Critical Response on Society

“If all of this influence that this part of the country has and this musical scene has- if it doesn’t do anything with it, that would be the tragedy. ” That’s Eddie Vedder talking about Seattle and the way of thinking that arose in a place laden with culture by the subgenre Grunge at that time, 1996. Moreover, the quote explains the critical stance taken in the song “Society” written by Jerry Hanan but performed by Vedder and Hanan in 2007 for the soundtrack of the movie “Into the wild” directed by Sean Penn.

The context of the song formed it’s theme as, in a different time or place or language or for a different audience, the outcome would most likely have differed. “Society” echoes the values of Jon Krakauer, protagonist of “Into the wild, whose diary entries are the basis of the film. These are transcendalist views on a society that is incapable of working in harmony with nature and thereby giving one no option but to exile oneself to freedom in nature. Both Hanan and Vedder have a tendency to reflect on these ideals making the song all the more suiting to the film, whose viewers are also the primary audience for the track.

The English language and free speech in the USA allowed Vedder to write as he wished without constraints. “We have a greed with which we have agreed” is wordplay at its finest, which could not have been expressed so poetically and still loaded with meaning in a language like German, which often just isn’t as viable for musical purposes. The time and place were also vital in the use of language as it is clearly critical: “Society, you’re a crazy breed. In a country with censorship or where opposing the governmental system is punishable like in Soviet Russia of the mid-20th century, a lyricist would not have been able to express oneself so openly and would have had to rely more on symbols, imagery and metaphors to get their message across. Even though limited in quantity, literary devices were used with quality like in “Your thoughts begin to bleed” which is a metaphor for the disability of his society to think of the consequences of their ignorant behaviour and at the same time is a hyperbole with personification.

If the song hadn’t been written in a country currently plagued by consumerism and greed, the theme discussed would not have the contemporary relevance it does to listeners in the Anglophonic world. Just the way the USA is famed for its decadence, it is also a well-known place for critics of this behaviour. Had this been written in the 1960’s or now, as long as still in America or Western Europe, the final result wouldn’t have varied much.

The stance taken in the text is one that’s already visible in texts like “Walking” by Henry David Thoreau in 1854, who happened to also be an inspiration to Jon Krakauer. A quote from “Walking” that effectively portrays these values is “In Wilderness is the preservation of the World”. Proven by this is, that time does play a role even though at numerous times in the past of the USA, when a social class shared such views, like the Beat Generation, a similar text could have been written.

Those who chose to indulge in the movie also had a certain expectation of the soundtrack, that of it fitting in and expressing the same views. This gave Vedder’s song on the soundtrack a certain expectation from the audience he had to fulfil, which he clearly did. The point being though, had this been a movie created to portray different ideals like the life of a banker who is pleased with capitalism, then the author would have had to adapt accordingly if he still wanted his piece accompanying the images fed to the viewer and being accepted.

Even though the song is only an adaptation of Vedder, its message isn’t open to a wide-range of interpretations and only the perception of it will vary from reader to reader. The general beliefs presented can’t be seen as something different, no matter what one’s background may be, than what is portrayed but the reaction might affect the understanding of the text. A dismissive attitude is taken by the singer (in first-person) who later on in the song isolates himself by referring to society first as “we” and later on as “you” and singing “I hope you’re not lonely without me” in the chorus.

Even though this song has clear values of anti-commercialism: “When you want more than you have”, it explains itself and isn’t meant to be offensive to anyone: “I hope you’re not angry if I disagree” but still carries the intention to open our eyes making it all the more effective. The text would have been written differently in another place or time because the theme might have been irrelevant; in a different language it may have been limited in its poetical depth or by censorship and another audience with other expectations could have also created a completely different song.

This shows the extent to which language and cultural context have moulded this text to make it what it is. Variance in one of the factors, place, time, language and audience, could have produced different lyrics with other values but as some places share similar beliefs around the same time, a piece like this could be produced elsewhere at some other time for a different audience too.


  1. Vedder, Eddie. Interview for Hype! Magazine (1996)
  2. Vedder, Eddie. “Society”(2007)
  3. http://www. britannica. com/EBchecked/topic/593225/Henry-David-Thoreau
  4. Thoreau, Henry David

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