“We’ve never had a fight ever, I’ve just always hated his band”. That’s Kurt Cobain describing his relationship with Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder on MTV during the early 1990s. Despite fronting two of the biggest bands of the Seattle grunge scene, I think it’s fair to say the pair were never really friends. Sure, they spoke on the phone on occasion, and Nirvana made it clear that he thought Veder a “really nice person”, but their musical philosophies were too different to allow for any real camaraderie. So why exactly did Cobain hold such disdain for Pearl Jam, and why was he so willing to advertise that hatred during interviews?
It’s worth bearing in mind that Vedder and Cobain came from very similar backgrounds. Both musicians stood at the vanguard of a new generation of bands whose music artfully reflected the sense of alienation and disillusionment coursing through young people in the late 1980s and early ’90s. They also had both been incredibly isolated teenagers. Neither felt able to relate to the other kids at their high school, and both used music to develop a sense of self-worth. Rock ‘n’ roll was their salvation, so they pursued it with every fibre of their being. By the time they rose to fame in the early ’90s, Seattle had become the epicentre of a new brand of alternative guitar music that viewed mainstream rock as corrupt, bloated and redundant. Like punk before it, the grunge scene held its artists to a high standard of authenticity. Those who failed to live up to the purity of the underground were scorned and regarded as sell-outs. Pearl Jam was one such band.
For Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain, the beauty of the Seattle scene was its iconoclasm, its utter destruction of long-upheld musical aesthetics, its disdain for the self-congratulatory posturing of famous rock stars. Cobain frequently criticised Pearl Jam, believing that they had simply adopted the aesthetics of the underground scene when they cottoned on to its popularity. In his eyes, they lacked originality and were little more than a commercial rock band dressed up in ripped jeans and leather jackets.
Speaking to Flipside in 1992, Cobain opened up about why he’d always hated bands like Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains. “Those bands have been in the hairspray/cockrock scene for years and all of a sudden they stop washing their hair and start wearing flannel shirts. It doesn’t make any sense to me. There are bands moving from L.A. and all over to Seattle and then claim they’ve lived there all their life so they can get record deals. It really offends me.” In Cobain’s eyes, Pearl Jam was an unworthy addition to the grunge scene because they had done little to cultivate its aesthetics – they had simply exploited them.
Arguably, Cobain’s disdain for Pearl Jam was less to do with their music and more to do with major labels’ corruption of the grunge scene. Why else would he have ridiculed his own audiences – once lashing out at the entire Lollapalooza crowd and branding them “false alternative macho metal” enthusiasts? In a way, Pearl Jam were just another symptom of a scene that Cobain felt was being gradually polluted.