On the 19th, I will be seeing Pearl Jam play Wrigley Field; it will be the 45th time I see them in concert.

I assume your response here is twofold:

  1. That’s a lot of Pearl Jam!
  2. What the heck does Pearl Jam have to do with Social Justice?

It’s funny, I’ve been a Pearl Jam fan for over 20 years now and, over time, what their music means to me has changed from what it used to mean to me, but I haven’t forgotten why I became a fan of theirs in the first place…

Like any kid in middle school, I liked whatever anyone else liked and music was no different. You name a band from that era, whether they were hair metal, grunge or hip-hop, and there’s a very good chance I had their cassette tape (yes, you read that correctly).

But Pearl Jam was different. Like the rest of the alternative rock bands of that era, they were angry and moody, disenchanted by disenfranchisement, and using their music to have an open – if even understandably one-sided – conversation with their audience about the world around all of us. They were angry partly because there was so much injustice and inequality going on, but mainly because they felt it was being overlooked, ignored and addressed ineffectively, if even at all. Pearl Jam sang about those injustices and inequalities, and encouraged an entire generation of very impressionable and impassioned youth to ask questions about the world around them.

To this day, I can listen to those same songs from when I was a kid and remember exactly what those questions sounded like. I have a lot of memories of listening to their music, trying to understand the questions it was asking, thoughts it was provoking and conversations it was creating:

  • I remember Eddie Vedder, during a performance on MTV Unplugged, standing atop his barstool and writing “Pro-Choice” on is arm in Sharpie.
  • I remember listening to their song WMA, about racial inequality and White Privilege, and wondering what it meant to be a White Male American.
  • I remember listening to Better Man, and being so taken aback by a male singing about the perils of domestic violence from the female perspective.
  • And I remember keeping Saying No, a song about rape culture and bystander awareness, on repeat for months because my reaction to visceral, in a way I thought I’d better understand with every listen.

While I could keep that list going, I do think it reflects the social issues Pearl Jam was addressing with their music, and how they worked to bring attention to and engage their audience in conversations about topics like women’s rights, race, gender and domestic violence, among others. They never positioned themselves as having all the answers, but I always appreciated their ability to get me thinking and talking about the issues I saw in the news, read in the newspapers and sometimes even heard in the classroom (but never engaged with in the same way).

And, over 20 years later, as I sometimes struggle to engage my students in those very same conversations, I can’t help but wonder how to use music – and the rest of pop culture, for that matter – to affect them the way it affected me?

Rather than meeting them where they’re at, only to immediately try to take them to where we want them to – or think they should – be, why not stay there with them a little bit?

What are they listening to?

What are they talking about?

How can we better listen to what they’re listening to and talk about it with them?

How can we use the Kanye West album to talk about race?

How can we use Taylor Swift lyrics to talk about gender roles in relationships?

Or how can we use the Robin Thicke or Justin Timberlake videos to talk about how sex, masculinity and feminism and presented in media?

By no means am I implying that music is some type of audio panacea for social justice, but I do think we do ourselves and our students a disservice by not listening to them as well as we could – and certainly should – on a regular basis. The world around us is full of issues we are all trying to deal with, process and understand. They are the issues that fill our conversations, inboxes, status updates, feeds and playlists. They are the issues we want to talk about, and do often end up talking about…but only when someone bothers to ask us a question that gets us thinking.

So how can we better listen to them and talk with them about the social issues that matter to them?

How can we meet them where they’re at and stay there long to figure out what’s going on in the world around them…before trying to tell them what we think should be going on in the world around them?

How can we listen to what they’re listening to?

How can better listen to them?

And how can we become someone they better listen to as well?

Perhaps we make the mistake of thinking we need to start these conversations for our students when, in reality, we simply have to continue these conversations with them.

So how do we do that?

Where do we start?

Might I suggest asking what they’re listening to?

Greg Steele is an Assistant Director of Mountainview College at Binghamton University He has a BA in Elementary Education and MA in Student Affairs Administration, both from Michigan State University.

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