I recently had a kerfuffle with the Ten Club over delivery of my copy of the Lightning Bolt vinyl, which I am not proud of. I bring it up to make the somewhat obvious point that anxiety about money and commerce and transactions, etc., can lead people to behave in weird, stupid ways. Having been on both sides of the retail/customer service exchange, I know what behaviors and attitudes to avoid as a customer, and even though I don’t think I received perfect service, I don’t think I dealt with the whole thing perfectly either. Which is to say a certain feeling of entitlement welled up in me that I abhor, and that is never flattering or helpful no matter what the situation. How does this relate to “The Fixer”? Well, certainly not directly, but I think that the style of this song, its catchiness and tunefulness and exuberance… I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that these qualities (shared by many songs on Backspacer) rankled certain fan expectations and entitlements, many of which are rooted in music’s uneasy relationship with business and commerce.
The way that “grunge” (a horrible, stupid marketing descriptor that many of us, despite ourselves, reach for from time to time) was framed was, as by design, a reaction against commercial music. So when a whole bunch of disparate bands from the Pacific NW (and then soon from all over) started to land major label contracts and move millions of units, this framing became odd and fraught with complexity. What did it mean for supposedly “difficult” or anti-commercial music to be enormously commercially possible? While I would suggest that Pearl Jam’s music was never seriously uncommercial in this respect–that it represented the acceptable edge of the unacceptable stuff, to paraphrase Peter Buck’s description of his own band, R.E.M., in the ’80s–I think a lot of Pearl Jam fans still cling to a belief in Pearl Jam as “alternative,” and an underdog. There’s always a perceived enemy whether it’s hair bands, boy bands, electronica, or whatever pop music is the zeitgeist, that Pearl Jam is supposed to exist in opposition to.
So when “Last Kiss” became enormously popular, or “Wishlist” was sweetly poppy, or “U” portended things to come that were not the brooding, angst-riddled image that many die-hard fans held of the band’s music, well, how do you spell backlash? “The Fixer,” with its yeah-yeah-yeahs, its lean, new-wavey hop where each instrument and beat is given loads of fresh clean space around it, the triumphant, Obama-era hope-filled fixerupper lyrics (not to mention the Target ads and roll-out) was deeply troubling to certain segments of the fan community.
The narrative put forward by some, a narrative which is prevalent enough to warrant mention, is that now that the band members are older, have families, financially stable (ahem, very, very well off), that their music by definition must be compromised. And for those who have bought into this narrative, any song that Pearl Jam pens, records, and releases that is remotely sunny is therefore “bad,” and a disgrace to the band’s legacy and canon. Backspacer as a whole is the prime example for this camp, veering dangerously close to that age-old crime of “selling out,” whatever the hell that means for one of the world’s most popular bands’ tenth album.
There are many problems with this line of thinking. The most destructive is that it takes an individual’s dislike of an individual song (or songs) and squeezes them into a larger theory that ignores what is unique about each one. Some of the hand-wringing over the purported poppiness of Backspacer and “The Fixer” has even bled over into the response to Lightning Bolt, which seems pretty ludicrous to me. It’s the kind of rationale that leads people think all rap or country or blues sounds the same, just because there is some signifier, whether overt (um, rapping) or less overt (pedal steel, a progression) that acts as a dog-whistle to someone who has made up their mind in advance only to hew to a very specific definition of what is acceptable. Combined with the belief that what is acceptable can only be emotionally difficult, or sad, or angsty because that is someone more pure than upbeat, catchy tunes, is well… sad in itself.
But what it also is, is proprietary and entitled. We invest a lot in our music, financially and emotionally. And so, despite ourselves, and despite rationality, we make our own little demands of it. Our own rules of how our investment should be paid back. The customer is always right, right? If the music changes, and we do not–or if we change, and the music does not, what then? This is where art and consumerism uneasily meet. Can such things ever be fixed?