After reading Bill Simmons argue with one of his staffers on Grantland.com about Mariah Carey and other nonsense having nothing to do with sports, I decided I should rip him off and do something similar.
I’ve decided to call this series of back-and-forths “Arguments With Friends” and the topics will vary from music to entertainment to sports to politics to anything else I’m right about and some other stupid idiot disagrees.
For this particular incarnation of Arguing With Friends I took on my friend and fellow journalist E. Richard Korn, a reporter for Newsday, to discuss who was a better band, Pearl Jam or Nirvana. Both were great bands and at the forefront of the grunge music scene, but there can be only one champion.Let the arguing commence.
I had been looking for a parallel that would accurately depict advocating the notion that Pearl Jam was a better band than Nirvana for the past couple weeks or so unsuccessfully and then I stumbled upon it while reading a Bill Simmons column. It’s this Pabst Blue Ribbon commercial from 1979 starring Patrick Swayze (note the Top Comments). Here’s why: hipsters love PBR. They don’t love it because it’s cheap or because it actually tastes good, they love it because it’s what hipsters drink and it’s how you tell the word how obscure and alternative you are. It’s like Mac people with Mac laptops or the iPad.
SIDE NOTE: The iPad is the single most worthless popular invention of the past 20 years. I swear to God, in 50 years people will look back on the iPad and tablets in general and will have no way to explain what was going on or why anyone would waste their money on them. “Wait grandpa, you mean there was a thing that performed the exact same functions as a laptop or mobile phone but was bigger than a phone and didn’t make phone calls and also didn’t have a keyboard but people bought it because some asshole in a black turtleneck kept telling them it was ‘revolutionary’?” Rest in peace to Steve Jobs. I hope he’s been reincarnated as an ant colony queen or a puppy that’s been adopted by a family with a great big backyard.
I digress. You could show hipsters that Swayze commercial, which is so completely antithetical to everything hipsters are supposedly about and rather than making them turn on PBR for their blatant and unrepentant commercialism and attempts to be mainstream and good in years past, hipsters would just like PBR more because it’s ironic or something. People who say that Pearl Jam was a better band than Nirvana are like hipsters drinking PBR.
At the end of the day, there really is no comparison. Nirvana was the band that changed music, the band that changed history and Pearl Jam was a band that was pretty good over a fairly long period of time.
It’s like saying the hottest girl on Saved by the Bell was Jessie Spano. Yeah, Elizabeth Whateverherlastnameis was hot in “Showgirls” and yes, she’s been able to maintain some semblance of a successful acting career that hasn’t been pathetic enough to inspire skits on Funny or Die. But Saved by the Bell’s hotness was Kelly Kapowski. It’s ridiculous to argue otherwise. You can pretend you have a thing for curly hair or tall women or that “traditionally attractive” women don’t do it for you, but there’s a clear cut and obvious winner.
Kurt Cobain made apathy cool. He made feelings cool. He made it cool to not give a fuck. He did everything on a much bigger level than anyone from Pearl Jam ever did anything. And you can make the argument that PJ eschewed fame and Kurt secretly thirsted for it while public scorning it (which I’ve heard) but in terms of general public influence, at the apex of both of their careers, one man and one band were significantly more influential.
SIDE NOTE: I have this theory that every musical wave dies when its one true artist stops making music. (This theory is only for musical subgenres, by the way.) With rap metal you had Rage Against the Machine. With Horrorcore hip hop you had the Geto Boys. With grunge you had Nirvana. When Kurt died the musical movement died. If Eddie Vedder had died in ’94 instead, I think we’d still be listening to some incarnation of grunge music to this day.
