Lifting the curse: Pearl Jam's "Alive" and "Bushleaguer" and the marketplace of meanings

Kristine Weglarz

University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States

[0.1] Abstract—In tracing how Pearl Jam consciously and unconsciously create their fans by their actions, I argue that work and fandom of the band are synonymous for fans who wish to become producers in a metaphorical marketplace of fandom. I use theories of fandom to examine and explain two important (and related) phenomena: first, the relationship between fans and musicians and the creation, adoption, and promotion of a sphere in which fans themselves can becomes producers as well as consumers; and second, the backlash of fans against musicians endorsing a particular political orientation through their compositions and performances. In particular, I focus on that group of Pearl Jam fans who took issue with the band's public disapproval of George W. Bush during their 2003 tour, but whose opposition to the band's position cannot be explained by ideological differences or a belief that music and politics are spheres that should not overlap. Instead, these fans oppose a shift they perceive in the band's attitude toward a democratic exchange of meanings, an important way for Pearl Jam fans to become producers rather than just consumers. As a result, the backlash from these fans, while sparked by Pearl Jam's anti-Bush live performance of "Bushleaguer," is due more to a disjunction between the band's long-term endorsement of democratic and participatory politics and what the fans saw a shift toward counterdemocratic prescriptive politics.

[0.2] Keywords—Audience; Cultural studies; Fan community; Performance; Politics; Popular music

Weglarz, Kristine. 2011. "Lifting the Curse: Pearl Jam's 'Alive' and 'Bushleaguer' and the Marketplace of Meanings." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 7. doi:10.3983/twc.2011.0254.

1. Pearl Jam: The Denver incident and Riot Act

[1.1] Pearl Jam's summer 2003 tour began shortly after the commencement of the Iraq war. The band's previous tour, in 2000, had been fiercely political, and in 2003 they were on the road promoting an equally political album; the context of war provided an opportunity for the band to speak out against the attacks on Iraq, while precariously balancing their desire to speak out with the need to offer an entertaining show to their fans. Immediately after the tour's first stop in Denver and the premiere of the costumed, masked theatrics of the song "Bushleaguer," a damning lyrical commentary on George W. Bush from their 2002 release Riot Act, newspapers reported an unusually critical fan reaction to the performance:

[1.2] [Fan] Kim Mueller…told Denver's Rocky Mountain News: "I wasn't sure if it was really happening…We looked at each other and realized he really did have George Bush's head on a stick and was waving it in the air, then slammed it to the ground and stepped on it." Fan Keith Zimmerman added: "It was like he decapitated someone in a primal ritual and stuck their head on a stick." (Brown 2003)

[1.3] In this article, I argue, through an examination of fan culture and the VH1 show Storytellers, that being a Pearl Jam fan necessitates working to determine the meanings of songs, rather than other ways in which consumers might become producers. This is a (perhaps unintended) consequence of the band's deliberate decision to avoid most promotional venues and to illustrate their discontent with the ticketing options available to touring artists and their fans by shunning Ticketmaster, in addition to their larger and underlying opposition to the corporate structures currently shaping the music industry. Given this matrix, fans of the band have found ways, albeit limited, to become both consumers and producers of the Pearl Jam mediapheme, those summaries or shorthand versions of the visual and audio elements of the band produced for the explicit purpose of being disseminated and consumed by the media (note 1). Further, Pearl Jam's democratic approach to meanings conflicts with their ventures into party politics; in particular, they conflict with the live performance of "Bushleaguer," and this conflict over the democratic give-and-take of meanings is at the root of the fan backlash.

[1.4] My project uses the transformation of Pearl Jam's "Alive" to rebut the passive-audience model and explore the encoding/decoding model outlined by Stuart Hall (1980), in terms of the affective potential of oppositional and negotiated readings and interpretations of texts by both audiences and performers in a musical context. In particular, I link Hall's model to the fan and media backlash against Pearl Jam's performance of "Bushleaguer," in that the band radically rejected both the dialectical relationship they had established with their fan base and their fans' deliberate efforts to engage the band, which are demonstrated by the renegotiation of the meaning of "Alive" (which I will address later) and the common activity of requesting particular songs at shows. I further argue that the band invites Hall's oppositional and negotiated meanings by refusing to make music videos, and that those videos that do exist allow for a multiplicity of interpretations by their audience. This multiplicity is in direct contrast with "Bushleaguer" and its performance, which strongly asserts a preferred reading, presenting a problem for fans who are used to actively negotiating meanings and being encouraged by the band to do so.

