In 1991, Nirvana and Pearl Jam both released their classic albums, Nevermind and Ten, respectively. However, it was 1992 that proved to be the breakout year for both. In January 1992, not only did Nevermind top the Billboard 100 album chart (ousting Michael Jackson’s now-ironically-titled Dangerous), but Nirvana also played on Saturday Night Live for the first time. Once Nirvana cracked the mainstream, Pearl Jam soon followed suit, with Ten going on to sell millions of copies as the band began to play to packed arenas across the nation. While many noticed the culture shift in rock music, the change was not immediate. Many mainstream rock acts, such as Guns N’ Roses, were still achieving massive success in the early 1990s. It was how these bands grappled with success and their new status as the voice of the angry, young white male that proved that the alternative rock movement gave the world a new breed of rock star.
Battle with the Status Quo and Masculine Identity
It is a commonly held assumption – or use of implicative rhetoric, if you will – that when a rock band becomes famous, there are certain values that must be upheld. The band must be willing to tour extensively, produce music videos, release records in a timely fashion, and, above all, take their opportunity seriously. All of these activities feed into the status quo of major labels making as much money as possible out of a band before they fall out of fashion and feeding the public inoffensive and good-looking young white rock stars. Most bands are more than happy to play along given the alternative of going back to dead-end day jobs and obscurity.
Nirvana and Pearl Jam were not most bands.
Nirvana and Pearl Jam worked against this instance of implicative rhetoric on many occasions, employing both exigent and quotidian rhetoric in doing so. While most of these rhetorical acts were quotidian – from Pearl Jam refusing to produce music videos at the height of their popularity to Nirvana’s decision to follow up the slick-sounding Nevermind with the rough, abrasive In Utero – there were also instances of both bands using deliberate, exigent rhetoric in their struggles with the mainstream music machine. This struggle of simultaneously rebelling against the mainstream while being dependant on it was a major aspect of both bands. The bands negotiated this dichotomy in different ways: while Nirvana used irony to deflect issues of being a mainstream band, Pearl Jam purposefully chose to shy away from the spotlight and intentionally become a niche act (granted, a niche act that still sells out arenas).
Both bands, however, used exigent rhetoric in their lyrics as a means to carve out a location of being both within and against the mainstream. As Ryan Moore writes, “if the creative content remains largely nihilistic and cynical, we must remember that the participatory form of collective self-empowerment can be appropriated for more explicitly oppositional ends” (264). Once both bands were famous, this nihilism and cynicism became fixtures in their songs. In the opening line of “Serve the Servants,” the first track on In Utero, Kurt Cobain sings in a deadpan tone “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m old and bored.” This declaration at the outset of the follow up to the multi-platinum Nevermind displayed Cobain’s weariness of the baggage that stardom has brought him. His music is no longer only self-expression, but it is now his career. It also shows his disconnect from the musical movement Nirvana single-handedly brought into the American zeitgeist. Similarly, Pearl Jam expressed this discontent in the Vitalogy track “Not For You,” although Eddie Vedder’s lyrics reflect his disgust with the formerly underground alternative scene now turned into a corporate, mainstream music movement: “Small my table, it sits just two/Got so crowded, I can’t make room/Where did they come from? Stormed my room/And you dare say it belongs to you/This is not for you.” In contrast to Cobain, Vedder’s cynicism is directed at the corporate influence in post-Nevermind alternative rock rather than the movement itself. His opposition to major label record labels and corporate media – despite his reliance on both mechanisms for his lyrics to be heard – showcases an immense distrust of those who milked the movement for all it was worth. While both bands played the major label game (to a certain extent, as will be discussed below), the rhetoric of their songs signaled an oppositional force against the status quo.
Song lyrics were not the only location for these bands’ rhetoric against the mainstream, although other instances fall into the quotidian. Pearl Jam used its status as a famous, important band to battle the ticket-selling monopoly Ticketmaster in the middle of the decade, citing the company’s “service charges” as unfair to their fans (keeping the economics of their demographic in mind). For its tour supporting Vitalogy, Pearl Jam refused to play venues that sold tickets through Ticketmaster. Considering Ticketmaster’s hold on the ticket-selling market, this blocked Pearl Jam from playing a vast amount of suitable venues. The tour was plagued with problems and Pearl Jam’s popularity never quite recovered. However, this act of defiance against a major American corporation was unprecedented in rock music, and the rhetorical act of boycotting Ticketmaster, while flawed, showed Pearl Jam taking a definitive rhetorical stance against a monopoly they believed to be unjust.
Pearl Jam produced few music videos (another quotidian rhetorical rebellion against an implicative ideal), but two of the three videos were centered on the band’s life performances. This rhetorical message – not using a formal video shoot and showcasing the workingman-like ideal of just “doing their job” – is evident in the clip for “Even Flow.” The video starts with Vedder’s declaration of authenticity for the location of the “video:” “This is not a TV studio, Josh…this is a rock concert!” From there, edited clips of various Pearl Jam performances are synced with the recorded track, all of which show the band in “workingman” influenced attire: flannel shirts, t-shirts, torn-up jeans, and shorts. The rhetorical message of the video lets fans know that in this age of male decline, Pearl Jam is no better than its fans. They don’t spend money on expensive sound stages for videos, and they shop at the same thrift stores as their fans. This assertion of Pearl Jam being on the same level as its fans is displayed later in the video, when Vedder climbs the venue’s rafters to fall into the crowd from a dangerously high ledge. The message to the audience (both in the crowd and watching the video at home) is clear: Pearl Jam is willing to risk personal well being to maintain a level playing ground with its fans (as expressed by the hit the band’s career took in the Ticketmaster incident). Pearl Jam utilized quotidian rhetoric to show its fans that while it was a famous rock band, it made every effort to retain authenticity and to never appear as “better” than anyone (except perhaps for the people signing their checks).
