The Pearl Jam Problem: Superfans Have Ruined My Favorite Band
Pearl Jam at Bonnaroo. If you’d asked over the last several years what my perfect music festival experience would be, that would be my answer. My favorite band of 24 years, at the best festival in America. Heading into Bonnaroo weekend this year, I was no less excited in my 55th time seeing the band than I was for the first, lightning storms be damned. A sweltering, all-day endurance challenge to stand in line for front rail positioning was par for the course, a small penance as it was all part of an experience, a test of endurance in a full day of physical discomfort for a lifetime of memories from seeing Pearl Jam as close as you possibly can.
But when showtime came, between a shockingly lackluster setlist, constant lyric-mangling performance by frontman Eddie Vedder (the band dutifully killed it, as always) and a stupefying amount of entitled middle-aged “superfans” acting like spoiled children, the reality of Pearl Jam’s Bonnaroo performance came nowhere close to the anticipation.
PJ severely underwhelmed at Bonnaroo, while their fans’ behavior have driven me from wanting to ever share a concert experience with them again. Here’s why.
Onstage, we’re heading into year four of Pearl Jam having the exact same stage setup, props and lighting, the Lightning Bolt show. The lack of new material is entirely forgivable given the band’s staggering archive of material, but the refusal to update the stage setup is an interesting stick-in-the-mud approach to an ever-competitive live music culture – especially when the band’s fans are well-known for attending multiple shows each and every tour. Entirely excusable on its own, as the set is hardly central to the music. But coupled with a half-checked-out frontman and a setlist which seemed to have been written by someone who’s only seen the band’s radio playlist and has no reference whatsoever to the depth of their catalogue, this Bonnaroo formula was not primed for transcendence.
Pearl Jam has rarely, if ever, played a bad show. Their concerts are legendary, cathartic, a striking of the tuning fork of the soul. But for a band so widely known and revered for their tremendous performances and career-spanning setlists with deep cuts, curveballs and beyond, it was a surprising downturn of exhilaration to witness a show with such color-by-radio-numbers song selections and forgotten lyrics.
When your singer, the legendary Eddie fucking Vedder, completely forgets the cues and words to the first two songs, entirely giving up on the second one (the third verse of “Save You” simply became a guitar solo), something’s gotta give. When that band is the most anticipated headliner of the entire festival, and they’re known for astoundingly great performances? That’s just flat-out unacceptable. Hell, their 2008 Bonnaroo setlist is the stuff dreams are made of. Comparatively speaking, this year’s setlist was a mixtape for college orientation circa 1992, with or without Vedder’s stumbles.
While generally known to be marathon-style sets of ever-changing material and high energy, PJ sets have always been spectacularly over-the-top shows that mined rare & beloved songs. Politically, there are very few bands who hold a candle to PJ’s work ethic – or, for that matter, their dedication to walking the walk in addition to drawing attention to a number of pertinent causes. However, a call to sociopolitical revolution cannot be expected at every show, and Pearl Jam have certainly paid their dues – and then some. But the guy making silly quips about building a wall around Donald Trump is the same man who, two decades prior, utterly hijacked “Masters of War” from Bob Dylan when he’d barely arrived on the scene, a song with unprecedented protest power.
Vedder’s reputation for inspiring active involvement and speaking with invested knowledge is well-known and virtually unparalleled. But delivering Facebook-level political platitudes onstage at Bonnaroo doesn’t quite measure up – though Vedder did call out, to mixed response, Tennessee Representative Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet., a sponsor of Tennessee’s controversial transgender bathroom bill.
However, to then stumble on the climax of good Young Neil’s best protest song “Rockin’ In The Free World,” a song they’ve played at least five hundred times in front of tens of thousands, the song they’re closing the entire night with… what the hell?
Ed literally gave up at the very height of the song, throwing up his hands in futility during the “thousand points of light” lyrical expansion usually reserved for bringing home our soldiers while we still can. It came out as nothing.
Of the dozens upon dozens of renditions of RITFW I’ve witnessed, this was by far the worst. Two decades prior, Vedder delivered an astonishingly incendiary rant about distractioneering and flag-burning legislation, right in the middle of the same damn song. In the years since then, the band has always utilized the track to drive home a fire of sociopolitical motivation at the end of their shows. Their Bonnaroo performance, or rather Ed’s, was a just-doin-my-job delivery which made it clear he’d rather be celebrating daughter Olivia’s birthday (she turned 12 on the same day, and Ed brought her out to sing Happy Birthday in a beautiful moment) instead of headlining the best festival in America.
Add to that a hardcore PJ fanbase at Bonnaroo who went from familial enthusiasm to gnashing anger and bitter entitlement up front, and a bad formula arises.
Nevertheless, PJ certainly had Bonnaroo moments of transcendence in what they do best, with an electrifying rendition of “Better Man” that segued into a reworked “Save it For Later” tag and an incredible take on “Black,” the gutpunch Ten highlight. It was given new life with a searing guitar solo, and a deeply intensified second half. Vedder even added an emotionally supercharged “we belong together” tag at the end, deepening the poignance of a song that’s been a wrecking ball to the hearts of many over the years. They certainly delivered a measure of the intensity and passion we’ve always loved them for, albeit in stops and starts.
I love Pearl Jam. Far more than any other band. Their music has accompanied every major milestone in my life for two and a half decades. But the people with whom I share such sentiments and longstanding affection have driven me away from the spirit of the music itself. Here’s why.