To wit, since Courtney got full rights to Nirvana’s catalog a few years ago and needed cash to fuel her various drug binges and pay someone to look after Kurt’s daughter, “Breed,” “Lithium,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit” “In Bloom” and I think “Sliver” have all appeared in commercials this decade (2001-2011). Why? Because Nirvana’s music speaks to people. Even people who weren’t old enough or even alive enough to appreciate it in the ‘90s can relate to it today. The audience is often gen x’ers wistfully hoping to relive their glory days, but just as often its teens and 18-21-year-olds who have no established connection to Nirvana’s music.
There’s a reason Kurt Cobain was the voice of a generation. Nirvana’s music penetrated every level of musical enjoyment.
On a purely superficial, pop level they were great. They wrote rhythmic, anthemic songs that kids could sing along to even if they didn’t really know the words. The melodies and harmonies of their music were undeniable and while they were never sugary sweet, the songs never tried to be too cool for school or overly complex. You didn’t need to be grunge or alternative or counter-culture to appreciate Nirvana. That was the beauty of the band. Nirvana appealed to the palate of everyone, from the most ardent guitar rock purist to the most KYUP suburban top-40 yuppies. With Nirvana, you didn’t have to choose whether you wanted to be angry or catchy, hard or soft, rebellious or popular. Nirvana was all of the above and more.
Even at their most anti-pop (the entire Incesticide album for example), Nirvana still made songs you could hum to and in a world where we hum our favorite songs, that means something. Their music almost always managed to tow the line between subversively garage and top 40 pop and it always seemed authentic.
Lyrically, Kurt was a genius. He wrote songs that were amazing not just in their content, but in their packaging. In the world we live in the pretty box is almost as important as what’s inside and no one was better than Kurt at composing quality songs that meant something deep and profound but were still fun.
While I see the value in writing songs with no intelligible lyrics (“Yellow Ledbetter”) or weaving a fan letter from a Japanese girl into your songs (I don’t know what song this is or if this is actually even true, but I heard it somewhere), it’s not particularly impressive. Writing a song called “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that encapsulates the hopelessness and misanthropy of a generation with a chorus derived from a party joke (Kurt used to say “here we are now, entertain us” when he walked into house parties) and a title derived from a running gag about a brand of deodorant is significantly more remarkable.
Kurt was a master of hiding in plain sight. Nirvana’s songs were always a confluence of social commentary, introspective feelings, inside jokes, sarcasm and general pessimism. And somehow they were internationally popular. He said everything he wanted to say and told you everything about himself in a verse, chorus, verse form that you could sing along to.
That’s what makes Nirvana so great. It’s not that they were massively popular, it’s that they were massively popular while being so uncompromising and so groundbreaking and so creative. Nirvana is pop music at its absolute best and it ranks up there with anything from Stevie Wonder to The Beatles. Pearl Jam was a good band, but they were just that.
I’ll go back and compare the two most prominent grunge groups to baseball players, since that is what I do. Nirvana is Sandy Koufax, a group with a short, if spectacular, prime. Pearl Jam is Rickey Henderson, a band that came out like a shooting star while maintaining a high level of performance over a longer period of time.
But my biggest problem with your argument is that you sort of minimize PJ’s impact and importance at the apex of their career. Their first album, “Ten”, went 12X platinum. Their follow-up, “Vs.,” went 7X platinum. At their respective bests, they were commercially more viable than Nirvana. After Nevermind, it became clear that Nirvana’s commercial success was beginning to fade, just as Pearl Jam’s popularity would wane in the coming years. “In Utero,” which some consider a better album than Nevermind, sold about 3.5 million records, a monster figure in today’s music climate but indicative of an upcoming Nirvana decline.
Then… Cobain dies, and a fleeting musical genre, a more refined version of disco and hair metal, died with it. Meanwhile, Pearl Jam kept moving along, fighting a battle with the conglomerate Ticketmaster while making excellent records like “No Code” and “Yield.” At the same time, Vedder and company maintained a fanatical fan base that still exists.
