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My Boss is Making Me Write This #3 - "Jeremy" Reaction

Content Warning: This music video and discussion features potentially triggering topics including school shootings, suicide, and bullying. Reader discretion advised.


I’m back with another installment of someone’s favorite blog series (that someone being my boss). Welcome to My Boss is Making Me Write This. How it works is that my boss, a guy in his 40s, makes me react to a piece of media that was a big deal back when he was young…many moons ago. What he loves even more than talking my ear off about his knowledge of music history is seeing my reactions to those musical pieces of history and what I gleaned from them, years later. I’m on the millennial/Gen Z cusp, so while he was off dressing up like MC Hammer for Halloween, I was probably not even born yet. That makes our views on things very different. And that’s what makes this blog series a fun one (for him, at least).

For today’s installment, my boss wants me to react to….


The Pearl Jam song and music video “Jeremy”

Watch the song and music video below first to get the most out of this blog post 😊


This is #3 in the My Boss is Making Me Write This series (check out one and two). While the first two were kind of polar opposites, it appears my boss wanted my reaction to this simply because I knew nothing about the music video. In fact, he wanted me to go in with absolutely nothing. He said, “If you know nothing, keep it that way. Don’t look anything up about it.” Following his instructions, I went into this with zilch. No preconceived notions. I didn’t even know why he wanted me to watch it unlike with the others where he had some leading questions for me.

How does a person who’s never seen the “Jeremy” music video from Pearl Jam react to it? What is the history behind it, and how does it hold up and relate to today? Let’s dive in.

My Initial Thoughts

I was already instructed to go in with nothing, but one of the “rules” of this series is that I go into these songs/music videos with little to no context or information anyway, so that my initial reactions are genuine and not skewed by any means. So, what you’ll see below is me listing out some of my random thoughts I wrote down as I watched the “Jeremy” music video.

  • I’m trying hard to read the flashing words in the intro. I had to go back and play it over. A crime of some sort has happened?

  • Once the chorus hit: oh, wait this sounds familiar now. I’ve definitely heard this on the radio.

  • Okay, we see an artistic little boy. Is something darker on the horizon?

  • That moment where all the school kids are frozen in time laughing at him is super eerie.

  • Did he burn down the school? Is that the crime?

  • Nazi symbol found at the school – yikes. What does it mean?

  • Unclean spirit has entered the body? Is someone blaming a demon on why he’s acting out?

  • The flashing images are very trippy. No good for people with epilepsy

  • The moment the kid puts the gun in his mouth: What the heck?!

  • WOW that final shot of the kids frozen in time again with blood all over them. So eerie.

Once the music video ended, the one big question I had was, is this a message about bullying? And guess what, dear readers, I was partially right. Go me! Let’s get into the history.

The History

Pearl Jam released “Jeremy” in August 1992. It was their third single off their debut album Ten. The song was inspired by two things, one being a personal experience of a fellow student he knew in junior high school who shot up an oceanography room. The other incident that inspired the song is the story of Jeremy Wade Delle. In 1991, Delle walked into his high school English class, pulled out a gun, placed it in his mouth, and pulled the trigger. He killed himself in front of the entire class who were traumatized and in extreme shock. Eddie Vedder was shocked too by the incident, so much so that he wanted to write a song about not only the incident with Jeremy but the growing epidemic of teen suicide and wondering in sorrow why society doesn’t help the struggling youth.

Over the years, Pearl Jam’s bassist Jeff Ament has spoken about the making of the song saying that the piece was written on acoustic guitar with the intention to have it played on a Hamer 12-string bass. While working on the song, they felt it was missing something to take it from good to great. Ament said, “We knew it was a good song, but it was tough getting it to feel right—for the chorus to sit back and the outro to push over the top. The tune went from practically not making it on the record to being one of the best takes. I'm not sure if it's the best song on the album but I think it's the best take. On "Jeremy" I always heard this other melody in the choruses and the end, and it never sounded good on guitar or bass. So, we brought in a cello player which inspired a background vocal, and those things made the song really happen” (Source).

“Jeremy” reached the number 5 spot on both the Mainstream and Modern Rock Billboard charts but didn’t chart on Billboard Hot 100 singles chart since it was not released as a commercial single in the US at the time. However, in July 1995, the rerelease brought it up to number 79 on Billboard. "Jeremy" was the most successful song from Ten on the American rock charts. It peaked at number five on the US Billboard Mainstream and Billboard Rock Tracks. The single has been certified gold by the RIAA. Outside of the US, the song made it to the top 40 on the Canadian Singles Chart, top 20 in the UK, number 93 in Germany, top 40 in New Zealand, and top 10 in Ireland. "Jeremy" also received Grammy nominations for Best Rock Song and Best Hard Rock Performance in 1993.

