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