Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Song of the Day: Pearl Jam - Not For You (1994)

Today marks the 20th anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah, which was not only the occasion that initiated my music buying, but also a natural reason to reflect back on the time between. While Bruce Springsteen is unquestionably my favorite musical artist ever, no one has quite chronicled my life like Pearl Jam has. For starters, they're probably the only artist that I've loved for all 20 years I've been buying music. I've bought every Pearl Jam album since Vitalogy on the day it came out, with the exception of Yield, which was released at a time that I stubbornly refused to listen to anything but classic rock. No matter how much my tastes have changed and grown over the years, Pearl Jam has always been one of the greatest bands I've ever heard, and I can't imagine myself ever tiring of them. 

The first two times I saw them in concert punctuated the two most dramatic changes of my life: Their concert on August 18, 2000 was the day after I moved into the dorms for my freshman year of college, and their concert on May 7, 2010 was the week I moved to Michigan. Several of their albums have been released at pivotal times in my life. Vitalogy came out just a few weeks after my Bar Mitzvah, and I purchased it with gift certificates I received from that event. Binaural came out two weeks before my high school graduation, and I listened to it in the car that day. Lightning Bolt was released last fall in the midst of the worst break-up of my life, and it provided me some isolated moments of happiness and distraction. They've even permeated my burgeoning life as a writer and film critic, as I attended the world premiere of their documentary Pearl Jam Twenty at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, which has become my home away from home (here's my review from TIFF '11). And, of course, they've been valuable mentors for my beliefs on integrity, passion, artistry, and standing up for what you believe in. 

"Not For You" is not one of my favorite Pearl Jam songs. It's probably only my fifth favorite song from Vitalogy (the top four: "Better Man," "Corduroy," "Last Exit," and "Nothingman"). However, I do think this is the single most interesting song from which to discuss the band, and who they've been throughout their career. When Vitalogy was reissued a few years ago, it came with a live disc of a show from Boston in April '94, and just before the band begins playing "Not For You" (to an audience that didn't know the song yet), Eddie Vedder says "This song is about people who don't have taste, but they like us anyway." 

I can't fathom what it must have been like to be Pearl Jam between '92-'95, when they were unquestionably the biggest band in America, and essentially anointed spokesmen for the entire nation's youth, all within a year of releasing their first album. Being labeled a spokesman is a duel-edged sword. It provides the power of influence, but also the ripe opportunity for your message to be seized and misinterpreted by people that you want nothing to do with. (This is why Twitter is such a dangerous thing.) Just about anybody to ever join a rock band has had dreams of fame, but there are degrees. Few rational people ever expect to be the next Beatles, but that's pretty nearly what Pearl Jam became. Generally speaking, the larger your audience is, the less interesting you can be, because the Venn Diagram of people & demographics you're expected to reach doesn't have enough areas of overlap. Most celebrities that encounter this problem just suck it up and consciously stop being interesting (or never were in the first place), but Pearl Jam have never fit into any definition of "most." When they saw that their fan base was largely made of people they didn't want to be associated with, they calculatedly became less popular, which virtually no band has ever done before or since. Both Vitalogy and its follow-up, 1996's No Code, were very conscious attempts to appeal to a smaller number of people, to be less accessible, to be weirder. 

And yet, within that strategy are so many interesting ideas and lessons. Vitalogy has always been one of my favorite album titles, maybe my second favorite ever after Born to Run. It's a mostly made-up word, whose only notable previous use was to mean "the study of life." But I think of the word more literally, and more like the sum of its parts: the study of being vital. That's what Pearl Jam were really doing in the mid-90's, learning how to matter in perpetuity instead of fleetingly. No piece of art can be vital to everyone; that's simply not what art does. To really be artistically vital, you have to settle on an audience. So Pearl Jam started creating music that only the important parts of their audience would like, and the rest were happy--and encouraged!--to jump ship. 

I love the lyrics to this song. "Where did they come from? Stormed my room! And you dare say, it belongs to you. This is not for you!" That's about as clear a statement of intent as any band has ever uttered. Pearl Jam spent a handful of years as arguably the most important band in the world, and then abdicated the throne. It was the rock equivalent of Michael Jordan deciding to leave the NBA after three straight titles to become a shitty baseball player. But while Jordan probably still laments the titles he might have left on the table, I really don't think Pearl Jam does. They've spent the last 20 years with the fans they wanted to have, and that was enough for them. For everyone else, well… this was not for you.

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