World Wide Suicide
Despite is political concerns, the lead single off of Pearl Jam’s self-titled, J Records debut has more in common in with “U” and “Leatherman” than with thematically similar songs like “Grievance” and “Insignificance”. For all of Ed Vedder’s status as a hard rock icon, his skill and penchant for pop songwriting has gone largely unnoticed. The pleasures of simple I-IV-V chord progressions, catchy melodies, and hook-laden choruses are not only hallmarks of the punk rock known to influence Vedder’s writing, but also of classic teeny-bopper pop. Such seemingly frivolous influences are usually anathema to “serious” rock and roll, but hints of Vedder’s fondness for pop have surfaced as early as “Rearviewmirror” and “Corduroy”, and came to fruition on the aforementioned Yield b-sides.
“World Wide Suicide” is all about the pop, bold and broad. “Grievance” wanted you to protest along, but WWS demands that you sing along. Breaking up a long string of curious choices for lead singles, WWS is as radio-friendly as Pearl Jam is likely to get. The chart success and good buzz surrounding “Avocado” owes a lot to the fact that WWS was its first ambassador. Bringing together several signatures of late-period Pearl Jam (catchiness, multi-tracked harmonies, explicit political commentary) into one neat little package, the band finally got it right after years of wanting to get (it) right. Not that WWS is the best song on Pearl Jam; it’s not. But it best encapsulates the rest of the record in one sugary, 3.5 minute dose.
There are many artistic pitfalls when trying to write a good political song. Art is meant to endure. Most art fails at this anyway, but political art has its own special set of obstacles to overcome if it wants to survive. Get too specific, and no one will understand what you were singing about in twenty years. Get too broad, and you run the risk of being not only obvious, but preachy. I have a natural tendency towards playing devil’s advocate even with political statements with which I ostensibly agree. Songs full of strawmen and pat, naive worldviews make me squeamish. WWS does a pretty good job of avoiding these kinds of traps. The president in the song is undoubtedly GW Bush, which is understood to anyone listening to the song in our time, but the phenomenon of political leaders exploiting the sacrifices of the military and their families for personal and political gain, is not a new phenomenon, and it won’t unfortunately be an old one anytime soon. So, while meatheads had easy bait to boo at “Bu$hleaguer” on the 2003 tour, how many people freaked out in 2006 for “Worldwide Suicide”? Plenty of course, but in a good way.