Corduroy is the high point of the record, the climax if you’re looking for a happy ending, and the start of the descent into Immortality if you aren’t. It’s also (I think) the most important song in Pearl Jam’s catalogue—their mission statement, if you can put it in those terms. As such there is much more going on here than a diatribe against fame, and limiting it to that does the song (and a great injustice. The Vitalogy booklet offers us a few subtle clues about the song. It’s significant that it shares a page with Pry, to, as the former is essentially the introduction to Corduroy, the passage on nightmares the reality that Corduroy confronts and attempts to transcend. All we have for Corduroy is a picture of Eddie’s teeth, all in bad shape and, as he said in the interview a few pages back, “analogous to my head at the time”. In the same interview he calls it a relationship song but the relationship between an individual and a mass public, an individual who opens himself up for others, and in the process of that exposure loses his humanity. Is that the inevitable price of being an artist, of following a muse? Does it have to end in the exploitation of the artist and the commodification of his work? These are questions running throughout the album, but Corduroy is where they all come together.
The pages that surround Corduroy are worth looking at too. There is the discussion of ‘self-pollution’ and while this is obviously not a song worried about the evils of masturbation, it is worried about the pollution of the soul, of the ways in which we miss how seemingly pleasurable behaviors and experiences gnaw at our humanity and sense of self until we are left, without realizing it, as a shell of the human being we had originally set out to be. The following page has a few paragraphs on the sanctity of child birth, the crime that comes from bringing unwelcome children into the world, the importance of being grounded and at peace before you begin creation, the value of self-knowledge, knowing who you are, where you are going, and why you want to be there. The parallels between these questions and the importance of authenticity and meaningful creation that run through the record should not be too hard to spot.
This section of the booklet ends with Eddie reflecting on the discovery of a dead child, abandoned in a ladies room trash can. There is no judgment in his story, only hope that the soul of the child gets another shot at life, and sympathy for a young girl, alone and in pain, trapped without having anywhere else to go, or anyone else to lean on. No one can face what the girl has to face for her, but someone could have been there to hold her while she does it. These themes will play themselves out during the course of the song.
And of course there is the story of the corduroy jacket—Eddie getting them cheap and then seeing them sold many many times over once he became famous—the jacket symbolic of the problems with image, the artificially of celebrity, the creation of meaningless connections (that dressing like someone famous establishes a meaningful bond) that supplant the real ones.
Corduroy opens with its slow, ominous build, tentative at first but building in power (as if the music is steeling itself for a fight) that crashes into the first verse and its provocative opening lines, delivered with a weary defiance. You wait your entire life for your dreams to come true, but what happens if they arrive tainted? What happens if, by realizing them, you end up losing yourself? You’re left with no choice but to reject everything you ever wanted in the hopes of personal salvation. It’s a devastating step to have to take, but that’s the price the subject is forced to pay. And so Corduroy is a song about purging yourself of those corrupted dreams, of freeing yourself so you can start over. And the details are vague enough (as it the entire record) so that the listener can read their own struggles, their own demons, into the lyrics and the music.
And so moving into the second verse the process of rejection and emancipation begins. The ‘rewards’ that come with playing the game, with subjecting your art and your person to the forces that dehumanize it in the name of profit are simply not worth it. Better to walk than run on their track, better to starve than be forced to subsist on the food they feed you. Better solitude and authentic isolation than the fake intimacy that comes from millions of people knowing the image of you that’s been created and mistaking it for the real thing, burying you in the process.
In the third verse we move back into the Sysphisian/Camusian language of struggle for its own sake. The singer is engaged in a battle with himself, to restore his own humanity, and this will come not from beating your foe, but from rejecting and resisting him. And there is the reminder (he’ll come back to this later) that even if the act is by necessity one you have to engage in alone, you are not the only person in the world dissatisfied with the artificial superficiality of our culture and the way it is destructive of authenticity and meaning. There are others fighting back too (we saw this in Whipping, the way the language moves from personal endurance to a collection of individuals engaged in the same fight)
The song continues with its laundry list of rejection. There is a call to trust your own eyes, your own experiences, your own intuition rather than accept what you’re told. No one else can and should tell you how to live your life or define what matters to you. Their values, regardless of how seductive they may be, need not be yours. It is your humanity that they are trying to buy, and we can never lose sight of the fact that the costs that must be paid will have to be paid by you in the end, and the real you—the one that existed before fame, before the temptation, before the creation of that artificial construct posing as you. The language becomes the language of the slave (or the martyr depending on how charitable you want to be). There is a willingness, almost an insistence, to suffer physically if through that suffering, through that resistance, there is a chance to restore your humanity. Cut up and half dead, paying debts in blood, all in an attempt to find some kind of reset, to turn back the clock—to end up alone like he began. On the surface it sounds like a defeat, but at least once alone he can begin to restore his own humanity, to be a person he is rather than the thing he had become…
We move into the plaintive bridge. Everything has chains, absolutely nothing’s changed. The freedom is illusory—the costs are still there. There is a recognition that life is always going to be a constant struggle to preserve your authenticity, your soul, and your self from the larger forces that will spend the rest of your life alternately seducing you or bludgeoning you into submission. But there is that moment of solidarity that is so important in Pearl Jam’s music—that sense that even if this struggle is ultimately a personal one, one we have to engage in alone, we do not have to be alone while we do it. The world is full of people facing the same demons, fighting the same fights, and they are a source of strength. That’s the power of music, what Eddie fears is being lost and what Vitalogy is in part an effort to save—music’s ability to bridge the distances between people, to restore that sense of solidarity. At its best music reminds us that we are never really alone—that we are part of a shared community and that music is the language that unites us. The artist is a part of this process, but the reward comes not from the money or the fame, but from the chance to be a part of the creation of meaning. When we forget that the music loses its power and the artist loses his soul.
And the lyrics finish with this declaration of emancipation—the realization that what is most valuable in life is the freedom that comes from authenticity, and that if we are willing to suffer for it, to fight for it, this cannot be taken away from us. Our freedom can be given up, but it cannot be stolen. And so the lyrics conclude with the realization that while he has to fight the battle alone, as long as he is willing to fight, he’s already won.This is where the outro music leaves us. It’s the sound of a bitter, difficult, struggle, but at the same time there is a gritty sense of triumph to it. Since then (live) Corduroy has become an independence day celebration, rather than a declaration of war against long odds, because we know how the story ends—or at least that the worst is over and we’ve come through it. But the studio version lacks that celebratory tone because the fight is just beginning (we see this with Alive too) and the happy ending is a long way away, if it even comes at all.