Pearl Jam - Do The Evolution

by Samir Hourani

1. Introduction

This essay analyses the animated music video to the single ‘Do the Evolution’ by Pearl Jam, which was released in 1998. After outlining the original backstory and production details, as well as giving a short summary of the video, the analytical part is divided into sub points. Each of these sub points focuses on a certain subject of interest, such as the themes and symbolism prevalent in the video, two of the most predominant narrative techniques, the correlation with the lyrics of the song and finally the many historical references, which can be found in the various scenes. A final conclusion of the video will evaluate whether its core message is still relevant today.

2. Backstory and production

The video to Pearl Jam’s single “Do the Evolution” was co-directed by Todd McFarlane and Kevin Altieri. McFarlane is mainly known for his work as a comic artist for both Marvel and DC comics. At the time of production he was in the process of establishing his newly founded McFarlane Entertainment Company, when Pearl Jam’s lead singer Eddie Vedder asked him to make the video. McFarlane developed the original character and background designs with Joe Parson of Epoch Ink Animation and got Altieri to direct the video.[1] At the time of production, Altieri just finished the last episodes of ‘Batman: The Animated Series’, which would remain his most successful piece of work to this day. The total production time of the video was sixteen weeks, spanning from initial concepts and rough cuts over creating the animation in Korea, to finishing the final cut at Vittelo Productions in Los Angeles.
Vedder said that the inspiration for the ‘Yield’-album and especially for the song “Do the Evolution” came from David Quinn’s novel ‘Ishmael’,[2] in which the central message revolves around humanity’s self-centred obsession with technology. Vedder stated: “This book is a conversation with a man and an ape. And the ape really has it all together. He kinda knows the differences between him and the man, and points out how slight they are, and it creates an easy analogy for what man has done, thinking that they were the end-all. That man is the end-all thing on this earth.” [3]

3. Summary

The video shows the evolution of life, beginning from the first cell division, over the dinosaur- and Stone Age, to the peek of human reign on earth in a futuristic scenario. Through the course of evolution, the video cuts back and forth between different stages of human society with a focus on some of the most violent and destructive episodes of its history, such as both world wars and the Vietnam War. It also depicts humanity’s obsession with technology and how it is utilized in favour of an even more destructive behaviour. The video also points out socio-political problems of humankind such as blindly following leader figures, murder and humiliation in the name of religious- or political movements, racism and radical nationalism, as well as environmental problems like the abuse and exploitation of animals and nature.  The video ends with the downfall of humanity through a devastating, global nuclear war, which renders the planet devoid of all life forms. Through the entire video, a woman with black hair and clothes reappears in between scenes, seemingly entertained by humanity’s failure to establish and maintain peace amongst each other.

4. Themes

The main theme of the video is the focus on humanity’s violent nature and how it remains essentially unchanged over the course of history. Sub-themes deal with various social and economical issues in which said violence manifests, such as war, the abuse and exploitation of animals by the hands of man, slavery and racism, domestic violence as well as the rapid spread of the human race, causing the extinguishing of other species by exhausting the planet’s resources. Although there are a lot of fast cuts, many scenes seem to be intertwined in the their composition and cinematography in a way which creates a parodist sub-theme, such as the repetition of settings which are applied to both humans and animals. While Ryan has pointed out that “literary themes that embody evolution range from violence and war to love and marriage. The tendency toward violence in humans is a response to adverse environments […] that made a capacity for violence an adaptation that increased human fitness to survive and reproduce.”[4] , these ancient adaptive dispositions receive a highly ambivalent treatment in the video, which highlights human violence in a sarcastic way and thus rarely focuses on the survivalist aspect of evolution.

5. Symbolism

Visual metaphors and symbolic means are extensively placed throughout the video from start to finish, ranging from provocative open display to more subtle ones that may only be perceived through the viewer’s subconscious. The most predominant comes in form of the woman in black who is shown in between scenes and who also gets the most screen time out of any character. The female character is portraying ‘Death’ following humanity from the moment when a human is first shown committing murder to the point where all of mankind is eradicated from the planet. The polarizing symbolic nature of a woman portraying death -in contrast to the traditional notion of femininity associated with the act of ‘giving life’- was inspired by the DC Comics series ‘The Sandman’, in which death is characterised by a young ‘Goth’-type woman wearing black clothing.[5] She watches man’s violent outbursts through the various conflicts and is increasingly entertained by the rising murder rate spread by war and famine. Humanity in return is monotonously depicted as the one entity that ends all life, which is symbolised by the gigantic machine shaped like a woman giving birth, mass producing babies with bar-codes on a conveyor belt. This further illustrates the devaluation and disregard of human life by man himself, since the mass-produced babies effectively become an automatized economic commodity.

