Sunday, August 31, 2014

Music Made Me #1: Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam

About a month ago, my friend Rob and I started scheming an experiment.  It started with a casual facebook post: “Does anybody still make mix tapes?”  This prompted some passionate responses from friends who grew up practicing the art of the mix tape.  We quickly followed up with another question: “Nirvana or Pearl Jam?”  For those of us who came of age in the late 80s / early 90s, this was an important question - although probably not as unavoidable as the Beatles vs. Stones debate of our parents’ generation.

I recently read a book called Beatles vs. Stones, in which the author tries to get to the core of the main music debate in the 1960s.  According to him, the debate not just about music: “To say that you were a Beatles fan was to imply that (just like the Fab Four) you were well adjusted, amiable, and polite.  You were not a prig, necessarily, but nor were you the type to challenge social conventions.  For the most part, you conformed.  You agreed.  You complied.  When you looked upon the world that you were bound to inherit, you were pleased.”  On the other hand: “To align with the Rolling Stones was to convey the opposite message.  It meant you wanted to smash stuff, break it and set it on fire.” 

The debate changed as the bands changed, but the author maintains: “To this day, when people want to get to know each other, they often ask: ‘Beatles or Stones?” A preference for one group over the other is thought to reveal something substantial about one’s personality, judgment or temperament.  The clich├ęs about the two groups are sometimes overdrawn, but they still retain a measure of plausibility.  With some qualifications, the Beatles may be described as Apollonian, the Stones as Dionysian; the Beatles pop, the Stones rock; the Beatles erudite, the Stones visceral; the Beatles utopian, the Stones realistic.”

I’d like to propose an alternative perspective.  Obviously I can’t speak from experience about how this debate was waged in the 60s, but it seems to me that the Beatles vs. Stones argument might be a debate between people who grew up in ever-so-slightly different times.  The golden era for The Beatles was 1966 – 1969, beginning with the release of Rubber Soul and ending with the recording of Abbey Road.  Of course, Beatlemania started well before 1966.  The golden era for The Rolling Stones was 1968 to 1972, from Beggar’s Banquet to Exile on Main Street - but the band remained musically relevant through at least 1978 (when the Some Girls album was released) and continues to tour today.  In my mind, this suggests that listeners who came of age in the early to mid-60s might be more inclined toward the Beatles, while listeners who came of age in the late 60s and 70s might be more inclined toward the Stones.

Neuroscientist (and musician) Daniel Levitin theorizes that most people’s musical preferences tend to form around the age of 14, because “it is around fourteen that the wiring of our musical brains is approaching adultlike levels of completion.”  In other words, a few years can make a big difference.  This might help explain why Rob prefers Nirvana, a band that achieved mainstream success in 1991 (around the time he turned fourteen), while I prefer Pearl Jam, a band that broke out in 1992 but had its biggest commercial success in 1993 (the year I turned fourteen). 

It’s not the exact year itself that’s important, but the zeitgeist.  Chicago Sun-Times music critic Jim DeRogatis makes a distinction between Generation X and Generation Y listeners, theorizing that the former has a contempt for nostalgia while the latter doesn’t.  Generation X listeners (more Nirvana fans?) seem to derive their musical taste from the punk movement of the late 70s / early 80s, while Generation Y listeners (more Pearl Jam fans?) derive their musical taste more from the classic rock era of the late 60s / early 70s. 

Nirvana, like the Stones, has a reputation for being more confrontational, more raw, and—by some standards—more musically “pure.”  But, like the Beatles, their legacy rests on comparatively limited output.    Pearl Jam's larger body of work demonstrates a greater musical range… but, like the Stones, their longevity (i.e. their musical growth - or lack of growth, depending on who you ask) has turned some listeners against them.

Of course, nobody who really cares about music thinks of their own musical taste in such broad terms.  We like what we like not because of abstract external forces but because of personal instincts and experiences.  It's an emotional topic, and that’s how our most music-obsessed friends—the ones who spent a lot of time cultivating the art of the mix tape—responded to the Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam debate.  There were few casual answers...

