Indifference

For a brief period of time in the early ’90s, the emergence of a new wave of so-called “alternative” bands coincided with massive radio and sales chart success. But while some nostalgists still look to that era of music as a golden age when music was somehow better than it had been prior or has been since, what it really meant was that progressive rock was marketed extremely well to teenagers, and a lot of forces combined into a kind of perfect storm of generational record-buying. In that sense, the grunge era was no different than the twin boy-band and rap-metal movements of the late ’90s, beach-blanket pop in the ’60s. Whatever turns on the teens, rules the charts–which is both why the chart topping hits of almost any given week are disposable shite, whose songs and artists will be soon forgotten, and why the early ’90s were such an anomaly.

As I’ve mentioned before in other posts, I was most certainly one of those record buying teens in 1993. When Vs. came out, I was fourteen, and my father surprised me by buying me the record on his way home from work. I remember him handing it to me as soon as he walked in the door, and me trying to remain patient through dinner until I could listen to it. I owned Vs. on CD before I had Ten on that format, as CD players were very expensive. My CD player was handed down to me from one of my dad’s friends, a stereo console deck that was fairly finicky (it absolutely refused to play the Breeders’ Last Splash without skipping) but treated Vs. just fine. It was hooked up to the stereo in the basement family room that no one ever used, but which became my haven to do homework and listen to records over and over and over.

Of all of the songs on Pearl Jam’s sophomore effort, “Indifference” was the most powerful to me at that age. Until that point in my life, I had never heard a song that sounded anything remotely like it, had never heard a singer sound so sad before. Of course, now I understand that there are countless ways to convey sadness in music, or rather to feel sad from listening to it, from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Holland, 1945” to infinity, but I was young, and everyone’s got to start somewhere. Just as the lyrics in “Leash” culminating in “Get out of my fucking face!”, those of “Indifference” seemed to encapsulate the mixed emotions and confusion that hormones were ruthlessly invoking 24/7. This was both a blessing for me as a kid looking to identify with music, and somewhat of a curse for the band.

I think what made the road of fame so tough to hoe for Pearl Jam, and Ed in particular, is that every artistic statement he tried to put out was being placed in the context of a time- and scene-specific musical trend (that it didn’t really belong to, if it even existed the way it did in the public’s imagination), and in the context of teenage angst. “We kind of wrote these songs for ourselves really. Then all of a sudden, there’s all these other people who connect with them and you’re suddenly the spokesman for a fuckin’ generation. … Any generation that would pick Kurt or me as its spokesman – that must be a pretty fucked up generation.” A lot of people took this quote (and others) from Ed as meaning that he didn’t appreciate his fame or success, or that he looked down on his fans, but I think what he was getting at was how crass it was to exploit people’s enjoyment of music into some sort of artificial trend or movement. If I ever bought into the idea of flannel, grunge, Generation X, etc., it was from television or magazines, not from the music.

But “Indifference” couldn’t help but resonate with me, or others my age. I could pretend to understand the debate about gun control and groove along to “Glorified G”, and my newly found social awareness and critical faculties allowed me to appreciate the commentary of “Rats”, but I felt like I deeply understood what it’s like to be powerless and want to do something dramatic to get attention, like most teens.  So “Indifference” quickly became enmeshed with my inner dialogue. Vedder’s comments about the song are much more interesting. But since the song found its way to me through mass media channels, and because millions of others just like me felt similarly, and we bought into the images from the media blitz, all of that extraneous business and spokesman baggage got projected back onto Ed as if he was in charge and controlled it, the Pied Piper of the “lost generation”.

But as Ed said, the band was writing the songs mostly for themselves, to challenge themselves and try to meet their own expectations of self-expression. I can only imagine that “Indifference” felt like an enormous success in this regard. The song, when examined, isn’t really about helplessness at all–it’s about action and conviction. Although the refrain asks “How much difference does it make?”, the verses are defiantly purposeful–I’m going to do what I need to do, even if it’s hard, even if it’s painful, and whether or not anyone recognizes its worth. Swallowing poison and burning up one’s arm are extreme metaphors for doing something exceptionally difficult. It could mean standing up for one’s beliefs in the face of ridicule, ostracism, or imprisonment. It could mean risking one’s life and health for the noble cause of your choice. But whatever it translates to, it means doing something.

I’m not sure if the song had been explained to me in that way at the time I first heard it, that I would have discarded my initial feelings and reactions, or even that I should have. By nature at that age, I took what I wanted from songs and imagined the rest–putting my own life into my interpretations rather than paying close attention to what the song was actually doing. But I suppose at that stage of my life, that’s exactly what I was supposed to do. “Indifference” was my own private seance with the world and what I suspected was wrong with it. The gloriously simple yet poignant guitar leads, the brushed drums, somber bass, waves of organ, and one of Vedder’s finest early vocal performances on record (how it slowly builds in intensity from verse to verse), fragile, breathtaking, haunting. All of this makes “Indifference” one of Pearl Jam’s most enduring songs, outliving hype and trend to become something detractors never thought possible from the band: timeless.