The same symbolic nature is attached to the Christian cross. Whether in form of the Crusader’s helmet, as burning cross in the KKK ritual or as sea of tormented souls turning into cheap crucifix pendants from a shady street vendor, the devaluation and parody of religious symbols -and therefore religiousness- is highly present. In his analysis of ‘Jesus and the Crucifix’, Malone explains the habit film to set the crucifix in relation -and as a binding mechanism- with culture.[6] Religion appears as a concealment factor to mask and justify man’s inherent, violent ‘culture’ of meeting his own selfish demands for the sake of serving a higher entity, while in reality his actions only serve his own greed.
Mankind’s relationship with nature receives the same treatment as the scenes highlight its macabre progression: First, man overcomes his very own nature by stripping of his primate form in favour of the corporate appearance. He then starts to exploit nature by abusing animals and he lastly destroys nature, symbolised by the gigantic machine devouring everything in its way including entire eco systems, to satisfy his selfishness. The symbol of ‘the machine’ therefore proves to be the symbolic epitome of human evolution as a sign of technological progress and ultimately as replacement for natural functions in return for a process, which automatizes, extends and amplifies them in increasingly negative ways.

6. Narrative techniques

6.1 Repetition

The scene progression in the video is made through the use of rapid jump cuts, which renders the narrative fast paced, increasingly chaotic and seemingly without any logic continuity. However some specific scenes are repeated throughout the video, such as the group of people dancing around fire. In the first instance, the group consists of cave men holding hammers. (fig. A) The second time the scene depicts a group of Indians holding tomahawks (fig. B) while the other two repetitions show homeless people holding bottles of alcohol and the members of the Ku-Klux-Clan in their ritual robes. (fig. C, fig. D) While the scene repeats four times with the various groups taking the exact same body postures, each rendition follows the evolution of man from the Stone Age to modern time. The focal point in this progression is fire, which remains unchanged as corner stone enabling man to rise over other life forms.

Beschreibung: vlcsnap-2014-05-18-23h38m35s127.png Beschreibung: vlcsnap-2014-05-18-23h38m01s28.png

fig. D
fig. C

The same use of repetition can be found in the scenes where the video rapidly cuts between the judge, a general, a priest and a politician. (1:56 - 2:00) While all of them pose as leading figures to humanity, the video reveals the same puppeteer in the background, pulling their strings. More repetition is observed between scenes where characters take up similar poses, such as the Roman general and the American cotton farmer whipping their slaves, the caveman and the crusader holding their respective weapons (fig. E, fig. F) or the Roman emperor and the factory owner holding their sons next to them. (fig. G, fig. H) Here repetition is utilized to point out the lingering notion of man’s stagnant, violent state of mind, despite his technological evolvement. Again, this points out the central message of constant parallelism between mankind’s evolution and technological advancement and it’s implementation into human society, without bringing actual change to its core nature.
fig. G
fig. H

6.2 Tone and colour

In some instances, the video shows the use of subliminal changes in colour and tone -or what audiences would consider ‘lighting’ in classic film- to illustrate certain effects. The transition between the herd of wild horses and the battalion of tanks (0:47 - 0:53) is further emphasized by the change in background colour from blue to red, along with a slightly darker overall tone, creating a more dramatic effect on the viewer as red is often associated with violence.[7] The same change in colour scheme is found between the test monkey and the death row inmate, namely the change from a well lit blue steel table to a dark red room in which the electric chair is positioned. Another interesting colour relation is found in the character design of the ammunition factory owner wearing a blue jacket and his son, wearing a red one. Under the premise of previous scenes effectively depicting the worsening of the respective circumstances by turning from blue to red, the generational change from father to son is here put in a highly suspicious spot as well. (fig. G, fig. H)

7. Lyrics

The video’s visuals are tightly interwoven with the lyrics. While they do not match the depicted scenes frame by frame, there is a clear correlation. The lines “Admire me, admire my home, Admire my son, he’s my clone” appear synonymous with the Roman emperor and the factory CEO watching over their property with their sons by their side. “These ignorant Indians got nothing on me” and “Buying stocks on the day of the crash” fit perfectly to the according scenes. It can easily be observed that the lyrics played a major role in the conception and creative writing of the video.

