Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Guided Tour of Riot Act: Ghost


Ghost was the latest in a long line of Pearl Jam’s ‘departure’ songs—musical escapes about escape. Normally these are combative, uplifting songs. The act of fleeing is a moment of triumph, a chance to leave the emptiness, violence, confusion, and darkness behind you. Ghost is different, reflected in the music, the lyrics, and the vocals.

Musically, these escape songs usually have a hard driving rhythm to it. RVM has a propulsive force, Given to Fly soars, and MFC actually sounds like someone gunning an engine, a prelude to an upcoming freedom. Ghost sounds like an engine dying—it’s giving everything it can but it can’t quite climb the impossibly steep hill in front of it. It knows it has to keep trying but as it tries it grows less and less confident that it is going to make it. Ghost is the sound of freedom grinding to a halt. Even the solos (one of the highlights on the record for me) sounds less like a vehicle taking off and more like one spinning its wheels in the mud, inflicting engine damage but afraid to stop (listen for the music coming out of the musical bridge especially). Eddie’s typical Riot Act vocals add to the effect. This is the sound of someone exhausted from all the running, utterly lacking confidence that he can escape what he is running from, or that he can get somewhere safe. What he flees is simply too big, too expansive, so much more powerful than him.

Lyrically this is certainly one of the darkest songs in PJ’s catalogue, if not the darkest. The imagery consists of image after image of something giving up, fading away, losing hope. The title Ghost is aptly chosen in that regard, and the first image in the song ‘the mind is gray’ captures the bleakness of it all. This is more than just an internal battle though. He’s responding to external forces (the city, the news, larger social forces) as much as he is to anything personal or internal. The world around him is losing its vibrancy, its color—fading to gray (rather than black—there is no destruction here, instead Ghost is a song about enervation, a rapidly shrinking vitality). He looks for love to pull him through (love of self, love of others, love of society or humanity writ large) and despite the assertions in Love Boat Captain it is of little use here. It’s too far gone—and while he works for it, digs for it, at the end of the day he’s stuck in his hole alone. At this point he is willing to give up, to accept the false peace that comes from hiding (a strong departure from the message of the vast majority of their catalogue) but even this is something he’s not like to find (one can never hold).

The chorus plays off of the tension between these hopes and these failures. He declares that he’s going to escape, and references RVM and Given To Fly (driving, flying), and looks to find something new, something he’s missed before, something to hold on to and be his lodestone as he tries and find his way out. But again, the vocals give away the conclusion of the song. He is trying to convince himself but he no longer believes.

The second verse reminds us that the isolation is much larger than just some kind of inner self-torture. The TV and the larger institutions that keep us in touch with one another and the world, have betrayed him. The 9-11 connection (and Bush’s response to it) is all over this. The constant drumbeat from the TV is one of suspicion and doubt. Anyone could be a terrorist. No one can be trusted. We are forced to live in fear. People can learn to live with fear, but primarily through solidarity and engagement—by being willing to share that fear with others and confront it together. But if you remember Bush’s post 9-11 message he told us the opposite. We were a nation shocked out of complacency, that was prepared to challenge its old order, to begin to believe in something larger than itself, and to reach out to its fellow citizens in a declaration of solidarity. Instead Bush told us that our greatest contribution to the war on terror was to be suspicious of everyone, to go to the mall (the primary duty of the citizen is his continued participation in the American economy) and leave everything to him. Rather than confront the destruction of our old world view as agents in solidarity with one another we were told by our leadership to retreat into each other, to be afraid, and to shop—to be passive consumers instead of active citizens. We built walls around ourselves to keep the bad things out and look to that new TV, that new computer, that new outfit, that new soap (the sentiment is a good one even if the lyrical choice was poor). We confront our terrifying new world as isolated, confused, adolescents. Not a particularly empowering place to be, and the singer feels it—we’re overloaded with news of events we’re powerless to affect, to weak and insignificant to do anything other than be conscious of our own lack of agency.

The climax of the song tries to put a brave face on this powerlessness. He flees, but doesn’t expect to get anywhere. He leaves his old world, his old friends behind, and claims he won’t miss them, but he doesn’t mean it (compare that line, for example, to the climax of RVM). He claims he’s not in any pain, but then immediately retracts it. The psychological torment, the sense of isolation (the worst feeling in the world for someone who equates freedom with love) is killing him. He takes a brave final stand (bring it on cuz I’m no victim—a line that references both President Bush’s call to Al Quadea to ‘bring it on’ as well as a refusal to allow the events of 9-11 to define him) and prepares to face his uncertain future on his own terms, but his will gives out, almost immediately. The final escape of the song is not found in his freedom, but his spiritual death, as he finds himself dying away as his world, his life, his potential, and his self gray out, fade away, becomes a ghost.     

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