We’ve grown up with PJ, weaving our life tapestries to the rhythms and insights of the music they’ve created. They went from soundtracking first love, loss and self-discoveries to being our emotional lighthouse as the storms of adulthood soaked us through, to full-fledged grownup lives with kids, marriages, mortgages, illness. We have a relationship with these songs that doesn’t translate to the written word. They are inside us. And year after year, show after show, we try to get as close as we can to the magic. We’re angling for that rail position, just like anyone else would, and the people we’ve met along the way – that’s our show family. The Jamily, is how they sometimes sheepishly refer to the group. It’s a dumb name, but that never mattered. The heart does. The sense of community, the shared passion, that was everything. We’ve made lifelong friendships, we’ve shared some of our most intimate experiences and stories, we’ve embedded each other into the architecture of our lives.
However, the underbelly of that passion, of that frequent communal rallying, is a menace that’s grown to be flat-out grotesque: entitlement.
I’ve put in my time at the shows. I’ve waited in line. I drove cross country to see them in San Diego in July of 1998. Back in 2006 I spent five solid nights sleeping on the streets of San Francisco to be up front. In 2011 at PJ20, I was there for every incredible moment of the band’s 20th anniversary blowout. I was right up front at Voodoo 2013, and rode the rail all day to be front and center for Austin City Limits 2014. It has become second nature to endure a full day of physical discomfort for a lifetime of memories from seeing Pearl Jam as close as you possibly can.
Despite this, and dozens of other examples of PJ’s enduring passion and spirit, I find an accelerated urgency within to distance myself from these fellow superfans. Not all of them, of course, as many friendships and connections have transcended the touring circuit. The humblebrags and one-upmanship is digestible, even quaint to those who haven’t heard it dozens of times before. But the persistent paranoia, cattiness, snotty attitudes and constant security haranguing for minutia necessities has gotten out of hand. The insistence that “I’m a bigger fan so I deserve this” has gotten out of hand. I’ve seen it happen with U2 fans. Foo Fighters. Dave Matthews. Nine Inch Nails. The list doesn’t end. All the shitty cliches, the ones that cause a band’s core fanbase to rot out the entire experience that brought us there to begin with, are unfolding.
We used to look out for each other. To many in line at Bonnaroo, breaking from the sunshine grind for anything beyond giving in to bodily functions or the need to replenish fluids while spending the entire day skipping performances to sit in merciless heat and sunshine, means you’re giving up your place in line. To those “diehards,” it is not enough to skip the majority of the day’s performances and listen to the same humblebrag story shared fifty times about that one time meeting Eddie in a hotel lobby and creeping him into an autograph. You have to endure the riot act and scowl daggers from people you’ve supplied beers and waters to for the majority of the day, because you had the audacity to take a midday breather. You have to ignore the entire day’s schedule of 50+ performances, despite the fact that the position in a pre-entry line is an arbitrary fan construct – a point made irritatingly clear when two dozen VIPs were let in prior to the sanctimonious PJ line at showtime.
There is a unique sensibility to someone gleefully suffering through a full day of punishing anti-festival experiences in temperatures nearing triple digits, to make sure they’re exactly one foot closer than the person who rolls up at showtime. Literally. The space immediately behind me was unoccupied for a solid five minutes after the Pearl Jam pit was opened. And my hand was on the rail.
This obsessive handwringing, day-wasting prime-position futility was not the worst part of the experience, however. The worst factor was the showtime entitlement. Once the music began, the generally mild-mannered people around us became maniacally thrashing, screaming buffoons without any concern for their fellow PJ fan. Sing along, sing your heart out, emote into the Bonnaroo night sky all you like, dance like fools, do your best Eddie impression – it’s all good. Just don’t fucking pogo aimlessly all over a packed pit with a backpack on.
One rail holder chain smoked his way through the entire show while jumping maniacally in an utterly drenched, sweat-soaked t-shirt. Another relentlessly attempted to make out with his visibly annoyed girlfriend, insecurely nuzzling her at every opportunity, putting on the supercreepy deep-PDA moves at all the worst moments – such as during “Do The Evolution”. The characters continue.
This is what awaits you on the rail at a Pearl Jam show. Very few souls under 30 care much for PJ, as the band hasn’t released a culturally relevant record in over a decade. So when Eddie came into the crowd towards the end of their Bonnaroo set, I consciously decided to hang back despite the 20-foot proximity. This was another moment for middle-aged entitlement hysteria to blossom and boil, and it did, with shoving and clawing a’plenty. And let’s not get started on the absolutely violent, elbowing/punching/tugging madness that comes with trying to catch one of Eddie’s tambourines:
The merch booths are another issue entirely. When your voluminous tales from the rail at various shows don’t draw the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ they once did, financially secure fans seem to believe they can fortify fanboy superiority by buying up as much band-branded gear as they possibly can. While trying so very hard to prove that they are better fans, more devoted fans than the next warm body, these people alienate and eliminate the sense of community that once made these groups of fans a truly special collective. It becomes a mad rush for stuff, the bragging-rights stories and future Ebay listings dancing in the heads of those who have turned a visceral passion for music into a hoarding collector’s insecurity insulator.
It’s hardly entitlement to hope that your favorite band digs into their catalogue at a two-hour show, or that the singer remembers the words to the songs when they’re headlining a festival – or to expect that your fellow fans won’t act like petulant spoiled brats at a time we’ve all been deeply anticipating for months. That special sense of community that brought us together in spirit is no longer, replaced by sneering entitlement and aggressively inconsiderate behavior.
Pearl Jam’s music will always be a direct frequency to the heart, as it’s been for two and a half decades, as it will undoubtedly continue to be. So these words do not come lightly: while I’ll continue to find my way to their shows, the band’s tour-closer show at Wrigley Field this Summer will be the final time I count myself among the Pearl Jam hardcore concert devotees.
All photos: Johnny Firecloud