Songs that have shaped my love life: Pearl Jam, Better Man

For some reason, I seem to get a lot of great ideas after I hit the gym. Maybe it’s all the endorphins and adrenaline rushing around, maybe it’s just the increased blood flow to my brain, but whatever the case may be, this week I got the bright idea to put together an anthology for Valentine’s Day entitled Everything I Need to Know About Love I Learned From Pop Songs.

As a result, I thought it would be interesting to start blogging about some of the pop songs that have shaped my own views of love as I seek out some funny, cynical, and even serious essays from others on the same subject.

So without further ado, here’s the first installment of this series. I feel like it should be called “P is for Pop Songs,” because a ton of the bands that have influenced me have names that start with P. Is this weird, or do you also have a certain letter that seems to pop up a lot in your musical selections?

Anyway, let’s start with Pearl Jam.

Frankly, I can’t stand the band nowadays, but back when I was a young and impressionable teen, there was a boy I liked. And he liked Pearl Jam.

Or, perhaps more correctly, he enjoyed belting out random lyrics from random songs, and the ones I typically recognized were from Pearl Jam.

The ones I remember most clearly were from the song “Better Man,” off of their 1994 album Vitalogy (and yes, I owned this album back in 1994 – it was one of the first I can remember buying). The song’s lyrics are frequently misheard as “Can’t find the butter, ma’am,” which I think are actually superior to the originals, because they’re definitely funnier.

“Better Man” is a pretty dark song. Not at all your typical love song, and not really a pop song in the classic sense of lollipops and rainbows and lovers walking hand in hand.

“Better Man” is about a woman trying to escape a bad – even abusive – relationship.

So why is this one of the songs that spring to mind when I think about love?

That’s a very interesting question, and I think the only real link is the fact that I liked this boy, who I shall refer to as Zoltan because he had a similarly unusual name, and Zoltan seemed to like this song very much.

So much so that when we went to an amusement park and rode a rather extreme roller coaster together, instead of screaming like the rest of us, Zoltan belted out the lyrics to “Better Man”!

I wish I had bought a picture of the looks on our faces, captured by the coaster’s camera at the very first drop. My mouth, open in an O-shape, screaming. His mouth, open in an E-shape, shouting Eddie Vedder’s lyrics.

Clearly, nothing good can come of a relationship built on frivolities like trips to an amusement park, nor from boys who are only good when there are parents present.

And let’s not forget his suspicious taste in music.

I certainly needed a Better Man myself. Zoltan was not the one. But we enjoyed a few make-out sessions together, and I learned what bad boys were really like. Wolves in sheep’s clothing, pretending to be upright citizens headed for med school, but secretly cutting class to hang out with girls that enjoy thrills like the leap your heart makes before a corkscrew turn on a fast ride – or a kiss from a boy.

We lasted a week, and it was undoubtedly for the best. My parents disapproved of him. Looking back, they were right. But at the time, I thought of him as a kind of Eddie Vedder himself, a man who spoke of love – even broken love – where others feared to tread.

Sorry, Zoltan, but this song rang true, and this song’s for you. When you can’t find a better man, you’ll turn to pop songs that talk about leaving your lover, even if they’re a bit mumbled and confused like this Pearl Jam opus.

Want more pop song insights?

What pop songs make you think about love? How have pop songs influenced your relationships? Check out Everything I Need to Know About Love I Learned From Pop Songs for more essays about love songs by the people who love them.