The first time that I heard Eddie Vedder’s cover of Jerry Hannan’s “Society” was on the soundtrack of Into the Wild, and it struck me for a number of reasons, all of which factored heavily into my decision to feature it as the subject of this project. First and foremost, it is such a simply composed and rawly recorded song, yet is tremendously powerful and beautiful. Vedder is so apparently suited to the rendition that the song may as well have been written with him in mind as the vocalist. Similarly, it is so befitting to the central motif of the film, and accordingly, the rough hewn transpiration of real events, that to me the two are largely inseparable, and likewise send a strong message in conjunction or on their own. I also feel it is perfectly defensible to say that “Society” is one of the most genuine and important additions to the repertoire of the contemporary folk genre made in the past decade.

A simple glance at the title could be easily preclusive to the notion that this song is potentially too obvious, however I would steadfastly argue otherwise. Society is a very broad and complex topic, but the statement being made, and the way in which it is made are considerably more nuanced and directed than a general societal critique. What you see instead is an intriguing, flipped narrational perspective, the clever use of extended literary device, and overall a thinly veiled affront to and personal withdrawal from various aspects of capitalist and consumerist culture: the real point of protest in the piece.

As I previously mentioned, “Society” is what I feel to be one of the most important and suitable contributions to contemporary folk music in quite a while, and this has much to do with its impeccable adherence to the sound and values of the genre. Folk has, since its conception, concerned itself with the act of protest and/or raising criticism to a plethora of societal dynamics. This song is quite evidently no exception in terms of thematic elements, and what’s more is that it is stylistically adherent to the standards of the genre to the utmost extent, featuring only a simple chord progression and melody, the raw, baritone vocals of Vedder, and a picked acoustic guitar.

There are a number of directions that I am contemplating going in terms of further research, perhaps the most obvious being investigating the remainder of the songs on the Into the Wild soundtrack. To my knowledge they are additionally well suited to the film, and thus would bear a consistent message and theme to that of “Society” at least to some extent. Additionally, the majority of other songs on the soundtrack are written as well as recorded by Vedder, one of which (“Guaranteed”) he won multiple awards for in the category of ‘Best Song Written for a Motion Picture.’ In the same vein, more in depth research on Vedder himself I anticipate will prove very useful. I am aware of a number of other ‘protest-y’ songs he wrote and recorded during his time with Pearl Jam, mirroring at the least the motif of personal withdrawal from society. Additionally, Eddie is well known to be a very socially conscious artist, and has advocated for various progressive causes throughout his career, which will greatly help to provide context as well. One final place I have already initiated a deeper look into is that of Jerry Hannan, the songwriter of “Society” who collaborated with Vedder in its recording and production for Into the Wild. He is a lesser known, pure folk artist from the bay area. Finding his tracks takes a considerable amount of digging, and not much is written or published about him anywhere, however his artist webpage had a contact form which I immediately decided to try and leverage. Hopefully I will hear back from him and get some incite (being more of a small time guy with relatively few shows), but he will add another layer of discussion regardless, and I will link to his recorded version of the song in this post as well for your reference and enjoyment.

It’s hard for me to express my connection to this song without belaboring the obvious, but here goes. I am not without qualms to quite a few aspects of capitalist and consumerist culture, not to the extent that I would renounce all worldly possession and run away to Alaska to die alone in the wilderness, but certainly enough that this song truly resonates with me. Even before having heard it there are elements and values implicit in the song that I have tried to achieve in my own life, such as not being afraid to go against the grain, or to live as minimally as is reasonable to my situation. Also of great import to me is the line “we have a greed, with which we have agreed,” which I think rather astutely points out a glaring and ugly flaw of people living in the first world, from a political scope down to an individual basis. Greed in my opinion is the root of a considerable amount of violence and immoral behavior amongst people, and even worse, is a conduit by which we justify killing the planet which we all inhabit. I both love and appreciate this song and take no issue whatsoever in studying it extensively or listening to it a great many times over.

My concerns for covering this song for the project lie mostly in the vagueness in which it expresses meaning. The literary rhetorical elements are fairly self evident in their usage, and to my perspective the musical components are likewise in pretty close cohesion with the songwriting. That being said, the commentary that is proposed is pretty broad, and will require not inconsiderable analysis, interpretation, and sourcing to establish a more specific point being made. The song did receive quite a bit of notoriety, which makes me hopeful that there are other analyses which I can draw from, but either way I am more excited than anything to delve into it, and I am at this point not feeling daunted by the task beyond reason, though I anticipate to be challenged to some extent.

Eddie Vedder & Liam Finn: Society ~ live version (Water on the Road)

Jerry Hannan (solo): Society ~original recording