- - Monday, September 19, 2011

Rock these days is mostly relevant as self-parody. Or at least, it’s hard to escape that conclusion after watching Cameron Crowe’s “Pearl Jam 20.” The film is much like the music of the band it documents - lumbering, shapeless and irritatingly reminiscent of many other things you didn’t like all that much.

“Pearl Jam 20” may be best viewed not as a documentary film, but as a bloated, unusually hagiographic episode of “Behind the Music.” The rock band tropes tick by with a merciless precision - the drug casualty, the struggle with sudden fame, even the rotating drummers. It would almost be funny if the band members weren’t so dazzlingly, unwearyingly vapid.

There’s nothing to do but cover your eyes in horror as frontman Eddie Vedder explains, without a hint of irony, that he writes dark songs because “my emotions are like a quarter flipped in the air.” Nor is there any escape from the horror as you watch the band members steer helpless anecdote after helpless anecdote into dank, blind alleys, there to be gruesomely and pointlessly bludgeoned to death.

So, yes, it’s true, I never liked Pearl Jam much, and seeing this film has only confirmed me in my conviction that they are one of the least talented and least necessary bands to achieve megastardom in the last 30 or 40 years.

And yet, Pearl Jam’s utter blahness gives the film an odd kind of purity. With no discernible charisma or talent onscreen to distract you, the extent to which charisma and talent are superfluous slowly becomes clear. The rock biopic is its own reward; it exists to celebrate its own existence, a ritual purgative.

Eddie Vedder’s voice is praised for its power and uniqueness not because anyone actually thinks that crossing Eric Burdon with a lightly stunned water buffalo is a stroke of genius, but because praising the singer’s singing is what you do in a rock biopic. We hear about the band’s strong political stances not because they have anything earth-shattering to say - “Ticketmaster charges too much for our concerts” and “George W. Bush sucks” is about as insightful as they get - but because rock acts are supposed to be political, just like Dylan.

Indeed, Bob Dylan pops up in some archival footage, as do Pete Townshend and a handful of other luminaries. Mr. Crowe notes in the opening narration that the grunge scene was distinctive for its obsessive record listening. He wants to suggest that the bands had a sense of history, which was no doubt true. But, perhaps just as importantly, he suggests the extent to which grunge was about nostalgia.

Rock as a commercial force was on life-support by the early ‘90s. The bands that Mr. Vedder and his bandmates worshipped - Led Zeppelin, the Who, even Cheap Trick - were for the most part a decade or more old. The film barely mentions their most current popular predecessors, whether Madonna (who didn’t influence them) or Guns N’ Roses (who certainly did). Which was the thing about grunge. It’s maybe hard to remember now, but I certainly recall listening obsessively to Nirvana in my dorm room as a fairly clueless freshman, thinking, “Real music at last!”

Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder were the great white hope - the not-disco thing that would make Top 40 safe again for (overwhelmingly) white (overwhelmingly) male guitar bands with authenticity issues. Where a biopic about the Rolling Stones might start in the Mississippi Delta, and one about Bob Dylan might start in Appalachia, “Pearl Jam 20” opens with a snippet from “Louie, Louie.” Rock itself, by the early ‘90s, was a lost musical totem to pine after.

What was the case then is even more the case now, when grunge has itself become sepia-tinged. No longer are we nostalgic for rock; instead, we’re nostalgic for the nostalgia for rock. Mr. Vedder whines about how he skipped the stage of his career where he toured in a van, and instead went straight to stadiums - and the movie dutifully fetishizes both his longing for dues he never paid and the gigantic stadium shows that remind us of a time when hairy guys played stadiums even if they didn’t want to. And they sang earthy, honest lyrics like “I’ll ride the wave where it takes me/I’ll hold the pain, release me.” Deep, man.

Rock still has a hurrah or two left in it, probably - the White Stripes were not the end. But each slight return seems more and more mired in its own self-mythologizing, more and more reflexively re-enacting some dead guys’ long-decayed original moves. Hip-hop won, fellas. Wishing you were a boomer isn’t going to help.

And the truth is, the pop we’ve got isn’t so bad. Beyonce’s a hell of a lot more talented than Pearl Jam, in the first place. And in the second … it’s worth remembering that rock, in its initiating moment, was a music made possible by segregation.

If a black man could have hit the top of the charts, there wouldn’t have been any need for Elvis. That doesn’t mean that Elvis was racist, and it sure doesn’t mean Elvis was anything but great. But despite the best efforts of great performers from Hendrix to Sly Stone to Prince to Slash, I still think that the King and why he became the King remain relevant - especially after listening for two hours to Eddie Vedder trying his best to sound like Howlin’ Wolf while people line up to tell him how original he is.

I love Led Zeppelin and the Beatles and Nirvana and rock in general, but there are still some problems there that nostalgia can’t, or at least shouldn’t, paper over. There’s nothing wrong with liking Pearl Jam’s music, much as it pains me to admit it. But if folks have to like it, I wish they could find some way to do it that didn’t involve pining for a past in which we all pine for a past that, in many ways, wasn’t so great.

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