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Monday, February 26, 2024

Column: Smells Like the 90s

Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam — The Relentless Debate

“Who’s better?” — how often do we hear that question posed? Whether the discussion revolves around sports, music, politics or pizza, we live in a culture that loves reducing the issue down to two competitors: Beatles v. The Stones, Jordan v. Kobe, Republican v. Democrat.

And so goes the debate between music fans over which band rocked it better: Pearl Jam or Nirvana? But how can you compare the talent of these two iconic groups whose sounds are so distinct yet are both forever linked to the Seattle alt rock/grunge movement from which they were born?

You can’t. But what about a discussion of which band was more influential?

Clearly, both had staggering early success. The difference here is that Nirvana’s landmark Nevermind followed their lesser-known debut album Bleach, while Pearl Jam’s first release, Ten, was a huge breakthrough success.

That said, Nevermind cemented Nirvana as the “face” of a new music movement. Not only did its success help make grunge popular, but it proved the commercial viability of alternative rock in general.

In contrast, the success of Ten brought out a host of early detractors, including Cobain, who accused Pearl Jam of selling out with a guitar-lead style that was less than alt rock.

Much of this changed, however, when the masses began to see Pearl Jam in concert. The band’s powerful live performances helped establish their identity and their refusal to make music videos (after Jeremy) — followed later by their infamous Ticketmaster boycott — further formed their anti-establishment identity.

So the question is: does Cobain rule or is Vedder Better?

Yet another fruitless comparison. While Cobain’s prominence followed by his early demise may have elevated him to cult-like status along the lines of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe or Jim Morrison, Pearl Jam’s remarkable success and longevity (including its lead singer’s solo projects) give Vedder equal iconic claim.

In the end, both Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder represent individual talents of the top order, whose distinctive voices and creative visions helped propel their bands into the hearts and minds of American youth. Although Nirvana’s run was short but sweet, the continued impact of the band’s albums and the success of its progeny (i.e. The Foo Fighters) put them on equal turf with Pearl Jam, who Allmusic named “the most popular rock and roll band of the 90s.”

 

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