The songs I have narrowed my selection down to with regard to this project are concerned in their entirety with critiquing the complicated and flawed concept, that which is so bluntly denoted by the title of the former. Society, a broad topic to be sure, is host to a plethora of vulnerable angles that can be leveraged by socially conscious artists in the creation of their work; precisely what has been done here by both Eddie Vedder and John Butler in these tracks. While both exhibit strong objection to modern societal elements and bear considerable thematic overlap, they do so in vastly divergent fashion, and in response to variant specifics. Despite differing fairly widely in genre, and wider still in narrative framework, both artists launch rhetorically brilliant and effective affronts towards the common beast.

Society live with Liam Finn (Water on the Road)

Society” was written by Jerry Hannan and covered by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder for the film Into the Wild, a dramatic biographical depiction of the life of Christopher McCandless. McCandless, born into affluence, became disillusioned with the excess inherent in his family’s lifestyle, and that of those around him. Rejecting this, he gives up material possession and begins to live nomadically, hitchhiking and walking across the United States. This renunciate foray culminated in an earnest attempt to live in isolation in the Alaskan wilderness, entirely self sufficient, which ended in his death at a young age. Despite having written multiple entries for the soundtrack of the film, none better reflect the motivation and harrowing nature of McCandless’s journey than Vedder’s cover of Hannan’s “Society”. Presented as a stripped down folk ballad both in this live version as well as the original album recording, Vedder mirrors this same element of rejection of excess seen in the individualist spirit of McCandless. The balanced and straightforward chord progression, and closely matched melody line is ingenious in its stark simplicity, allowing the storytelling a deserved front seat. The vocal delivery, particularly live, is both honest and haunting, not to mention additionally indicative of the song’s message. Lyrically, the piece embodies an even blend of targeted literary devices, namely metaphor and irony, combined with unapologetic criticism. It is a beautiful and cohesive song, given life and purpose by a legendary vocalist and performer, and as if this weren’t reason enough to make it worth talking about, I happen to agree pretty strongly with the comments that it proposes on the topic of consumerist culture.

“Used to Get High for a Living” or “Used to Get High as it is titled on John Butler Trio’s fourth studio album Grand National, is the Australian jam band’s take on societal critique, infused in equal parts with blues, funk, and reggae motifs. Likewise expressing qualms with consumerism, Butler targets pop culture, institution, and even one’s own complacence as culprits of the degradation of society, in a track greatly befitting of the word “scathing”. Musically, and partially resultant from the genres expressed in the piece, there is a considerable amount of dissonance and tension. The verses are accompanied in a plucky and agitated way, however they grow in sound, instrumentation, and harmonic organization as they enter the chorus, coming across far more positive and transitional, in cohesion with the song’s lyrics. The vocal delivery is likewise split stylistically between verse and chorus; sarcastic, provocative, biting, and rapid fire in the former, and considerably more impassioned and drawn out in the latter. Lyrically there is quite a bit to unpack. Butler’s critique is broad and multifaceted, pointing to both systematic and symptomatic effects of consumerist culture in society ranging from the media, politics, and corporations to addiction, complacency, and personal accountability. Where Vedder aims to renounce, Butler aims to expose and overcome. Despite it being over a decade old I feel that many of the implications of this song resonate even more strongly today than when it was released, and I find it both sharply witty and well composed, as well as deeply, personally relatable.