How Pearl Jam Saved ‘SNL’

By Josh Korr
tbt*-Tampa Bay Times
April 18, 2006

Saturday Night Live has been pretty much unwatchable for the past few years, thanks to excruciating sketches and everyone not named Tina Fey. (I keed, I keed. Tina Fey isn’t that funny, either.)

The show’s musical guests have lately been as embarrassing and boring as the alleged comedy. That made it especially refreshing to see Pearl Jam on SNL this weekend. By reminding us what an unassuming and rocking bunch they are, Eddie Vedder and Co. simultaneously showed up recent musical guests and staked their claim as still-relevant elder statesmen of rock.

Saturday Night Live has always been of two minds about musical guests. Fore every Paul Simon, R.E.M. or Neil Young, there was a Fine Young Cannibals, Spice Girls or Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians.

Lately though, these distinctions have become moot. Whether Ashlee Simpson positively shocking the world by getting caught lip syncing, or the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas singing drunk (or high, I couldn’t tell which) instead of on key, the music performances are now just another reason to see what Marc Summers is up to on the Food Network.

Blame it on an increasingly image-conscious industry; the poor translation of hip-hop on live TV; or what New Republic critic David Hajdu calls the MySpace effect — “some bands have built ardent followings so quickly that audiences know the words to their songs before the musicians know how to play them.”

On Saturday, Pearl Jam showed there’s another way. Treading the line between U2’s overbearing showmanship and Fall Out Boy’s unintentional messiness, they were nothing more than five guys who like to rock out.

Guitarist Stone Gossard wore a plain T-shirt and did a goofy chicken-neck groove. Fellow axe-man Mike McCready spun in equally goofy robotic half-turns. And Vedder let loose with some scruffy yelps, his voice neither dying like Casablancas’ nor hiding behind face-saving effects like the Killers’ Brandon Flowers. The songs were pretty good — nothing amazing, but the solid, hard-charging mashup of punk and post-punk that’s been a hallmark of latter-day Pearl Jam. Like its appearance, the band doesn’t care much about following trends or adding sonic gloss.

Of course, such studied nonchalance can itself be a cultivated image. But Pearl Jam takes its image seriously: challenging Ticketmaster a decade ago; releasing entire tours on CD; pushing abortion rights and voter registration; avoiding the gossip pages; bringing Sonic Youth, the Buzzcocks, Sleater-Kinney and Ben Harper on tour.

If all that’s just a pose, it’s one we could use more of in today’s celebrity-driven entertainment world. And it sure makes for more interesting Saturday nights.

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