You knock the unintelligible lyrics of “Yellow Ledbetter”? Am I missing something? I needed to read the liner notes to “Teen Spirit,” just as I did with “Ledbetter.” Not to mention, Vedder is no doubt the better singer and stage performer, a showman without the mopey “woe is me” attitude of Cobain. To this day, PJ puts on some of most epic live shows, selling out arenas while putting out records that fail to go platinum…that goes to show me that the PJ fans are in it because they dig the music, not because they need to validate their group against one that died 18 years ago.
PJ supporters respect the group for the consistency of their music, for the fact that 4-of-the-5 members have been there since the beginning. There is a dominant front man in Vedder who the rest of the group cedes to, sacrificing ego in the name of making great music. Sure, the PJ fans enjoy being in the minority, especially since Nirvana STILL generates headlines (granted, Courtney Love is usually the one making noise). Not to mention, if Cobain continued to live, his erratic behavior and drug use would have slowly but surely lessened the Nirvana brand.
In the end, Pearl Jam has done more, has written and recorded more memorable songs and given hundreds of more epic concerts. They are the gift that keeps on giving. Nirvana was a shooting star whose impact grew in death; Pearl Jam is still living and doing its thing, which is why I and millions of fellow PJ fans consider them the kings of the grunge movement.
OK, first of all, when you make a baseball analogy you can’t compare a pitcher to an everyday player. That’s just heresy and furthermore makes it completely impossible to reasonably compare. But I think you did it on purpose because Nirvana to Pearl Jam is such a ludicrous comparison that it defies rationality.
I’m not a baseball buff, so I’ll stick to a sport I do know: football. Nirvana is Gale Sayers and Pearl Jam is Kerry Collins. I had to go running back vs. quarterback because there’s not a quarterback I can think of in recent memory whose career was ended that prematurely by injuries and there isn’t a running back who carried on his career long past his prime, racking up yards while still doing just enough to be a suitable starter. If you think of one, let me know.
Kerry Collins deserves our respect. He’s one of the NFL’s top all-time passers, he’s played in a Super Bowl and in a few years he’ll probably be inducted into the Hall of Fame (no. 10 all-time NFL passer). But Kerry Collins is no Gale Sayers. Gale Sayers was a magical, once-in-a-generation player that was like nothing anyone had ever seen. That’s what Nirvana was.
When DGC released Nevermind in 1991, they were hoping to sell a couple hundred thousand copies. The album sold 10 million copies and for 10 years after it was released still sold 200,000 copies a year. Nirvana completely redefined the entire music scene. People still credit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for killing ‘80s hair metal and ushering in a new era of music that Pearl Jam was a part of, not so incidentally.
Yes, “Ten” sold more albums than “Nevermind,” but it didn’t start selling until 1992 after “Teen Spirit” had taken the country by storm and “Nevermind” had become the number one album on the charts. If anything, Vedder should’ve been writing Cobain checks. Kurt and Nirvana were the Seattle scene and everyone that got famous making grunge music – this includes Soundgarden, STP, Pearl Jam and the like – all got there thanks to Nirvana.
As for “In Utero,” everyone says that album was a deliberate attempt by the band to shake their pop superstar status. They worked with an underground producer, made louder, edgier songs and only released one single. Of course it didn’t sell. But I maintain that to this day, “In Utero” is a better album than Pearl Jam or anyone this side of the Wu-Tang Clan has ever produced.
And let us not forget about the Unplugged album. That performance made the series and is still the best-selling Unplugged album ever made.
As a matter of fact, let’s not even get into sales. Pearl Jam sold more records, but they’ve put out something like a dozen studio albums and Nirvana put out three. So yeah…
As for “Yellow Ledbetter” it doesn’t have lyrics. Try looking for them. To this day, no one is quite sure what Vedder is saying. The song is something of a legend (so I’m told, I never really kept up with Pearl Jam folklore) because of that fact. That’s cool and all, but it’s not exactly spongeworthy.