2. VH1 Storytellers and MTV Unplugged: Constructing authenticity

[2.1] Storytellers is a series on the MTV-affiliated network VH1. Bearing some pronounced similarities to MTV's long-standing and commercially successful series Unplugged, Storytellers provides artists with a venue for video performances that go beyond the standard music videos on MTV and other VH1 shows. Such videos are short and often feature lip-synched lyrics and a staged drama or narrative that may or may not include the artists as characters. Storytellers, however, presents live performances and allows artists to discuss both the writing and composing of songs and the meanings the songs had for them as they were composing them.

[2.2] MTV's Unplugged, like VH1's Storytellers, spotlights live performances. Pearl Jam appeared on Unplugged in 1992 and on Storytellers in 2006, making these shows important to my argument.

[2.3] As the Storytellers title suggests, the artists are not there merely to perform their songs. They are expected to use the program as a means to give their audience and fans the "real story" behind the creation and recording of particularly poignant and memorable songs. Pearl Jam's longevity as a band might make them seem to fit comfortably with the artists who had appeared on previous Storytellers episodes, but their appearance on the show contrasts with their ethos-driven choice, for years prior, to avoid appearing on either MTV or VH1.

3. An unhappy marriage: Pearl Jam and MTV/VH1

[3.1] Pearl Jam's relationship with each network has been at best ambivalent and at worst antagonistic. They did record a session of Unplugged in 1992, after the release of their debut album, Ten, but since then they have largely eschewed both music videos and music award shows for a variety of reasons. Their 2006 Storytellers appearance, in this context, is much more an anomaly than the rule for the band. It reflects a new openness to the networks as a means of distributing their material, particularly when seen in light of their effort to return to the music video format after 8 years.

[3.2] One of Pearl Jam's best-known songs, "Alive," was featured in their 2006 Storytellers appearance. The show allowed a telling and introspective look at "Alive," their initial commercial success, and at their decision to continue to play the song throughout their touring years. During the broadcast, Eddie Vedder relayed to the audience what I will call the curse narrative:

[3.3] The song "Alive" has been transformed through the years and it's not so much how we play it, or the arrangement, but more the interpretation. So, the original story being told in the song is that of a young man being made aware of some shocking truths. One was that the guy he believed to be his father, while growing up, was not. And the hard truth number two was that the real father had passed away a few years before…I mean, the guy was me but I barely knew me then…so he takes all this news as a curse…the "I'm still alive." So, cut to years later and we're playing to larger and larger audiences and they're responding to this chorus in a way that you never thought…The audience changed the meaning of these words, and when they sing "I'm still alive" it's like they're celebrating…when they changed the meaning of those words, they lifted the curse. (Pearl Jam 2006)

[3.4] By "the curse," both Vedder and I mean the original motivation for his writing of the song: the burden of having to continue to live after a series of life-shattering events. Vedder had discussed this narrative publicly prior to his Storytellers appearance, as early as 1993 in a Rolling Stone interview:

[3.5] Everybody writes about it like it's a life-affirmation thing—I'm really glad about that […] It's a great interpretation. But "Alive" is…it's torture […] The story of the song is that a mother is with a father and the father dies. It's an intense thing because the son looks just like the father. The son grows up to be the father, the person that she lost […] He's still dealing with love, he's still dealing with the death of his father. All he knows is "I'm still alive"—those three words, that's totally out of burden […] But I'm still alive. (Pearl Jam 1993) (note 2)

[3.6] While the song originated as a catharsis, on Storytellers Vedder describes how audiences have lifted the curse for him, turning "I'm still alive" from a lament into a celebration of life and the ability to survive the traumas that life throws at us. He suggests that it is not the repeated playing of the song that has led to this narrative shift, but the audience's reaction to it. The audience's oppositional or negotiated reading of the song served to change its meaning not just for them, but for its author as well.

