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Nirvana Vs. Pearl Jam: A Rivalry Created By The Media

When it comes to music, the idea of band rivalries goes back decades. The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones has been a classic matchup that goes back five decades.

In the Pacific Northwest, the most visible example of a band rivalry started 25 years ago, when Nirvana and Pearl Jam were two of the biggest bands in the country.

But how did these so-called rivalries start? And do we have any evidence at all that these bands actually didn't like each other? We spoke with Charles R. Cross, a Seattle music writer and author of the book "Heavier Than Heaven," a biography on Kurt Cobain, to take a deeper look into the Pearl Jam vs. Nirvana rivalry.

Cross says that most of the gossip surrounding a Pearl Jam/Nirvana rivalry came almost entirely from a handful of interviews that Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain did. At the time, Cobain was fielding a lot of questions about his drug addiction, and wanted to talk about anything other than that.  Cross says to deflect the attention away from that, he would talk about (among other things) why he didn't like other bands. He referred to Pearl Jam as "careerists", and suggested they were only in it for the money.

Cross says that Cobain also said negative things about other bands, but because both Nirvana and Pearl Jam were from Seattle and were very popular at the time, the comments about Pearl Jam had a tendency to stick, and sting, a little bit more. In contrast, Cross says members of Pearl Jam never said anything negative publicly about Nirvana. 

So how did the idea of a Pearl Jam/Nirvana rivalry even exist if we are only talking about a handful of tough comments from Kurt Cobain? Cross says that band rivalries are almost entirely a result of the media. This goes back to the days of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones when British music publications needed content for their weekly periodicals and nothing sold better than controversy. Cross says that with Nirvana and Pearl Jam, the situation was no different. 

So do we know how Nirvana and Pearl Jam actually felt about each other? Cross says that Cobain and Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder "had a call it a friendship might be a stretch." But Cross says that these were two guys who had way too much in common to, at the very least, not understand each other. Both battled drug problems, stalkers, and struggles with fame. And Cross references a moment caught on video where Vedder and Cobain were slow dancing as a tiny glimpse into how they felt about each other.

And what about rivalries in music in general? Cross says they still exist, and with Twitter around, they are only that much more visible. But Cross says that the idea of fans picking one side or the other simply isn't how music works.

"You've got to have a Saturday night album, and you've got to have a Sunday morning coming down album as well. And there are places for all of that within somebody's large love of music," he said.

Charles R. Cross is the author of many books, including "Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain."

Kevin Kniestedt is a journalist, host and producer who began his career at KNKX in 2003. Over his 17 years with the station, he worked as a full time jazz host, a news host and produced the weekly show Sound Effect. Kevin has conducted or produced hundreds of interviews, has won local and national awards for newscasts and commentary.
Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.