Also your argument that PJ has given more concerts and blah, blah, blah is completely irrelevant because it was impossible for Nirvana to play anymore after 1994 on account of Kurt’s brains being blown out. You can’t make a longevity argument against a dead guy. But even allowing for such tomfoolery, if you compare the two bands in terms of hits, quality of music and songwriting, and lasting influence on music and culture, Nirvana wins in a landslide despite having a career 14 years shorter (and even if I concede quality of music and songwriting to PJ, which I don’t, it’s still Nirvana).
Kurt Cobain was Rolling Stone’s Artist of the Decade, he was the voice of generation X, he was “the last real rock star.” You could make this argument if PJ existed outside the era of Nirvana or in a vacuum unto itself, but they didn’t. They existed right alongside the cresting wave that was Nirvana and they were merely one of many ships that rose.
To quote the immortal Bill O’Reilly, I’ll give you the last word, Korn.
P.s. How dare you compare grunge to disco or hair metal. How dare you!
Well, Big D, you just showed your lack of football knowledge by saying Kerry Collins is a future Hall-of-Famer. On what planet? If Randall Cunningham, Ken Anderson and Phil Simms are not inducted in Canton…
But back to the PJ/Nirvana argument… Nirvana did blow open the door to the grunge movement… no denying that. But you cannot hold Pearl Jam’s longevity against them. In fact, they should be credited for maintaining a loyal fan base and continuing to sell records long after their genre of music became passé. Much of the Cobain/Nirvana love occurred long after the fact because, yes, musicians become sexier when they’re dead.
Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix are deified in death because they never had a chance to grow old, never sold out by playing the oldies circuit, a la The Rolling Stones and The Who. Same thing with Nirvana. Cobain died as “the voice of his generation,” right before grunge music made way for BritPop like Oasis (who I incidentally love). Sure, Cobain’s death expedited grunge’s demise, but eventually, many of those mopey teenagers who wore $50 flannel shirts would have left the party, leaving a smaller-yet-loyal group of Nirvana fans, just like Pearl Jam fostered.
Even if Cobain had lived, his personal demons would have fractured the band, and Dave Grohl would have left sooner or later. At best, they would now be doing cheesy reunions, with Cobain and a crew of no-name backup musicians.
As for the “Nirvana: Unplugged” album, I love it. The renditions of “About a Girl,” “Rape Me,” and “Come as You Are” are downright brilliant. But the “Unplugged” series showcased the best of those 90s musicians, and I would venture to say that Pearl Jam’s unplugged (listen to “Porch” when you get a chance) and Alice in Chains’ (with a strung-out Layne Staley singing his guts outs) equal Nirvana’s. And don’t use sales as a barometer for “Unplugged” greatness because then, you know, Ten > Nevermind.
Pearl Jam has existed long enough and put out enough great music where they are rightfully considered among America’s great rock bands. How many bands that began in the early-to-mid 90s have stayed together the entire time and continued to make great music? Because while STP, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Nirvana struggled with their respective demons, Pearl Jam never wavered, never changed the essence of who they were. And yes, Eddie Vedder is among our great songwriters (check out “World Wide Suicide” or “Wishlist”), and while some of his lyrics may be difficult to decipher, it’s not like Cobain was the world’s greatest enunciator.
While Nirvana fans have the faint memories of a heroin addict who couldn’t handle fame and put a gun to his temple, Pearl Jam is still at the top of their game, continuing to add to an ever-growing legacy.
[Editor’s Note: I asked Chad Millman, Editor-in-Chief of ESPN The Magazine and author of “Invincible” and “They Call Me Baba Booey,” among numerous others, to weigh in, because I assumed he would take my side. He did not. From Chad: “It’s Pearl Jam by a mile. Longevity counts.”]
E. Richard Korn is a sports reporter for Newsday and lives on Long Island. He is the former writer and editor of NeutralKorner.com, the greatest boxing and pop culture blog ever written. Some people call him Evan.