[3.7] Stuart Hall's (1980) model of encoding/decoding provides insight into the process by which viewers and fans make meaningful their reception of music videos. The linear transmission model of communication suggests that if barriers to communication could be eliminated, the message inherent in a text would be received as its producers and broadcasters intended. In direct contrast, Hall's encoding/decoding model suggests that audience members decode texts (in this case, audiovisual ones) and create three kinds of readings or interpretations: oppositional, negotiated, and dominant. Hall suggests that when audience members read a media text (whether literally, in the case of written text, or by viewing a visual text) and interpret it against the grain or contrary to how television broadcasters, producers, and the majority of other audience members do, they are creating a negotiated or even oppositional reading in lieu of the dominant. Thus, the linear transmission model categorically understands negotiated and oppositional readings as misunderstandings, whereas Hall sees many (but certainly not all) variant readings as the products not of a failed linear communication but of the audience's decoding the text to uncover meanings that differ from the encoded or dominant reading. John Fiske (1985) has successfully applied a Hall-like approach to television.

[3.8] Hall's model assumes an audience that is active, not passive. The situation becomes a bit more complex when dealing with music videos as an encoded and decoded text. Within any particular music video, there are at least two texts to be read by an audience, and often three: the visual, the melodic or aural, and the lyrical if the song has words. Further, the concurrence of melody, visuals, and lyrics itself creates a synergistic text that is also open to interpretation. Thus, producers encode a music video with a dominant or preferred meaning using several individual texts that work in tandem to reinforce each other. For instance, many music videos feature a narrative that parallels a dominant reading and acts out the lyrics of a song, while others make less direct or sustained visual references to the lyrics. Still others may feature a live visual recording of the band performing the song. Some videos combine all of these elements. In all cases, music videos offer viewers a new form of text to decode, beyond that offered by the music alone. Further complicating this model is Jonathan Gray's (2003) assertion that the attitudes of the decoders of media texts are relevant. Gray's work on antifans and nonfans highlights both the failure to consider how encoding and decoding function outside of the context of fandom and the necessity of doing so. While I focus here on fans and the processes of fandom, Gray's work illustrates the importance of affective investments by the nonfan, a point I will return to later in discussing responses to "Bushleaguer."

[3.9] Music videos, texts composed of other texts, can have multiple domains of meaning, corresponding to their visual, aural, and lyrical elements and the synergy between them. In essence, as Straw (1993) suggests, viewers can read a music video text according to a preferred meaning that considers all of the video's textual elements. Alternatively, they can, for example, negotiate a preferred or dominant reading of the visual elements alone, yet simultaneously read the lyrical and melodic components of the video against the grain, resulting in negotiated or oppositional readings.

[3.10] Scholars and critics must not assume that such simultaneous but different readings are easy or without boundaries. The problem is that part of that sociocultural matrix that audiences bring to the table when decoding music videos includes a privileging of the visual over the aural (Straw 1993, 3). In the case of music videos, this suggests that viewers will be more likely to take for granted the images and narratives visually presented to them than the narratives and meanings that they themselves create through their decoding of the lyrical and melodic elements of the video. According to Will Straw, early scholarship on music videos suggested that music video itself served to reinforce the visual over the aural and the experience of music (1993, 3). In the same way that body language serves to contradict or reinforce what we are saying, the receiver or decoder tends to trust the visual over the aural, particularly when a discrepancy between visual and aural is detected.

[3.11] This belief has led some acts, including Pearl Jam, to give up making videos either permanently or for extended periods. Pearl Jam did not release videos between 1993 and 1998, and only sparingly after that, despite releasing two of their best-selling albums during this hiatus, Vs. and Vitalogy. One of their reasons for not making videos after Ten (among many publicly stated) has been their belief, in line with Straw's argument, that they tend to overdetermine fans' interpretation of songs. Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament said, "Ten years from now…I don't want people to remember our songs as videos" (Pearl Jam 1993). Eddie Vedder reiterated Ament's concerns and stated,

[3.12] Before music videos first came out, you'd listen to a song with headphones on, sitting in a beanbag chair with your eyes closed, and you'd come up with your own visions, these things that came from within. Then all of a sudden, sometimes even the very first time you heard a song, it was with these visual images attached, and it robbed you of any form of self-expression. (Neely 1998, 113)

[3.13] They are not alone in launching this critique; as Will Straw noted, this debate proliferated during the early years of scholarship on music videos. In Stuart Hall's language, the video portion of a music video functions as part of that sociocultural matrix through which a viewer reads and negotiates meanings, rather than being itself a text to be negotiated. The video then overdetermines the lyrical elements of a music video, making it difficult to read in a negotiated or oppositional way. Similarly, John Fiske's (1987) idea of semiotic democracy works to explain the potential for multiple and parallel readings of texts. Thus, the refusal to make videos because they overdetermine meanings for an audience may suggest an adherence to the linear transmission model: the creators assume that the lyrics to a particular song have an evident meaning and that adding a visual element may merely confuse or cloud this meaning.

[3.14] Pearl Jam does not believe that their lyrics, on the whole, contain some sort of self-evident meaning that may be misinterpreted by their audience. Instead, their refusal to release music videos is an enactment of their desire for fans to generate their own meanings and interpretations of songs, untainted by any visual element. This refusal has allowed Pearl Jam to constitute their fan base in a very particular and specific way that shapes the nature of fans' interaction with the band. In attempting to shape their audience through limiting access, Pearl Jam attempted to shape their audience and manage their image by limiting their production of music videos. In contrast, U2, in their Zoo TV phase, attempted to use the same mass media, in excess, to simultaneously overdetermine and undermine their image such that it became difficult for fans and critics to label the band in any sustainable way (Johnson 2004). By avoiding music videos, Pearl Jam attempted to avoid overdetermined interpretations of songs. At the same time, however, their decision to not make music videos suggests they may be uncomfortable with the idea of multiple interpretations of songs altogether. This creates a tension between the democratic aspirations of Pearl Jam and their desire for control.

4. Developing fan culture and fan bases through "work"

[4.1] Instead of suggesting that the actual musical content of albums declined with each album release, I want to suggest that Pearl Jam increasingly and deliberately limited what it meant to be a consuming fan, in order to manage both their public persona and the manner in which they derive their income. In short, it became harder to be a fan of Pearl Jam for reasons unrelated to the musical content of their work. Since there were no promotional videos and few interviews, potential fans found it hard to discover the band other than through radio play. Current but passive or occasional fans encountered the same frustrations. If you wanted to visually connect with the band, you had to see them live, rather than enjoying 3- to 4-minute videos of their current releases rotating on music television. It is within the context of these shifts that the "Bushleaguer" narrative can and should be read as distinct from that of "Alive."

[4.2] As previously stated, Pearl Jam chose to not release videos for their second album, Vs., despite the multiplatinum sales of their first album. Vs., while not promoted through music videos, went on to set long-held records for the most copies sold during the first week after release (Boelert 1994). Vitalogy, their third album, also sold well, but the numbers suggest a declining trend from Ten onward. Pearl Jam's fan base was declining.

[4.3] Even their lyrics were not always readily available to potential fans, particularly of songs on albums released after their debut, Ten. Pearl Jam included liner notes with lyrics for most of their albums, but these lyrics are often radically different from the ones recorded on the album, or are for songs not included on it. Sometimes Pearl Jam omitted lyrics entirely. For example, the liner notecards included in Pearl Jam's 1996 release No Code feature cards for "In My Tree," "Present Tense," and "I'm Open" that give the titles of the tracks but contain no lyrics.

[4.4] The official Pearl Jam fan club, the Ten Club, includes lyrics in a list of things not available through the fan club, stating that the "only available" lyrics are those "already published in the albums…For more detailed lyrics, headphones are recommended" (Ten Club 1999). Further, Vedder has a penchant for mumbled and unenunciated singing. It is thus nearly impossible to figure out what the lyrics to several songs actually are.

[4.5] On top of Pearl Jam's dearth of self-promotion and deliberate ambiguity about lyrics, it became increasingly difficult to see them live. Live performance is one of the few ways fans can gain a visual image to correlate with the music. Not only does the high demand make it difficult to buy tickets for a commercially successful act such as Pearl Jam, but the band's widely publicized battle with Ticketmaster made it almost impossible for some fans to see the band live (note 3). Some were unable to travel to venues unaffiliated with Ticketmaster, and Pearl Jam's parallel system of ticket distribution had problems of its own. Its infrastructure could not handle the demand, leading to complaints from fans about tickets lost in the mail, never arriving, or arriving late. In 1994, Pearl Jam canceled their summer tour, allegedly because of the difficulty of distributing tickets.

[4.6] The lack of videos and promotional interviews, the deliberate lyrical ambiguity, and the difficulty of seeing the band live: these factors shaped Pearl Jam's fan base radically over the band's career. Pearl Jam created conditions that required fans to be devoted, active, and engaged, working at their fannishness, rather than remaining passive, occasional fans. The audience that was cultivated by Pearl Jam's demands and the fans' willingness to respond is, in fact, a taste culture: an "interpretive community with shared preferences, dislikes and criteria for good and bad taste" (Kuipers 2006, 360).

[4.7] I contrast this fan work with the type described by Constance Penley (1992) in her essay "Feminism, Psychoanalysis and Popular Culture." Penley's essay examines the genre of slash (homoerotic) literature involving Star Trek characters, produced by a group of Star Trek fans. While superficially the groups of fans share many similarities, a few crucial differences change the status and meaning of the work done by each group to remain a part of fandom. Among Star Trek fans, the work (or leisure) involved in remaining a fan is primarily knowledge of the Star Trek canon. Conventions also serve as a means to meet and mingle with other Star Trek fans. Like Pearl Jam fandom, Star Trek fandom generally invites polarities of pleasure, so many fans fall into the very productive and active category Penley describes while few casually watch any of the Star Trek series. Both Pearl Jam and Star Trek create and invite polarities of consumers: on the one hand, those who generate the sort of fandom Penley described, and on the other, nonfans, with few who fall in between these extremes.

[4.8] The difference I want to address is fans' ability to not participate in these actions and still remain fans. Penley reports consumers and producers of Star Trek slash as saying that finding slash was like finding a piece that had been missing from their fannishness. Slash fiction, for them, fills a void left unaddressed by other forms of fan activity, such as Star Trek conventions. While these slash fans described the literature they produced as addressing a need, Star Trek fandom and what it means to be a Trekkie, even a female Trekkie, does not in any way depend on involvement with the production or reading of slash literature. Although many Trek fans feel that a lack of slash literature leaves the feminine voice unaddressed, slash still represents a small proportion of the means available for consumers to, in turn, produce objects and meanings by decoding (and then reencoding) texts of their own.

[4.9] The corresponding case is less true for Pearl Jam fans. As I have discussed, Pearl Jam's efforts to radically redefine themselves and reconstitute their fan base drastically limit the ways that fans can produce texts that can in turn be decoded. Up until Pearl Jam's summer 2000 tour, fans shared and traded bootleg recordings of Pearl Jam's performances in the form of cassettes and, later on, CDs. This was a practice both tolerated and endorsed by Pearl Jam when many artists were cracking down on unauthorized duplications of their performances and recordings. As long as the bootlegs were being traded rather than sold, Pearl Jam even facilitated their production. Small personal recording devices were permitted into shows, and fans were instructed, through Pearl Jam's official Web site and the Ten Club newsletter, in what to do if the security at venues did not want to allow them. Beginning with the tour of 2000, Pearl Jam has sold soundboard recordings of their live shows, killing the market for homemade bootlegs (whether intended to be legitimately traded or sold for profit) without changing their long-standing policies on the recording of live shows.

[4.10] Largely because of the work involved in maintaining fan status, which may be too much for many music aficionados, Pearl Jam fans' productive capacities are limited to creating meanings themselves and having those meanings taken up by other fans, or even (as happened with "Alive") taken up and redistributed by the band. The VH1 Storytellers appearance demonstrates that fan work includes the creation of negotiated and oppositional readings. Pearl Jam endorse a more democratic and participatory element in the cycle of production, one that involves fans in ways that make their productive elements matter. Thus, the audience can alter a song's meaning even for its author. Vedder's discussion of "Alive" on Storytellers illustrates that both Pearl Jam and this crafted persona of an audience have a role in the production and consumption of meanings. I parallel this notion of the democratic use and creation of meanings with Fiske's (1987) notion of a semiotic democracy, in which fans' ability to negotiate the meanings of texts (and the band's encouragement of their doing so) in ways that both give fans a voice and make the musical texts personally meaningful is a good in itself. For this reason, fandom says more to, and does more for, the audience than the object of fans' affection: as Henry Jenkins suggests, "fandom celebrates not exceptional texts but rather exceptional readings" (qtd. in Sandvoss 2005, 829).