Chris Cuffaro, the man behind the original music video, funded the production himself since Epic Records initially refused to fund the production. He took out a loan and also sold all his furniture and half his guitar collection. By the time he’d completed it, filming the video in a warehouse with a revolving platform, the record company had warmed to the idea of a video and brought in Marc Pellington to reshoot the video. Tough break for Cuffaro.

With a higher budget, the new video had rapid-fire editing, better sound design, and a focus on Vedder as the “narrator” of the video. To create a collage effect, the video features still images, graphics, and text elements with live-action sequences. Jeremy was played by 12-year-old Trevor Wilson. This was his only acting role. I was sad to discover in my research that Trevor Wilson drowned while swimming in Puerto Rico in 2016. Pearl Jam attended his funeral. He was only 36.

What gave the song a lot of traction was the music video released in 1992. Its frequent rotation on MTV made it a hit song, helping it win four MTV Video Music Awards including Video of the Year. The music video took what little people knew of Jeremy’s story and brought in an interpretation of what his life was like before taking his own life. In the video, we see the actor portraying Jeremy not receiving much love and support at home, escaping into his drawings, and getting bullied at school. All of this leads to the day he comes into class and shoots himself.

Pellington's original video shows Jeremy putting the gun in his mouth at the climax, but this ran afoul of MTV restrictions on violent imagery, so the weapon was cropped out of the shot by zooming in on the upper part of Jeremy's face. The ambiguity made many never see what happens with the gun. Combining that with the ominous shot of Jeremy's classmates in defensive postures with a huge amount of blood on them, it led many viewers to believe that the video ended with Jeremy shooting his classmates, not himself (Source). Vedder and the rest of the band have voiced their frustrations on the censorship causing confusion as the final shot is meant to symbolize that his blood is on their hands, and they’re frozen from the shock of it, not because they were shot. This level of censorship made the band not want to create music videos for a couple of years afterward.

When Pearl Jam won video of the year, they brought actor Trevor Wilson on stage with them, saying “He lives!” In the acceptance speech, Eddie Vedder said, “If it weren't for music, I think I would have shot myself in the front of the classroom, you know. It really is what kept me alive, so this is kind of full circle. So, to the power of music, thanks" (Source). The band blew up after this music video, but they stopped making music videos as often after the success of “Jeremy” saying that they don’t want people to remember their songs as videos.

For years, some people only knew the censored version. It wasn’t until 2020 that Pearl Jam’s official YouTube channel uploaded and remastered the uncensored version of the video that more got to see the true cut. This was done to mark National Gun Violence Awareness Day.

What Was Going On?

This is where the history and this section overlap considering I covered a lot of the meaning behind this song.

Looking at the music video’s description today, it reads:

“The Jeremy video brought attention to gun violence, teen suicide, and violence in schools. The original uncensored video, previously unreleased, is being shown here for essentially the first time. The themes of Jeremy highlighted by Pearl Jam in 1991, have sadly only become more relevant in the intervening 30 years as gun deaths continue to increase” (Source).

This video description nails it perfectly. At the time that this song and music video came out, violence, especially gun violence, was a growing problem that people weren’t fully taking action against. The director of the music video Marc Pellington explains the impact of the video well by saying, "I think that video tapped into something that has always been around and will always be around. You're always going to have peer pressure, you're always going to have adolescent rage, you're always going to have dysfunctional families" (Source).

Between 1990-1999, there were 80 incidents of gun violence in schools, the largest one being Columbine. In 1992, the year “Jeremy” came out, there were 11 school shootings (Source). Eleven school shootings in just one year was an alarming statistic, and at the time, people were feeling baffled by the violence. Sound familiar? For a lot of people, they threw up their hands, not understanding why it was happening. This is a time where it’s good to have some distance from the era to actually see the trends. One of the largest of those is the lack of support for mental health struggles. People couldn’t talk about their mental health so openly. There was a massive stigma around depression, anxiety, and the like. So, many people suffered in silence, especially children who had no support at home. Looking at some of the school shooters over the years, you begin to see that many were not mentally well, and no one noticing often led to violent acts.

We often see in these cases that there were red flags before the violence came to a head. Often, these foreshadowing events were ignored or downplayed. This negligence paired with struggling youths not receiving the support they desperately need, leads to violence. Sounds familiar again, doesn’t it?