8. Historical references

Since the video revolves around human evolution through the different eras in time, it holds many references to historical events. The businessman jumping to his death from the building is a reference to the Wall street crash of 1929 -the biggest stock market crash in the history of the United States- which signalled the beginning of the great ten year depression and caused investment bankers to take their lives. There is also the reference to the Crusades by the Roman Catholic Church, a military campaign aimed at the aggressive expansion of Western Christendom causing massacres within the borders of Europe. The Ku Klux Klan -a United States born right wing movement which became infamous for its violent acts against African-Americans-  is also highly prevalent in the video during the scenes of the cross burnings and the one instance where group members dance around the fire. They are shown wearing the traditional white robes and the conical hats. The reference to Nazi-Germany is made by showing the marching troops, along with the tormented people within the concentration camp and book burnings. However the swastika symbol is here exchanged with what appears to be the letter “S”, which resembles the symbol for the German ‘Schutzstaffel’ during World War 2. There is also a World War 1 battlefield scene highlighted by the gas masks and the characteristic ‘Pickelhaube’ worn by the German troops. The scene in which a fighter jet bombs the village holds two historical references. The first, being a reference to the Vietnam War, is rather obvious. During the Vietnam War the American forces committed countless atrocities to the population of Vietnam by carpet-bombing them, humiliating and murdering civilians and by contaminating the land for generations to come. The sheer evil and mindlessness of these actions is also emphasized when the jet pilot takes off his oxygen mask, only to reveal a frantically laughing skull. However, the more subtle reference is found in the crying baby (fig. I) which reminds the viewer of ‘Bloody Saturday’, a photograph from October of 1937, which became world famous within a month of its publication. (fig. J) It showed a Chinese baby crying in front of railway station that was bombed by the Japanese only a few minutes before the photo was shot.
Beschreibung: vlcsnap-2014-05-24-02h29m51s219.png
fig. I
fig. J

9. Conclusion

The video to ‘Do the Evolution’ stands as cornerstone of late 90s music and its socio-political core message remains relevant to this day. The idea of geopolitical criticism was everything but a revelation at the time the video was first aired. On the contrary, those messages appear to be a hallmark of music videos of that particular era and genre. Implementation of anti-establishment themes and provocative notions into music videos were a guarantee for attention in a time when people did not have access to the many sources of information and social networking of the following decade. Artist deliberately made use of them for sheer shock value, to intrigue and maintain fan bases and to create sales, and naturally to set themselves apart from the mainstream acts which dominated the charts. And while ‘Do the Evolution’ did not offer anything ground breaking for its time, it holds certain qualities which gave it a timeless appeal. To this day it is subject of discussion whenever people stumble upon it, whether consciously or by accident. The all-encompassing factor of compiling mankind’s complete sociological, political and technological advancement within a 3-minute video that solely focuses on the negative, the destructive and the evil leaves a lasting impression.

When trying to draw a conclusion on the video, it inevitably leads to the question of what it would potentially look like if it were made today. The geopolitical landscape has changed in the following two decades after its original release, but when looking at the events that occurred within this era, we find that once again the core message remains essentially unchanged. The video ends with the complete destruction of earth by the hands of man, yet the very last scene also shows a transition from the fiery remains of the inhabitable planet to the silhouette of the same cell that started life in the beginning. It leaves the viewer with a shallow prospect of uncertain hope, but also with a reminder that it is ultimately us who write the next chapter in the story.

10. Bibliography

Dringenberg, Mike; Gaiman, Neil. The Sandman, issue #8.  Burbank: DC Comics, 1989
Malone, Peter. Screen Jesus: Portrayals of Christ in Television and Film. Plymouth: The Scarecrow Press, 2012.
Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. New York: Bantam/Turner, 1992.
Ryan, Michael. An Introduction to Criticism: Literature/Film/Culture.  Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
Ryan, Michael; Lenos, Mellissa. An Introduction to Film Analysis: Technique and Meaning in Narrative Film. New York, London: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012.

Electronic resources

[fig. J] taken from:

[fig. A - I] screen captions taken from:

[2] Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. New York: Bantam/Turner, 1992.
[4] Ryan, Michael. An Introduction to Criticism: Literature/Film/Culture.  Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. P. 125
[5] Dringenberg, Mike; Gaiman, Neil. The Sandman, issue #8.  Burbank: DC Comics, 1989
[6] Malone, Peter. Screen Jesus: Portrayals of Christ in Television and Film. Plymouth: The Scarecrow Press, 2012. P. 275
[7] Ryan, Michael; Lenos, Mellissa. An Introduction to Film Analysis: Technique and Meaning in Narrative Film. New York, London: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012. P. 108