[4.11] Because Pearl Jam limits access to the band, this negotiation of meaning takes place in the live performance setting rather than though music videos. Genealogies of new media suggest that interactivity, the blurring of lines between audience and author and the creation of a push-pull relationship with the text by the audience and author, was highly privileged by the ancient Greeks through the medium of live theater (Shefrin 2004). The live performance, and attendance at that live performance, is crucial. While it is possible for mix tapes and CDs to be produced by fans using the official bootlegs, such production removes the crucial element. Under the traditional bootleg arrangement, someone had to have attended the show as an audience member, rather than a member of the sound crew, for the initial recording to be created. The nature of recordings now is very different from what it was when soundboard recordings were not commercially available. The main abstract commodity produced and taken up by Pearl Jam is meanings, as demonstrated by the VH1 Storytellers discussion of "Alive." This relationship between audience, text, and author, embodied in fandom, reworks Daniel Cavicchi's idea that "fans always have the feeling that Bruce [Springsteen] is reading their minds because 'their minds' are active elements in constructing and interpreting the music" (qtd. in Sandvoss 2005, 832–33).

[4.12] Pearl Jam fans must produce meanings rather than tangible objects, not just to remain fans and propagate fan culture, but also to contribute to a more democratic distribution of meanings in this limited context. In light of this, both "Bushleaguer" and the band's appearance on Storytellers may pose a paradox. On the one hand, Storytellers serves to make explicit to fans both the value and the necessity of their meaning-making activities. On the other hand, the show is premised on the idea that the "true" meaning or context of a song or album can be communicated to both the immediate and the mediated audience, which is precisely the point at which the "Bushleaguer" incident comes into focus.

5. The political paradox

[5.1] What I am highlighting here is the creation of a problematic paradox for both Pearl Jam and their fans, the consequences of which extend to Pearl Jam's involvement in party politics and the band's use of the live performance venue to heighten awareness of the importance of political participation and of the band's (in particular, Vedder's) partisan stance. The paradox here is that Pearl Jam both endorses and acknowledges audience participation in the creation of meanings and make an effort not to stifle it. Yet at the same time, their political endorsements and the means they use to deliver them violate the implicit pact between band and audience and restrict the ownership of meaning, in a context in which fans have fewer and fewer avenues for creating a participatory fandom outside of this exchange of meanings over lyrics. An example of this is the live performance of "Bushleaguer," a track from their 2002 release Riot Act and a pointed, overt criticism of George W. Bush. This example is particularly poignant because of the backlash the band faced from the very fan culture they endorsed and made possible, in addition to backlashes from those uninvolved in this fan culture. It is tempting to conclude that the band was punished by fans for their political beliefs alone, but I argue instead that the background of this backlash was a very prominent clash between the existing relationship between band and audience over meanings and the relationship between them that was endorsed by "Bushleaguer" (video 1).

Video 1. Pearl Jam, video clip of live performance of "Bushleaguer" (Arnhem, the Netherlands, August 29, 2006).

[5.2] I began this essay with a description of some fans' reaction to the "Bushleaguer" performance. While I will attempt to describe the performance accurately and colorfully, no account will substitute for actually witnessing it. The music commences, and before Vedder begins to speak or sing, he emerges from backstage in an ill-fitting blazer, carrying a bottle of wine and wearing a kitschy rubber George W. Bush mask. While masked, Vedder alternates between Michael Jackson's and Madonna's signature dances, the Moonwalk and Vogue, and then starts into the lyrics. When the mask comes off and is placed on the microphone stand, the real show begins. Vedder uses the mask in various ways during performances of "Bushleaguer," using it as a makeshift cigarette holder, forcing it to drink wine, and occasionally simulating foreplay with the mask and microphone stand. One way or another, the performance ends with the mask on the stage floor.