Nirvana’s use of quotidian rhetoric in taking on the status quo was more centered on irony and not taking its role as “famous rock band” particularly seriously. As Ryan Moore writes:
Even as rock stars, Nirvana was able to present both a voice for a more sincere alternative to the music industry and the trappings of stardom and, by virtue of their own “incorporation,” testify to the lack of such an oppositional space; the best example of such frustration – and the use of irony to “resolve” these contradictions – was Cobain’s appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone with a hand-written tee-shirt reading “Corporate Rock Magazines Still Suck” (258).
Such use of irony as a deliberate rhetorical act did not stop at photo shoots. For their performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on popular British television show Top of the Pops, Nirvana used the music program’s insistence that the band play to prerecorded tracks (save for the vocals) to mock the program and the institution it represents.
The band’s refusal to play by the show’s rules is evident, and it is a quotidian rhetorical act that nearly becomes exigent in its level of awareness. The occasion of the show – that musicians play along to their prerecorded selves and try to look good while doing it – allowed Nirvana to, with tongue firmly in cheek, put up resistance to the show’s producers and their expectations that the status quo be met. This, along with Pearl Jam’s boycotting Ticketmaster on behalf of their fans, was a rhetorical act reflecting Generation X’s anti-establishment ideals. For a generation that corporate America was passing by, Nirvana and Pearl Jam rebelled against that system in a way that most Generation X’ers never could.
While both bands, with their working-class aesthetic and forceful male lead vocalists, were unmistakiably masculine, they also subverted gender construction. In the picture above, Nirvana is dressed in female clothing. This was far from a one-time occurrence. In many photo and video shoots, as well as live performances, the members of Nirvana frequently wore women’s clothing, presumably to tear down that very implicative rhetorical assumption of how a “blue collar” rock band should behave. Furthermore, for his first appearance on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball – a show devoted to heavy metal and hard rock – Cobain appeared in a ball gown, subverting the shows typically macho appeal.
While Pearl Jam never broke from their masculine image, vocalist Eddie Vedder was always a staunch public defender for women’s rights, going so far as to inscribe the words “PRO CHOICE” on his arm at the end of a performance on MTV Unplugged.
Nirvana and Pearl Jam’s subversion of traditional rock gender roles may seem at odds with their “working man” aesthetic, but it was in fact a reflection of what declining working class men were going through, if not necessarily how they may have felt. Eric Lott writes as much in his article “All the King’s Men:”
Changes in the ideologies of manhood, including the 1960s counterculture’s embrace of androgyny, the encroaching obsolescence of anticommunist machismo, and the looming attractiveness of the ‘sensitive man,’ were undergirded by a massive shift in political economy. Simply put, this was a shift from “Fordism” to “post-Fordism,” from an industrial regime of mass assembly-line production to a halting and low-wage service economy in which, moreover, the sexual division of labor was blurred. Economy and identity came together in working-class men’s felt inability to provide – a masculine ideal the social script increasingly disdained anyway (196).
As the traditional “provider” role of the American working class male waned, so did the claim to superiority that accompanied it. This too was reflected in Nirvana and Pearl Jam’s lyrics. In stark contrast to the misogynistic hair-metal bands, Nirvana and Pearl Jam often wrote lyrics from the first-person perspective of female protagonists. In Nirvana’s most controversial song “Rape Me,” Cobain sings as a rape victim, repeating the title of the song throughout the verses before shifting to a more hopeful, unity-driven chorus in which he declares “I’m not the only one,” presumably finding comfort in fellow victims. Similarly, Vedder sings from the perspective of a victim of child abuse in “Daughter:” “Can’t deny there’s something wrong/Don’t call me daughter, not fit to/The picture kept will remind me.” Also like Cobain, Vedder’s protagonist comes to grips with her victimization. Although she initially accepts her aggressor (“She holds the hand that holds her down”), she does eventually triumph over her pain (“She will rise above”). Also note that Vedder switches to third-person perspective here, allowing his female protagonist to overcome on her own terms without Vedder as her mouthpiece. Unfortunately, while such stories suggest female empowerment in the face of terrible tragedy, it is worth discussing that both songs, despite the progressiveness Cobain and Vedder hoped to achieve, frame women in terms of victimization at the hands of a (presumably, in the case of “Daughter” – the abuser is not given a gender) male aggressor. This regression to violent – but traditional – gender roles is a result of the loss of identity for the working class male, according to Eric Lott: “If anything, male physical violence and abuse…have redoubled in hysterical fashion in the face of troubled self-definition” (196). In losing himself, the American working class male lashes out, even if unintentionally. As members of that group (albeit very rich and famous members), Cobain and Vedder ultimately cannot escape their maleness. However, the effort of writing from a female’s perspective and their tales ultimately ending in a kind of triumph for their protagonists shows a rhetoric that seeks to reflect the state of gender in the early 1990s.
Perhaps it was a reaction against hair metal’s misogynistic leanings, but these two forbearers of the alternative movement, while unquestionably white and male, subverted the traditional views of gender in a rock ‘n’ roll setting, even if no women were on the stage with them.