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.