It’s hard to describe just how big a deal Pearl Jam was to guys like me in 1993. I was in college, at a Christian school, sheltered quite a bit from the party life of my high school classmates who attended state schools and private “secular” (Christian culture buzzword) colleges. My friends and I did crazy things, climbing buildings on campus in the wee hours of the morning, pulling pranks on rival dorms, but mostly staying up all night to listen to music when we should have been studying. I loved Pearl Jam. I have always been a lyric guy, so I poured over Eddie Vedder’s lyrics, discerning the words of new songs from bootlegs of live shows, reading the backstories of songs.
The narratives in Pearl Jam’s early works spoke of a very different world from mine. I had a very comfortable childhood. I had good examples around me. I had a great dad who not only was around but who was a good example of what being a man was. He took care of things, but was never macho or abusive. He showed incredible strength in his ability to not need to prove himself to anyone other than those who mattered. And he proved himself through self-sacrificial love and devotion, especially to my mother. Vedder’s lyrics spoke of dysfunction, an absent father, an abused mother, and the fallout from a broken home. I couldn’t relate to it directly, but I was drawn in to listen, to learn. The expression was honest, at least it came across that way to me. I had my eyes opened to a world beyond mine.
I was also having my eyes opened by reading books like Autobiography of Malcolm X, Grapes of Wrath, and getting my first introductions to Feminism. Now, I need to explain, most of this stuff wouldn’t sink in until later, but the seeds were being planted. I sensed the first rumblings of discomfort of my own white male privilege.
The music of Pearl Jam played a pretty big role in helping my 19-year-old white male brain and body consider the struggles and experiences of others that might have remained invisible. At 19 you’re working out all kinds of stuff: masculinity, sexuality, power, morality, ethics, belief, etc. You mess up a lot, or at least I did. You get confused a lot. The angst of Vedder and Co. lent itself well to this condition, but I am grateful that in the midst of the muscular guitars, pounding drums and anthemic choruses were those words, attempting to challenge, disturb, and bring disequilibrium to the party.
I mentioned before that Pearl Jam was a big deal to guys like me in 1993. It turns out that they were also loved by all kinds of guys then. I remember defending them against the reputation they were getting for being loved in the college party scene, among frat guys. I had a pure narrative going that was certainly not accurate, and probably had a decent helping of teenage ‘cooler than thou”pride-syndrome mixed in. But, still, I’m sure that “Alive”, a song about a mother finally telling her son that the abusive guy he thought was his dad was not his dad, but that his real father had died years before, was being blasted during keg-stands. Even worse, I can imagine that “Daughter” a fiery declaration of a young woman fleeing an oppressive home was playing in the background somewhere while a boy convinced an inebriated girl that she should just go ahead and have sex with him while she was there. He provided the beer after all. Pearl Jam had become the biggest band in the world in 1993. You don’t get there without your message, your art being co-opted in ways you never intended.
They were now in a place of greater, magnified privilege.
It’s what you do with that megaphone, that privilege, asked for or not, deserved or not, ideal or not that matters.
I got to see Pearl Jam in 1993, at one of the state colleges my friend attended. There were plenty of guys in the audience that night. college guys, frat boys and “losers” like me, 19-year-old white boys, with all their angst and masculinity and sexuality and power and mess-ups all swirling in their heads while the band they loved, a band of guys not that much older than us, took the stage. In the middle of the set, Vedder, our hero, addressed us. Of course, in retrospect I recognize the absurdity and danger in awaiting words of wisdom from guys who are primarily there to play rock music, to entertain. Vedder often was self-deprecating enough to acknowledge this and even warn of the impending failure of putting your trust in him or any rock singer. “What, do you expect something profound in every verse?” he quipped on a bootleg recording some of us obsessive fans sought out. In the documentary, “Twenty” about Pearl Jam the band members talk about how crazy it was that the clothes they would put on in the morning for no particular reason became a “statement”. All of a sudden they were in the spotlight, watched, examples… examples to a legion of 19-year-old white boys. who should have had (and maybe did have but ignored them) fathers, elders, teachers to help navigate the weird years between boyhood and manhood. Again, I did have those examples, but not everyone did, and I’m not just talking about guys from broken homes, or abusive situations, I’m also talking about the privileged boys, the ones whose example of masculinity was tied up in getting what you want when you want, of being blind to one’s privilege at the expense of others.
