Welcome to Songs of Significance, chronicling the songs that have helped shape me and people across generations.
Jeremy, Pearl Jam, from the 1991 album Ten
When Jeremy stood at the front of his English classroom on the morning of January 8, 1991, so much had already happened.
The 15-year-old was already an accomplished, award-winning artist.
He had also attempted suicide at least once and threatened suicide on a half-dozen other occasions. He’d been sent to inpatient mental health treatment, was continuing outpatient therapy and had been confined to in-school suspension during the day for the last part of 1990 because of disturbing content found during searches of his locker and threats he may or may not have made to teachers and students. He was using illegal substances, consistently truant and, if you asked those who knew him, definitely on a dangerous path.
Of course, while it’s true that so much had already happened, some things had not happened. For example:
- Craighead County, Arkansas: 5 dead, 10 wounded.
- Springfield, Oregon: 4 dead, 23 wounded
- Columbine, Colorado: 15 dead, 21 wounded
- Red Lake, Minnesota: 10 dead, 7 wounded
- Newton, Connecticut: 28 dead, 2 wounded
- Maryville, Washington: 5 dead, 1 wounded
- Sante Fe, Texas: 10 dead, 14 wounded
So when a student outside of Jeremy’s English class heard a loud bang, he didn’t think “school shooting.” He thought someone had slammed a book on a desk — until he saw a classmate flee the room and run by him, crying. He approached the door to see what had happened. There on the floor was someone he knew, blood pooling around what was left of his head.
Jeremy spoke in class today.
The Jeremy we know comes through the impassioned voice of Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder from the song by that name off the 1991 album Ten. “Jeremy” was the third single from the album and was in heavy rotation on MTV in 1992 as the grunge era shook up the music industry and introduced us to an era of angry, disenfranchised storytellers whose music broke new ground and captured a generation’s emerging angst.
If the song was startling for the time, the video was downright shocking. The version we saw in 1992 lacked the part toward the end where a shirtless, maniacal boy enters his classroom and flips an apple to his teacher before pulling out a gun and putting it in his mouth. Instead, all viewers in this pre-school-shooting era saw was a classroom full of white-clad students frozen in shocked horror, splattered in red, leaving open the question of whose blood it was.
Maybe that doubt sewed by 1992 censorship restrictions was prophecy for what would start occurring with disturbing regularity just a few years later.
Pearl Jam released the uncensored version of the video in June 2020 to coincide with National Gun Violence Awareness Day. In an Instagram post, the band said: “The increase in gun violence since the debut of ‘Jeremy’ is staggering. We have released the uncensored version of the video which was unavailable in 1992 with TV censorship laws.”
The family of the real Jeremy has come out against the song and the video in either form, saying they reduce their boy’s life to one day, a moment in time. And this is true. Every human being who commits suicide is more than their final act. But when that final act destroys the innocence of a classroom full of children, it is not unfair for music to reflect the bigger picture.
The Merger of Jeremy and ‘Jeremy’
On the day of his death, Jeremy showed up late to his English class. His teacher told him to go to the office to get a pass. Jeremy left the room, went to his locker and retrieved a Smith & Wesson .357 revolver he had reportedly stolen from a friend’s house. When he returned, according to witnesses, he said “Miss, I got what I really went for.” He then pulled out the gun, put it in his mouth and fired.
Vedder says he wrote the song after seeing a newspaper article about the incident. He admits he didn’t contact the family to find out the details of Jeremy’s life or to ask permission to write and release the song. He reasoned that it felt like intruding on their lives, an interesting argument when you’re answering a question about a song and video that capitalized on their boy’s death and propelled your band to superstar status. Which would have been the bigger intrusion?
The band has consistently defended the song and the video, saying the point was not to glorify or demonize Jeremy but rather to raise awareness about the tragedies of bullying, suicide and gun violence. It certainly captured attention.
“Jeremy” received Grammy nominations for Best Rock Song and Best Hard Rock Performance in 1993. The band received four awards at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards for the song’s video, including Video of the Year and Best Group Video. The song came in at No. 11 on VH1’s list of the 100 greatest songs of the 1990s.
Today, the song and the video might seem ironically pollyanna-ish. As viewers watch the uncensored version of the video, while it is still surprising and leaves a strong lasting image of a boy putting a gun in his mouth, it’s not difficult to say, “Whew. At least he only killed himself.”
And that’s a sad sign of the times.
B. Goode is by no means a music critic and has zippo in the way of actual music theory education. He is simply a fan of music who loves delving into why songs are made, why they’re made when they’re made, and why they’re made by whom they’re made.