Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Guided Tour of Riot Act: Cropduster


Cropduster is a jaunty little song about our insignificance. If the first 3 songs on Riot Act are about recapturing a feeling of personal agency, Cropduster (a song clearly inspired by Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael series) is a song about embracing our lack of agency. Eddie tries to be casual about it, even revels in it, but in the end this is a song of defeatism, a rationalization away of our own power, and not something to be taken lightly, let alone celebrated.

The song starts with some generic ‘cycle of life’ imagery notable for two things. The vocal melody is really quite nice, even if the actual performance isn’t that moving, and the obsession with death. Rather than emphasize the moment of rebirth the particular lyrics outside of the cycle (every life is falling down/dies to be part of the ground) highlight endings. Even the lyric about returning to life is immediately tempered by the reality of its impending death. A life affirming song this is not. The next verse is no less pessimistic—every life faces death and there is an inevitability in it. At best we can hope that the future may look better than this—maybe something better than who and what we are will grow out of our rot. Again the possibility of something better is there, but it is almost academic at this point. It is hard to believe that he means it

Certainly the pre-chorus and chorus celebrate this. We practice at living lives that make a difference, we practice at exerting some control over our lives, but almost everything is contingent. Our agency is an illusion and we’re at the mercy of larger structural forces and arbitrary power we did not consent to. This is what shapes our world. We are the object, rather than the subject of the system, characters in a story authored by someone else.

The second verse is likely a reminder of this, a veiled (not so thinly in the context of the record) shot at Bush and co (talking to Bush Sr (dad) perhaps?), reminding them that the world is too big for them to simply rearrange to their liking by fiat. He is asking Bush to recognize his own comparative insignificance so that he might do less harm. The consequences of losing sight of our own powerlessness are severe, and not easily undone (this aint’ no book you can close…). A useful message, but one that comes from a place of defeat.

Eddie is, without realizing it, echoing the message of the great social Darwinists from the late 19th century who argued that there is no place for human agency in society and so any attempt to intervene, to challenge the laws of nature, lead to social wrack and ruin. This was an arch-conservative philosophy designed to legitimate doing nothing to challenge the presence of poverty and human misery. The point of Pearl Jam’s music (and Eddie’s left politics in general) is to assert agency, to force the laws of nature and the laws of the market to submit to the needs of man, and not the other way around. A sense of limits is no doubt healthy (re: Bush and Iraq or the environment) but pushing this too far leads to the powerlessness and defeatism that infuses Riot Act. The problem is not necessarily Bush’s ambition or sense of mastery. The problem is that his program was so terrible. Democracy by gunpoint—bad idea. But fighting aids in Africa, hunger at home, preventing hurricanes and aiding their victims—these are good things and either we’re powerless to do anything or we have to recognize that we DO have power over our environment and these larger social forces (at least some) and then the battle involves making sure that we pick the right causes, fight the right fights. Human beings have the potential to do great harm AND great good—and we must not surrender the possibilities of the later in the face of the former. An earlier (and later) Pearl Jam would have recognized this and reflected it in the song, but this was not the space the band was in during 2002. Riot Act remains an ironic title precisely because of the bands refusal to read it.

The song ends on a potentially uplifting note—a reminder that as long as the cycle continues (as long as the moon keeps rolling there's an upside of down) we have the chance to begin again, and these are some of the most animated vocals on the entire record. Riot Act is full of these little moments, but rather than govern the songs they remain asides, and certainly Ghost does not pick up on that potential.


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