Thanks to a timely and thought-provoking reminder from Adam at Infantile Disorder, I didn’t miss the twentieth anniversary of the release of Pearl Jam’s Ten. And while it is never easy to realise that the soundtrack to those once-so-heartfelt teenage rebellions is drifting towards the status of golden oldie, still I am glad to be able to mark the occasion. Pearl Jam and Nirvana have gifted me my own time machine, as every time I want to feel 15 again a listen to Ten or Smells Like Teen Spirit will transport me straight back. Back to the frustrations and anger of those years but also the self-belief that somewhere along the way I might have lost, were it not for the music. Ten still calls to mind the days when the famous picture of them onstage hung over my bed.
Adam’s article rightly pegs grunge as more than music for grotty teens to sneer along to, instead noting that it was
the product of a society that had been through the Reagan-led ruling class counter-offensive of the 1980s, and was now seeing his successor, George Bush Snr, deepen the chasm between rich and poor. The anger of hardcore punk had given way to some despair…
At the time, I seem to remember the grunge scene being derided as not political enough, far too self-absorbed, the product of a generation so dulled by therapy that it could do little more than whine. All quite possibly true. Yet the music was also a perfect expression of the unsettling fear that life wasn’t quite turning out to be all it should have been. The Cold War was won, the upward trajectory was assured, but it didn’t feel all that great, instead there seemed to be little cause for optimism as the end of the century also loomed. Perhaps the best expression of a similar feeling from a British band came a little later, from those who you maybe wouldn’t initially associate with the great unwashed of Seattle – Pulp – when they sang in Mis-shapes, Mistakes, Misfits:
the future that you’ve got mapped out is nothing much to shout about.
Like Jarvis Cocker, both Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder were clever kids, out of place at school and home and wearing their differences heavily. The so-called ‘cool’ kids at my school hated Pearl Jam and Nirvana, while the rest of us probably loved them even more because of it. These bands offered a way out of everyday thinking, an escape from cultural cul-de-sacs and seemed the best chance for victory over the forces of ordinary, at least until Kurt turned the anger inwards, like Jeremy in the song. But that would come later. For now, to mark the twentieth anniversary of Pearl Jam’s Ten, I’m happy enjoying the trip in a time machine that I get from pressing play on one of these songs.