“Nirvana broke new ground. Pearl Jam revisited arena rock from the 70s. I like em, but come on...”

“There's just no comparison. Lyrics alone, Eddie wins by a landslide. And if PJ is just '70s arena rock, Nirvana is just a mix of Punk and Pop. They hardly broke new ground.”

“As long as that [Nirvana] list contains Negative Creep, Lounge Act, and Frances Farmer, it's a no-contest. And I love Pearl Jam.”

“I always say the same thing when people argue about nirvana... Nirvana is the band that everyone will tell you is the best band of all time... yet that no one ACTUALLY listens to.”

“Nirvana=more important to history. Peal Jam=better band. Both=GREAT.”

Inspired to make our cases for the opposing teams (or maybe just because we're gluttons for punishment), Rob and I made our own mix tapes and posted the track lists online. 

I don’t think either of us won any converts.  The facebook responses still played out like a contemporary political debate, with both sides deeply entrenched.  So what did we determine?

#1. I am probably not the best person to defend Pearl Jam in a debate with Rob, who is without doubt a hardcore Nirvana fan.  I was taken to task by a fellow PJ fan for not including enough of the early material (I mostly avoided Ten, because even today it seems omnipresent) and by another fellow PJ fan for not including enough of the later stuff (which I don't know as well).  I was also taken to task by Rob for using the shortened version of "Yellow Ledbetter."  Mea culpa.  In my own defense, I'll say that Pearl Jam has a much bigger catalogue than Nirvana, which lends itself to a lot of possibilities… but I’m going to stand by my mix, simply because it’s the mix that I want to listen to right now.   Compiling my playlist gave me newfound appreciation for "In My Tree," "Of the Girl" and "You Are," and prompted me to listen to some of the newer albums for the first time.  It’s not the mix I would have made a few years ago, and probably not the mix I would make a few years from now.  But that’s part of the fun.

#2. Rob’s Nirvana mix has made me deeply curious about how Nirvana might have evolved musically if Kurt Cobain hadn’t killed himself.  Rob included two of their later songs, “Marigold” (a showcase for Dave Grohl) and “You Know You’re Right” (the last song Kurt Cobain wrote), neither of which I had heard before and both of which I love.  This sparked new enthusiasm… and isn’t that the real purpose of a mix tape?

#3. If we were going to be “fair” about this Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam mix tape debate, we would have both played by the exact same rules:  Same time period (‘91 – ‘94), no singles.  That could have been fun, because often it’s the challenge of making a mix tape that’s so appealing.  In most cases, you’re trying to find the precise middle-ground between your own sensibilities and someone else’s.  In this particular case, with a pair of mix tapes geared toward contrast, we could have probably created a song-for-song matchup that would be pretty interesting.  But I’ll leave that to someone else.  For me, this mix tape experiment has already served its purpose by renewing my enthusiasm for two great bands… and, of course, for mix tapes in general!

More to come.


  1. Brian McQuery8/31/2014

    I love that I was commented in this blog, even though it was anonymous! PEARL JAM all the way! And not just because Eddie gave me a tambourine at the end of a concert for wearing a MOTHER LOVE BONE T-shirt.

    1. Brian - I'd love to hear you and Mike Williamson debate this topic...

  2. That quote you noted by Daniel Levitin reminds me of the one by geostrategist Thomas P.M. Barnett:

    Morris Massey, an expert on conflict between generations, pioneered the argument. “what you are is where you were when,” meaning all of us reach a point in life where we discover a world larger than ourselves. At that point, we become cognizant of the morals we’ve developed across our early years, and those morals – or worldview – tend to persist across our adult years.

    For most people, that fateful transition occurs in the teenage years, which explains our tendency to stick with the popular music of those years throughout adulthood.

    Admit it – you stayed cool enough across your 20s, and maybe you faked it deep into your 30s, but then you woke up in your 40s and realized you absolutely hate your kids’ music!

    Don’t worry. It happens to everyone.

    I look forward to what comes next, Joe.

    1. I'm glad that I still have a few more years to be cool....