“There’s a line in this next song I want you to hear… I want you to really listen to it,” Vedder said over loud cheers and shouted praises and requests from the crowd. “So, there’s a line in this song.. it says ‘A quarter past a Holy No’… I want all of you guys to hear this loud and clear, ’cause it’s important… when a woman says ‘no’ it is ‘Holy’, meaning you have to respect it… it’s Holy… do you get it? You need to get this” The band then ripped into “Dissident”.
Did we get it? Us boys who by now are raising boys. Some of our boys are 19-year-old guys in college. I don’t know if the voices they listen to on their headphones, in their dorm rooms, at concerts and parties are putting in those subversive messages in the midst of the ecstatic beats, adrenaline drenched riffs, the muscular drops and screams. Is anyone reminding them of the “Holy No”? Even if we fathers and mothers and priests and teachers did our best we know what it was like to be 19 and male. We needed it reinforced, and reinforced, and reinforced again. Not just by our parents, teachers, and pastors, but in our culture. Pearl Jam tried (who knows how successfully) to make us angry about the treatment of women. They used their privilege to try to do just that. It tapped into our teen angst and our desire to go against the “system”. If it worked, even just in a few cases, if a young man made himself rebel against a culture telling him left and right, in pornography, in sexist jokes, in athletes and celebrities behaving badly, and even more seductively, in the assumptions and blindness to the many ways women were not regarded as truly equal, then maybe one young woman wouldn’t be assaulted, pressured, or raped.
So back to the point. I think we need to reclaim the language of anger about sexual assault. I think we need to proclaim the sacredness of the “HOLY NO!”, especially on our college campuses. When a reported 1 in 5 women are raped or assaulted on college campuses, when 1 in 3 college men said they would force a woman to have sex if there were no chance of getting caught,when young women report being told they are a “tease” for going to a social gathering and not having sex or getting drunk, when young women are afraid to report assault at fraternities for fear of repercussions, or of not being taken seriously by college administrations, we should be angry, very, very angry and demand change.
There should be zero tolerance for any sexual assault on campus, period. There should be no place for the shaming of victims, the reporting process should be made clear and known. Men should be taught the clear lines of how they should behave, the “Holy No” at least as much, if not more, than women should be taught and expected to prepare for self-defense (although I certainly support that too). The bottom line is, the men in these 19-year-old guy’s circles need to be stepping up. We need to use our privilege, which is not earned, nor just, nor, maybe even asked for, but an undeniable truth, to call this out, loudly, now. Alumni with money and influence, elder Fraternity brothers, you have to step up and say “no more”. No more unspoken code or blurred lines. No More. Fraternity brothers, if you see one of your brothers not abiding by the “Holy No! (and yes, this includes getting a girl intoxicated and coercing her, it means using power and leverage to create a threatening situation – not sure what is threatening? Ask, and ask again, or, if you’re wondering, just don’t) then you call him out and report him. I don’t care about the “Frat Code”. Be a man. It means Fathers of sons, you have to step up and not be afraid to talk tough about this, to not play along with the jokes or look the other way. Administrators, it’s not enough to have an official policy in place, a facade of equality and safety but let the social “Greek” system continue to perpetrate what is basically a cycle of white, affluent, male privilege at the expense of our young women. Musicians, artists, speakers, anyone who has an influence on our young people, whether you asked for it or not – why not step up against the system, do something really radical and make you fans, especially your young male fans, like I was, uncomfortable and angry. Angry enough, maybe, to get closer to becoming real men as they grow up, who can maybe raise sons who will be real men.