[5.3] I propose that "Bushleaguer" posed a challenge to Pearl Jam's democratic approach to meanings because it was not open to the democratic understanding and negotiation of meaning that other songs in their catalog were permitted. In the band's view, the backlash against "Bushleaguer" was due to a "misunderstanding," and hence a failure of the transmission model of communication, which did not function as they had intended. Ultimately, the larger Pearl Jam narrative of the democratic negotiation of meanings, which is linked to democratic politics, is in conflict with the prescriptive, antidemocratic narrative of "Bushleaguer." This is underscored, as Jonathan Gray (2003) illustrates, by the strong affective investments these antifans, who were formerly fans, still possess, which they express when viewing or listening to the song. The fact that the performance was something of a deal breaker, causing many fans to abandon their fandom, did not result in their quiet literal or metaphorical departure from the discussion; rather, it incited discussion.

[5.4] First, we must recognize that visual theatrics are more powerfully prescriptive of meaning than aural ones. In rejecting music videos containing narratives and opting to either make videos featuring live performances, such as were shown on Storytellers, or not make them at all, Pearl Jam attempted both to reconstitute their fan base (essentially, by reducing its size) as a means to reassert some control over their mediated image and to communicate openness to a dialectical construction of meaning. "Bushleaguer" might have been more at home in U2's Zoo TV tour, and considerable parallels are visible between Vedder's Bush alter ego and the multiple personae Bono employed; both singers used them to restructure their media presence and simultaneously parody their status as media(ted) icons (Johnson 2004). The sharp contrast "Bushleaguer" presents with the rest of the show increases its spectacle and makes it more comparable to a music video than an element of live performance. It is its function as a haphazard stand-in for music videos that gives "Bushleaguer" its antidemocratic and prescriptive status so out of step with the usual collective negotiation of meaning.

[5.5] Second, when "Bushleaguer" received a particularly scornful response at a Uniondale, New York, show, the band discussed the reaction on a Buffalo, New York, radio station (Pearl Jam 2003). Mike McCready, the lead guitarist, said that because of this negative response, the band would not play "Bushleaguer" live again. In their defense, he said that he hoped fans would not "misunderstand the meaning behind the song." However, the band resumed playing "Bushleaguer" only a month or so after McCready said this. Reacting to "Bushleaguer" is one way for fans and consumers to become producers despite the many barriers in their way. Since "Bushleaguer" contains a rare but discordant prescriptive political element, its rejection by fans serves as a surrogate for the more familiar (and democratic) dialogue over meanings.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] In sum, the problem is not that fans necessarily disagree with Pearl Jam and Vedder's anti-Bush stance; it is that the theatrical "Bushleaguer" presumes that the band has authority over the meanings and interpretations of the song, particularly its political thrust. This lack of narrative coherence and fidelity to the larger constitutive narrative evolving and involving Pearl Jam fans suggested their last course of action to restore the democratic dialectic of meanings between performers and audience: rejection of both the prescriptive narrative and "Bushleaguer," the means to this end.

[6.2] As I have argued, to be a Pearl Jam fan is to carry out a particular kind of work involving the negotiation of meanings. To engage as a fan with the notoriously media-unfriendly band is to participate in this semiotic democracy, as happened in the evolution of "Alive." The relationship between fans and Pearl Jam became strained, and the band became less willing to welcome fans as collaborators in meaning making, with the introduction of "Bushleaguer" and its prescriptive performance. Thus, we can see the fan backlash against "Bushleaguer" as more than just political protest: these are fans unhappy with the loss of their role as participants.

7. Notes

1. "The mediapheme is the most common unit of communication in mass-mediated iconographic modes of remembering…Mediaphemes are quick encapsulations; once a story, person, or event is translated into mediapheme form, it ricochets through the channels of mass mediation with ease. Mediaphemes may become icons, but they rarely do; they tend to last as long as a story, issue, or person is 'hot'" (Baty 1995, 60).

2. In this quotation, ellipses in square brackets indicate editorial elisions; ellipses outside them are original.

3. In 1994, Pearl Jam asked the Department of Justice to investigate what they deemed monopolistic practices by Ticketmaster that prevented Pearl Jam from keeping ticket prices below $20. These practices were reinforced by exclusivity contracts with venues and promoters who, under penalty of litigation, had to honor Ticketmaster's refusal to comply with Pearl Jam's request to limit service charges to no more than 10 percent. The Department of Justice ruled in favor of Ticketmaster, and consequently Pearl Jam's 1994 tour had to be canceled. The band resumed their relationship with Ticketmaster in 1998 after several largely unsuccessful attempts to tour without using its services.

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