at Ten (and review the rerelease on its own merits as well) and say, hey, I don’t think it’s all that great anymore? I’m gonna be honest: I have a hard time listening to Ten, and I LOVED it in high school. The production is painfully slick to my ears, and the lyrics make me cringe. Jeremy’s overexposure and sledgehammer of a “message video” has forever tainted that song for me. And I can’t help but feel like the album was diminished (not the band’s fault, btw) by all of the ridiculously bad ripoff bands that arrived in their wake. I suspect the Nickelback/Bush/Three Doors Down factor is probably a big problem that a lot of people have with Ten. But is this not a legitimate emotional response to the album?

    Having said that, I agree with all of Mike’s larger points about people being ashamed of stuff they liked when they were kids. The mall analogy was a good one. I realized I’ve been trolling around on here (I’ve been procrastinating on a paper, btw, thus all of the internet chatter) without saying that I like this piece very much, which I do.

  7. Anonymous

    ok then Pitchfork bad, Pearl Jam good.

  8. Lucas Jensen

    Are there people here trying to suggest that Stone Temple Pilots and Alice in Chains were truly good bands? Alice in Chains were a terribly boring band, who did one thing over and over again unless they were recording an EP. Then they busted out an acoustic guitar.

    Stone Temple Pilots put out some interesting records made interesting by the fact that they weren’t derivative pieces of grunge poo, but derivative of other things like Redd Kross. I mean, I even like a lot of that stuff, but c’mon.

  9. Lucas Jensen

    @spankyjoe: Big Star wasn’t arty, literary, and only occasionally daring. They wrote super-catchy songs with charming production. The Pixies, also, were a pop band, and even Pavement could jam a 1 4 5 chord progression with the best of them. These are hardly bands that people hold up as “arty” if they know what they are talking about. These are bands that wrote interesting, but catchy songs.

  10. Derek

    Vedder wasn't the one pushing the ticketmaster boycott. That was Jeff and Stone.

  11. Derek

    @ spankyjoe: I'm not sure I'd say Pearl Jam made “safe” musical choices, either from a marketing perspective or from an artistic perspective. Their moves since Ten have been made virtually unanimously to strip down their fame. From refusing to make music videos after Jeremy (in an area where MTV MADE bands), to boycotting ticketmaster venues, to experimental records such as “Vitalogy”, “No Code” and “Binaural”. For a band as big as Pearl Jam, you could not have committed much more career suicide than refusing to make music videos and basically refusing to tour (which is where bands really make their money) in protest of ticketmaster (they toured, just not at ticketmaster venues, and subsequently had to do a lot of managing themselves, and play at much smaller venues).

    They might have started out making safe decisions, but they got increasingly risky post-Ten days.

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