Society” is somewhat unique in its historical context in that it was written specifically for a film, Into the Wild, which is a direct depiction of Jon Krakauer’s book, based solely on true events regarding the life and travels of Chris McCandless, which took place in the early to mid 90’s, almost two decades prior to the song’s recording and release. As I previously discussed, McCandless, born into wealth and privilege, upon graduation with a bachelor’s degree from Emory University, donated his life’s savings to charity, renounced his home and possessions, and set out to live nomadically. His trek led him westward across the US, into parts of Mexico, and finally north to the Alaskan wilderness where he met his end. Rugged outdoorsmen and park rangers often dismiss McCandless, blaming his relative lack of survival skills, proper gear, and rations for his death due to starvation. Many others however, constituent of the predominant perception of McCandless, see the events of his life as a modern legend of romanticism, transcendental idealism, and the renunciation of a corrupt society.

Into the Wild the film, directed by Sean Penn, quite overtly takes the aforementioned optimistic stance in its depiction of McCandless. The film’s soundtrack, which resultantly mirrors these ideological qualities seen in the narrative, was authored nearly in its entirety by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, who was hand selected by Penn to do so. Despite this having been Vedder’s first signed solo project, he was certainly no stranger to socially conscious songwriting, activism, particularly in the vein of environmental conservancy and progressive politics, the use of themes along the lines of freedom and individualism in songwriting, or for that matter, sentiments often expressed by McCandless himself through his writings. On the process of writing songs which complemented the retelling of McCandless’ story Vedder is quoted saying, “It was startling how easy it was for me to get into his head. I found it to be uncomfortable how easy it was, because I thought I’d grown up.”

Society,” written by Jerry Hannan, a lesser known bay area, folk singer-songwriter, and collaborated on with Eddie Vedder for Into the Wild’s soundtrack, while not having any direct connection with a present day protest movement, nonetheless amply embodies a peculiar ‘sociological imagination.’ Needless to say creative liberties were likely taken to romanticize the exploits of McCandless in the film, giving more pretext and meaning to his actions and depth in the summation of his journey, and given that the soundtrack was written nearly on the whole for narrative support, “Society” included, the songs on the album embody the spirit, rationale, and values which one could reasonably apply to McCandless himself. A considerable portion of these values are originally sourced in transcendentalist ideology, namely; the conceived notion of society and institution being corrupt and corrupting to the individual, the importance of self-reliance and self-sufficiency, and a heavy emphasis on and appreciation for nature.

McCandless set out from home in 1990 and died nearly two years later in ’92. Jon Krakauer authored his non-fiction account of the events in ’96, and Sean Penn adapted and directed it for film over a decade later in 2007. Because of this spread in chronology there are, to my perspective, two highly pertinent eras from whence the ‘sociological imagination’ of the song is largely drawn. This first pertains directly to McCandless himself, as his actions inspired considerable discourse in terms of folklore and culture, not to mention providing basis for all the biographical material on him that came later. The era I’m referencing is not the early ’90s when McCandless made his voyage at the age of 22, but rather the ’80s which comprised tantamount to the entirety of his formative years. The 1980s in the United States, sometimes colloquially referred to as the ‘decade of greed’ particularly by the liberal-minded, saw the inauguration of conservative Ronald Reagan and the implementation of his ‘side-supply‘ economic policies. Better known as trickle-down economics, wherein large corporations and the wealthy are given tax breaks, this, in concert with a massive Wall Street boom which was fraught with allegations of corporate corruption and conspiracy and insider trading, are the primary reasons for this reputation. Also of note, the ’80s are marked by ostentatiousness in terms of fashion and many other cultural components, and thus it wasn’t the least bit uncommon for the wealthy to gaudily display that they were in fact such.

Given that Chris spent his teenage and young adult years in this kind of socioeconomic climate and culture in an affluent, suburban family no less, implying direct exposure to these trends, it is highly likely that this had a large impact on his developing philosophies, particularly in respect to his renunciation of institutions and material wealth. Following his death, McCandless’ sister Carine alleged that the likely motivation for his departure was rooted in his past traumatic experiences with regard to his parents’ marital problems, however this only really explains his desire to sever relations with his family. The further steps which he took; donating the entirety of his savings to charity, abandoning the vast majority of his possessions including his car, going by a different name, chasing niche nature experiences, and finally deciding to separate from society altogether, living in seclusion, are all indicative of a deeper-seated ideological integrity. One that likely formed in cohesion to his qualms with, and counter to the particular cultural moment he had been living in.

Interestingly, if you fast-forward about twenty years to when Sean Penn was directing Into the Wild, Eddie Vedder was composing its soundtrack, and Jerry Hannan was writing “Society” for its role in the film and on the album, pretty clear cultural and socioeconomic parallels can be seen to the times of McCandless’ youth and young manhood. Conservative George W. Bush, an open proponent of Reagan era economics, was inaugurated President in 2001 and served two terms, remaining in office for most of the 2000s. Under his supervision, inflation mirroring that of the stock market in the ’80s took place in the real estate market, now referred to as the ‘housing bubble,’ which reached its precipice in late 2007 and resulted in a bad recession that followed previous financial upticks for the wealthy. Bush also oversaw the initiation of the Iraq War, over false allegations of “weapons of mass destruction,” which is now alleged to have been partially motivated by the private monetary interests of Bush and Cheney. Another, non political facet of society and culture characteristic of the 2000s is the explosion of web 2.0 and social media. While this is not a direct equivalent to the wealthy in the ’80s flexing their income through purchases, obviously that kind of consumerist behavior didn’t disappear from American culture. What’s more, the rise of social media demonstrated growing value placed in self-image and depiction, as well as attention seeking and conforming to trends.

What can be gleaned from these sociocultural overlaps, is the apparent timelessness of McCandless’ expressed values and motivations. Embracing solitude, individualism, self-reliance, material poverty, and nature in the face of pervasive societal and institutional corruption and greed is an ideology as relevant and understood a decade ago to Penn, Vedder and Hannan (all socially conscious, outspoken liberals), as it was two decades ago to Jon Krakauer, a decade before that, McCandless, and two hundred years ago to men such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Thus, the ‘sociological imagination’ of “Society,” is sourced in society itself as a construct, wherein it can be corrupt, and corrupting to the individual.

By its use for the purposes of romanticizing Chris McCandless, “Society,” and tracks comprising much more of the soundtrack, come to both apply and receive the context of these ideological elements, wherein they pertain to overarching and hinted at themes in the film. This is reinforced by disagreements with the cultural and economic pretenses experienced by Chris, and the creative minds who framed his story’s retelling. “Society” in particular, not specifically referencing any event or person, makes a highly critical and renunciate statement about the greed and ugliness of consumerist society, echoed in transcendentalist thought, and paints members of said society as complicit in this dynamic. This statement is further strengthened by the quintessentially folk presentation seen for the duration of the album, as folk commonly purveys similar affectation for natural imagery and individualist and idealist messaging.