At the time that this music video premiered, school shootings appeared to be growing in number (this is not true, but I’ll get into that in my post-thoughts). Vocalist Eddie Vedder said he wanted to bring about awareness to an issue he felt was a growing problem in the country. Vedder described his inspiration for the song stating, “It came from a small paragraph in a paper which means you kill yourself and you make a big old sacrifice and try to get your revenge. That all you're gonna end up with is a paragraph in a newspaper. Sixty-four degrees and cloudy in a suburban neighborhood. That's the beginning of the video and that's the same thing in the end; it does nothing ... nothing changes. The world goes on and you're gone. The best revenge is to live on and prove yourself. Be stronger than those people. And then you can come back” (Source). So, while the subject matter of the song is very dark, it’s meant to show that kids need proper help and support, or violence will continue to grow. Instead of moaning in despair like many others, Vedder is offering up a reason for why shootings keep happening, and it comes back to the kids.

In the 90s, mental health issues were often swept under the rug and seen as shameful. Being honest about one’s struggles had a major stigma around it. Many who listened to the song said they felt changed by it, especially when watching the music video. Pearl Jam forced listeners to look at how society is failing the youth and how that leads to violence. It’s a call for mental health awareness and for change. The entire grunge scene of the 90s saw a change in how mental health is talked about including Nirvana which was known for discussing topics many had shied away from in the past. “Jeremy” was Pearl Jam’s contribution to this conversation, a conversation that continues to this day.

My Post-Thoughts

The first thing I did after I watched the music video was go to the description that I quoted in the What Was Going On section. Discovering that the song and video were, in part, based on a real case, I went down the rabbit hole of Jeremy Wade Delle. I read articles, I searched for news clips, I watched video essays- I went beyond what I knew I’d need for this blog post, but I didn’t care. I wanted to know what truly happened. I wanted to understand what made this story in particular stand out to Eddie Vedder. I won’t go into all the details of Delle’s story, but if you’d like to, this linked video was very informative. Some details that did stick out to me I’ll include are these.

  • Jeremy had a sporadic home life and showed early signs of mental health problems.

  • He’d had a history of suicidal ideation and had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital just one year before the shooting.

  • The school was aware of threats he’d made about harming teachers and himself reported by students, but the school didn’t do much about it except put him in in-school suspension until he could be put back into treatment.

  • On the day of the incident, he appeared at peace, a common sign of someone letting go of life and intending to go through with their suicide plan.

Looking at these parts of Delle’s story, it becomes clear that this child needed help and the methods used were not helping him. Much of what his home life was like is supposition, but he didn’t seem to get much support there either. The bottom line is that this is a story we’ve sadly heard before, far too many times. Here was a child who was not well and there were clear cries for help that weren’t taken seriously until it was too late. These days, mental health is starting to have less of a stigma. People aren’t as afraid to admit they’ve been depressed or anxious anymore. Still, the stigma isn’t fully gone. As a society, we still shy away from the mentally ill that can’t “function” in society. People who struggle with psychosis, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and the like are still seen negatively in society. Sure, we’re working to break those stigmas, but we still have some ways to go. I’m glad for “Jeremy” and Pearl Jam’s insistence that we look head-on at the problem instead of making excuses. I think songs like this helped pave the way toward a society that doesn’t keep mental health problems hidden. Still, it’s a shame that a song like this got attention but we still faced high teen suicide rates into the 2000s and beyond. I personally remember when I began to understand what suicide meant in middle school in the late 2000s. It was right around the time that the emo wave had taken over. In online spaces, kids openly talked about being depressed and how self-harm was their only way to cope. The music didn’t shy away from talking about the negative feelings that come with mental health struggles. The emo lifestyle was a way for kids to feel seen and connected to something. While I’m sure for some kids, this lifestyle encouraged those negative feelings to lead them down dark paths, for some, it was a form of catharsis. My point is that the kids weren’t alright in the 90s, they weren’t alright in the 2000s, and they still aren’t alright today. And until we prioritize open discussions about these issues and provide support for those who have no other form of it, we will continue to see these tragedies. Knowing that kids like Jeremy couldn’t get the support they needed in the 90s makes me... sad. There are still thousands of kids like him today. Mental health facilities aren’t always accessible for those in less developed areas. Some kids are still told to “deal with it.” While we’ve made some progress, we can still improve.

My boss was bummed when he learned I had watched the director’s cut of this music video. He was hoping to see if I thought it was about a school shooting like so many people did for many years. But the edited version isn’t easily found on YouTube. The unedited versions are the ones to come up when you search for “Jeremy.” I’m glad to have seen the true one so I could see what Pearl Jam initially intended. One interesting thing that my boss noted is that he feels the lyrics and the story of the video fit either outcome, a school shooting or a suicide. This is probably because the idea of violence in schools is a broad topic that unfortunately falls into many categories.

