As a lover of both literature and music, I find the intersection of the two especially compelling: song lyrics that are artful and interesting enough to be considered poetry. Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to discuss a number of my favorite songs with some of my students.

In this first post about song lyrics, I’m going to talk a little bit about the song “Indifference” by the American rock band Pearl Jam, my favorite band for many years. The performance of the song below is an especially powerful one: an acoustic duet by Eddie Vedder and Ben Harper, two of my personal heroes.

Here are the lyrics:

I will light the match this morning, so I won’t be alone
Watch as she lies silent, for soon night will be gone
Oh I will stand arms outstretched, pretend I’m free to roam
Oh I will make my way through one more day in hellHow much difference does it make?
How much difference does it make?

I will hold the candle, till it burns up my arm
I’ll keep takin’ punches, until their will grows tired
Oh I will stare the sun down, until my eyes go blind
Hey I won’t change direction, and I won’t change my mind

How much difference does it make?
How much difference does it make?
How much difference…

I’ll swallow poison, until I grow immune
I will scream my lungs out till it fills this room

How much difference…
How much difference…
How much difference does it make?
How much difference does it make?

One of the main characteristics of the song is the irony of the title, which works on two levels, and the related tension between the speaker’s determination to persevere in the face of obstacles (reminiscent of William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus“) and his uncertainty that his efforts actually make any positive difference. The word “indifference” can be interpreted by its conventional meaning (“lack of interest or concern”), in which case it is directly contradicted by the speaker’s passionate determination, or it can be interpreted as meaning “no difference,” an answer to the question posed by the refrain that the lyrics of the verses seem to be defying.

Another aspect of the song that stands out to me is that some of the speaker’s acts of defiance don’t seem to have any constructive purpose other than as symbols of his determination, e.g. “I will stare the sun down, until my eyes go blind.” The irrationality of that imagery seems to me a brilliant way to capture the primal character of perseverence in spite of doubts about the meaningfulness of one’s struggle—as in Camus’ existentialist interpretation of the myth of Sisyphus, the effort made by the speaker transcends reason to become an end in itself. The act is meaningful regardless of its practical efficacy. The song ends with the question “How much difference does it make?” still unanswered and lingering, but the speaker gives the impression that though he lives with that doubt, he will continue struggling in spite of it, even to the point of absurdity.

Although the lyrics can certainly be discussed on their own merits, it does provide some emotional context to note that Eddie, who wrote the lyrics, is well known to have always been generous with his time, energy, and money in an effort to help people. “Indifference” was written at a time when he was struggling with the consequences of fame and doubting his ability to cope with the pressures that had been thrust upon him, and I think it’s reasonable to assume that the song is a direct reflection of his personal feelings during that period—an expression of his intent to defy the sense of futility that sometimes threatened to overwhelm him. In both his public and personal lives, Eddie has never stopped trying to make a difference.

“Indifference” is particularly meaningful to me and an appropriate subject for this blog’s first regular post because I’ve been singing it to Camilla as an unconventional lullaby since she was an infant. I sing it with slightly altered lyrics involving her (silly lyrics that only a few people will ever know), and now every time I sing that verse, she interjects, “You’re singing my song!” Since she has never told me to stop singing*, I’m going to assume she likes it. It does usually fail to put her to sleep, though!

For anyone who might happen to come across this blog in its infancy, I’d love to hear what you think of the song and the lyrics. The permalink page has a comment form that you can use to share your thoughts.

Future Camilla: Check your vault for a little something special related to this post.

* Ok, almost never.