Add Internet freedom to Pearl Jam's greatest hits

by Ryan Blethen, Seattle Times

AT&T could not have picked a worse band to censor than Pearl Jam.

Our boys from Seattle have always been a very politically loud and thoughtful band. Their early hits, "Even Flow" and "Jeremy," were popular but also carried a social message not often found in contemporary music. Lyrics of social issues and politics have continued through Pearl Jam's latest release.

AT&T overextended its reach when it deleted lyrics critical of President Bush recorded at a Pearl Jam concert that was shown through the telecom's Blue Room site. All the stories and howls of protest this past week got me thinking about the band's music and lyrics.

A number of lines jump out when discussing net neutrality, which seeks to ban Internet service providers such as AT&T from giving preferential treatment or charging more for particular Web sites or content.

Consider this line from "Marker in the Sand": "There is a sickness. A sickness coming over me. Like watching freedom, being sucked straight out to sea. And the solution?"

If Congress finally gets around to passing a net-neutrality law, we can thank, in part, Pearl Jam. Not solely because they were censored, although AT&T's clumsiness helps, but for their long-standing concern about the consolidation of the media and the misuse of power, as displayed in the song "Grievance": "Have a drink they're buying. Bottom of, bottle of denial. Big guy, big eye watching me. Have to wonder what it sees ... Progress, laced with ramifications. Freedom's big plunge."

These lyrics fit nicely into the narrative of AT&T's actions. The company released a lame statement claiming it did not mean to censor political statements by Pearl Jam. The explanation rings hollow because in the same statement the spokesperson goes on to say that it has happened before. Not surprisingly, the other musicians censored through Blue Room webcasts were also criticizing Bush.

I get the feeling AT&T is using the "move along, nothing to see here," routine until Congress and the Federal Communications Commission fail to act on net neutrality. AT&T already had to accept net neutrality for two years as a condition of the FCC approving its merger with BellSouth.

The San Antonio-based AT&T would like nothing more than to emerge from two years in the neutrality wilderness and begin competing against other ISPs such as Verizon with no government regulations to worry about.

Net neutrality is only a part of the debate, though. The public also needs to be worried about media consolidation, the lack of diversity of media ownership, and the assault on Internet radio and low-power FM.

Pearl Jam understands this. A statement on the band's Web site says, "AT&T's actions strike at the heart of the public's concerns over the power that corporations have when it comes to determining what the public sees and hears through communications media."

Democracy thrives only when voices are dispersed and diverse. The FCC and Congress have been doing their best the past three decades to work against a press and media that foster democracy. Now, a couple large corporations are in position to put a stranglehold on what most Americans read, watch and listen to.

How much difference can Pearl Jam make? They might be just what the public needed to understand what is close to being lost.

The solution can be found in the song "Indifference": "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."

Let's hope not, because the cablecom beast is not going to change its mind.

article originally published at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2003839900_ryan17.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey