My feelings about Pearl Jam can be summarized in eight simple words first uttered by Ben Harper when he appeared with them for a couple of songs at Madison Square Garden in 2003: "This is the greatest band in the world." That title is not one I would use lightly (nor do I think would Mr. Ben Harper) given my love for music and my admiration for dozens of great bands. What is it then that earns Pearl Jam that title? Is it their raucous hard rock sound? Their legendary live performances? The incredible vastness of their catalog? Sure, all these things are a part of it. For me, however, what puts them a cut above other performers is the way their music, lyrics, and performances have impacted the way I see the world and have served as a reflection of the worldview of so many people. Social and political commentary is a pursuit that is often left to more traditional vocations, but Pearl Jam has never shied away from speaking their minds, be it on gun control, abortion, war, flag burning, the Religious Right, and a host of other topics. So it is of no surprise that when I am trying to understand an issue of the time, Pearl Jam will be one of the places I turn for guidance to see whether they can "shed a little light on it."
An issue I've been trying to understand recently is the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Barack Obama. This past Thursday, Obama became the fourth president in our nation's history to receive this award. Speaking in Oslo, the president accepted the award with "deep gratitude and great humility." By doing so, he reaffirmed his previous statement in October, upon learning that he would be honored, that he would view the award as a "call to action, a call for all nations to confront the challenges of the 21st century."
The announcement of Obama's award was met (and continues to be greeted) with much controversy. Many on the right have questioned whether Obama has achieved anything in his brief tenure as president to deserve the honor of such a prestigious award. In an official statement, Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said, "The real question Americans are asking is, 'What has President Obama actually accomplished?'" This sentiment quickly became the conventional wisdom in the mainstream media. On the morning of the announcement, ABC News's Jake Tapper tweeted "apparently the standards are more exacting for an ASU honorary degree these days." (An Arizona State University spokesperson in April explained a decision to invite the president to give the commencement address without also giving him an honorary degree by saying, "His body of work is yet to come. That's why we're not recognizing him with a degree at the beginning of his presidency.") As the date of Obama's award ceremony approached, the criticism began to emerge from the left, as well. Upon arriving in Oslo for the award, he was greeted by approximately 5,000 protesters opposed to his escalation of the war in Afghanistan.
Indeed, the president himself acknowledged these criticisms in the opening portion of his acceptance speech:
And yet I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy that your generous decision has generated. In part, this is because I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage. Compared to some of the giants of history who've received this prize -- Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela -- my accomplishments are slight...But perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of the military of a nation in the midst of two wars.
Pundits and commentators all over the spectrum have tried to justify and explain the Nobel committee's choice of Obama. Personally, I see no need to justify the awarding of a prize for peace that was awarded to and never revoked from Yasser Arafat, a man who, until he took his last breath, was an unapologetic terrorist and an organizer, condoner, and propagator of mass murder. The Nobel Peace Prize is a trophy that lost its legitimacy long ago, so I don't really care whether Obama "deserved" it or not.
Why the committee chose Obama, on the other hand, is an interesting question because it gives us an insight into the way the committee, and by extension the international community, sees our new president and our country since his election. There have been all sorts of attempts to explain their choice of Obama, including the one given by the committee itself ("extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples"). But the most telling one may have come in the form of a lighthearted, off-hand remark by Ana Marie Cox on Twitter: "Apparently Nobel prizes now being awarded to anyone who is not George Bush." George Bush was unpopular at home and especially unpopular abroad. Obama's best quality might be that he's not George Bush, reviving optimism among those who had lost faith in the United States. This sentiment is especially evident throughout Pearl Jam's latest album, Backspacer.
When Pearl Jam exploded onto the national music scene in 1991, much of their success was in their ability to tap into the angst and anger of a generation. Their debut album, Ten, was an 11-track long dissertation on abuse, suicide, unrequited love, rape, death, and murder. As of April 2009, it has sold 9.6 million copies in the U.S. This trend continued throughout the 90's, as the band continued to pump out album after album of rock songs about isolation, alienation, and lack of faith in both god and humanity. The October 25, 1993 issue of Time Magazine featured a picture of Eddie Vedder with the appropriate title "All The Rage," as it was their anger that resonated most with their followers.
The turn of the century and the swearing in of a new president only made this feeling more acute and more targeted. 2003's Riot Act featured a track titled "Bushleaguer," a clever attack ad on our 43rd president and a song that when performed live was often accompanied by the band donning Bush masks as they played. 2006's self-titled album was even more overtly political, featuring songs on the war in Iraq ("World Wide Suicide"), the dwindling job market ("Unemployable"), and the betrayal of our troops ("Army Reserve.") Indeed, the band's ire and cynicism has always been present in their lyrics. To them, the two sides of the optimism/pessimism metaphor are "half empty" and "half full of shit" ("1/2 Full"). When it comes to the American Dream, they are "disbelieving" ("Gone"). When speaking about our government, they commented that "for every tool they lend us a loss of independence" ("Grievance.") and they remade Phil Ochs' classic "Here's to the State of Mississippi" with their own stanzas about George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John Roberts, and Alberto Gonzalez, urging each of them to "find another country to be part of." Lyrics like these were typical throughout their first eight studio albums. However, with their latest release this fall, it is clear that something has changed.
Their new album Backspacer hit stores this September, a mere eight months into Obama's presidency. While fans continue to debate its place within the band's body of work and legacy, its distinct tone and themes as compared to their previous works are pretty much agreed upon by all. The album's first single, "The Fixer," tells us of someone obsessed with making things better: "when something's dark, let me shed a little light on it...when something's broke, I wanna put a bit of fixin on it." Vedder described the fifth track, "Just Breathe," as being "as close to a love song as we've ever gotten," and said that the subject of the song is the happiest times of people's lives when they should just take in the moment and "breathe for a minute." In "Amongst the Waves," Vedder tells us that "if not for love I would be drowning. I've seen it work both ways, but I am up riding high amongst the waves," while "Supersonic" speaks of a person's pure love for music.
The previous albums' moods of anger and cynicism have given way to Backspacer's hope and optimism, the two prevailing themes of Obama's presidential campaign. Indeed, in an interview with Alan Cross, Vedder specifically credited Obama as the inspiration for the album's hopeful lyrics.
This award may be premature and even misplaced, and while I certainly wouldn't have selected him if given the chance, I can somewhat understand why others did. Through the simple act of his election and his rhetoric on foreign policy, Obama has already made significant strides in improving the perception of America in the world's eye. He has made the world a more optimistic, more hopeful, and yes, more peaceful, place. He has won over foreign leaders such as French President Nicholas Sarkozy, who said the award marked "America's return to the hearts of the world's peoples," and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who noted that "in a short time he has been able to set a new tone throughout the world and to create a readiness for dialogue." He has even infused Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam with enough optimism to enable them to create an album as positive and rosy as Backspacer. And while that may not merit a Nobel Peace Prize, per se, it can certainly help us understand where the selection committee was coming from.
This article has been reprinted with the permission of the author. It originally appeared at The Vertex.