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~ by Michael on June 6, 2007.

11 Responses to “Indifference”

  1. That NMH song is a perfect example of the sort of thing you’re talking about, but not an immediately obvious one. Very nice choice.

  2. Thanks Ian. I could probably write an entire blog of songs that have made me sob. That one would be right up there.

  3. Nice review. I totally remember laying on the floor of my basement listening to “Vs” at that same young age. I have trouble remembering what each song meant to me back then. I do remember appreciating different songs as I got older, and as an adult, I still think Indifference is a great piece of music.

    C13 – “But while some nostalgists still look to that era of music as a golden age when music was somehow better than it had been prior or has been since, what it really meant was that progressive rock was marketed extremely well to teenagers, and a lot of forces combined into a kind of perfect storm of generational record-buying. In that sense, the grunge era was no different than the twin boy-band and rap-metal movements of the late ’90s, beach-blanket pop in the ’60s.”

    Since I’ve been known to play Devil’s Advocate from time to time I will say this. The success of the ‘grunge’ bands was not based on marketing, it was based on the fact that good, vital music was being made. Marketing is to blame for the overexposure and massive record sales these bands got. Marketing is to blame for the death of the music.

    That really was a “golden age” for music, along with many other golden ages (from the Renaissance to the British invasion) with none being ‘boy bands/rap metal’ or any era since ‘grunge’.

    ‘Boy Bands/Rap Metal’ is marketed to a much younger core audience than grunge ever was. PJ’s core audience has always had a much wider age range, so it wasn’t just little kids buying this music. We just happened to be young in 1991 when this great music was flourishing.

  4. Correction to above post: Marketing is to blame for the death of the scene.

    The music will never die.

  5. I appreciate your being the Devil’s Advocate, BYM. Here’s my counter-deviling:
    1. “Marketing is to blame for the…massive record sales these bands got.” That’s pretty much exactly what I’m saying, so we would seem to agree on this point. The commercial success, which some people automatically equate with artistic success, was largely due to marketing and hype. This era was an anomaly because there was actually great music being hyped and marketing on a huge level.
    2. It was a golden age only in the sense that the commercial and artistic triumphs coincided. There has always been amazing music made below the mainstream’s attention. Always. It just doesn’t usually capture the imagination of the public on such a large scale as it did then.
    3. As for boy bands/rap metal being marketed to younger audiences. You may be right. I can’t really back up this claim with anything concrete. But I do think that teenagers significantly affect record sales, and had an enormous impact back in those long-past days when MTV actually aired videos.

  6. Yeah C13, I re-read your initial “anomaly” comment after I wrote that, and realized that I pretty much just reiterated what you said. (that was after I looked up the word “anomaly” in the dictionary. hehe.)

  7. As a teenager at the time Vs. game out, and I too felt this song very deeply. I like how you paired it with Leash, because I think these are the two songs on the record that speak most directly to a teenager on the cusp of discovering himself and his place in the world.

    But whereas Leash was, to the teenage me, an uplifting — if self-righteous — call to arms (“Troubled souls unite, we will find our place”) … Indifference, to me, felt like a dirge played on the battlefield after the war was lost. To me, Indifference meant “We’ve done all we could; we’ve pushed the limits of authority as far as we could … and it still means nothing. We’ve still accomplished nothing.”

    How much difference does it make, indeed.

    Indifference, in my interpretation at the time, was bleak. Which appeals to the angst in the typical teenage mind. Also, it was good music to get high to, which is appealing in its own right.

  8. The way i think of it is that there are really two kinds of indifference:1. Not caring (the basic form), and 2.giving up, the hope is gone. I think the latter happens when a person makes plans to change something (who they are, the things they say, the people that they’re friends with), and some factor like a person or a big event comes along and chops them down. The first 2/3 of the song talks about this. However that last 1/3 talks about how that now pushed down ruined person is going to refute their negative force no matter how hard it is. They take it into the extreme for change. The chrous at the end i think is more than just complting the flow of the song. The person has had a flashback remembering how they thought that their hope and struggle was usless and are repeating it out loud for fuel.

    This song is great, it can be taken so many ways. And thats whats best about music and pj is that freedom and open ness.

  9. Hello, I,m back. I haven’t written here for many days because I was in Venice…and London!!! for PJ and then I had exams in my university.

    Indifference is one of my favourite PJ songs and maybe their best song. The “aggressive” Vs. ends perfectly with this one. It was a great moment when the band in London finished that fabulous night with this one.

  10. Glad you got to see it Giannis, and welcome back!

  11. one thing i love about the song, that im not sure many other people notice, is how the lyrics go from futile and helpless in the beginning, to practical and effective by the last verse. holding a candle until it burns up your arm and staring into the sun are both random, seemingly defiant acts of self-destruction, whereas developing an immunity to poison and screaming until “it fills the room” seem to have some kind of meaningful effect. its like he matures during the course of the song, going from childish attention-seeking to decisive action. to me, it kind of cancels out the “how much difference does it make” line by the end of the song, and makes the whole album sound slightly more optimistic and hopeful.

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