While Pearl Jam spreading awareness about mental health and gun violence was admirable, anyone reading this in the 2020s knows that gun violence didn’t magically stop when Pearl Jam released this song. It continues. Some future shootings even claimed to be influenced by the edited version of the music video. This happened in particular in 1996 at Frontier Junior High School in Moses Lake, Washington, where a shooting left three dead and a fourth injured. The prosecutors for the case claimed the shooter was influenced by the “Jeremy” music video. While there may be other instances of the influences of this music video, I believe we cannot fully blame the media for violence. Every person is different, and we must evaluate the psyche of society, to make sure fiction and reality don’t blur too much.

It’s interesting to me that my boss thought I’d be shocked by people discussing school gun violence in the 90s, especially because it’s common knowledge that some of the biggest school shootings came out of that decade. Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised. I will say that I was surprised however with the frequency they occurred in the early 90s and even going back to the 80s. How some of the biggest tragedies are framed or covered, it can feel sometimes like this issue has become more urgent in the last 20 years, but that’s not true. Every decade, people are shocked and crying for change in schools. The cycle repeats.

It's sad to think that this song came out near the beginning of the 90s, and by the end of the decade, America would see one of the largest and most devastating school shootings to date with Columbine in 1999. In 1992, there were 11 school shootings in the country. Compare that to 2022, where there have been almost 50 incidents. We continue to see an increase in gun violence. I’m no expert, and when it comes to the cause, everyone has a different opinion. But one thing I believe to be true is that something has to change, and I think the first step is better awareness of mental health struggles so we can catch the violent thoughts before it goes beyond ideation.

Access to firearms greatly increases the chances that someone will not survive their mental health crisis. You can never keep all the implements of self-harm from someone, but if they are determined to die, they do whatever it takes to find a new way to harm themselves. Guns are one of the easiest ways to harm oneself, so restricting access to those going through mental health crises could prevent them from harming themselves and others.

Jeremy Wade Delle told multiple people in the weeks before his suicide that he wanted to shoot himself. A few people reported his comments, and he had a handful of hospital stays, but nothing seemed to help. The system failed Delle, and they continue to fail a lot of people. Delle’s story among many others shows how access to firearms needs to be part of the conversation when talking about mental health care and how we can get everyone the treatment they need.

To wrap up my thoughts, I wanted to just bring attention to some of the song’s lyrics that really stood out to me. “Try to erase this from a blackboard” in particular gave me chills. There is so much subtle darkness in this song. Pearl Jam doesn’t talk about the event lyrically, not really. They never mention a gun. They never mention intention. It’s all implication into what could have been going through this kid’s mind before he shot himself.

One final issue I didn’t go into much, but I think is an important one to touch on is bullying. With the way the music video portrays the other students, it brings in the growing problem of bullying. Many of the mental health struggles people deal with are only exacerbated by bullying from their peers. The feeling of being an outsider, feeling like you have no one, is a feeling that can lead kids down a dark path. The line from the song, “Clearly I remember pickin’ on the boy, seemed a harmless little f*ck but we unleashed the lion” sums up the issue well. Kids pick on each other, thinking little of it, not realizing those a bunch of little moments can morph into a big glob of resentment that can take a toll on a person. It’s never totally clear from Delle’s story if he was bullied, but it was certainly a problem in the 90s, and it continues to be a problem today.

Honestly, all the issues touched on in this video continue to be a problem today. Some things never change, even if we wish they would. It’s interesting to watch this video today, knowing that the issues then continue to be discussed and worked on today. When I saw people in the comments say they felt changed by this song, I wasn’t surprised. I too feel changed by this song and music video. The subject matter may be nothing new to me, but the approach to this topic and this story struck a chord with me. That was something I didn’t expect, but I’m glad for it.

 

Thanks for reading the latest installment of My Boss is Making Me Write This. If you’re a Pearl Jam fan, I hope my reaction entertained you, and if you’ve never heard of this song, I hope you learned something and will take the time to give “Jeremy” a listen. I’m very glad that I did. And to my boss who will inevitably keep funneling ideas to me, can we get some goofy lighthearted ones for a change? Check out my next installment to see if I get to research something lighter on the next go around, or if I’ll continue to realize how far society still has to go. Until then, lowly subordinate out!

If you or a loved one is experiencing thoughts of self harm, help is available. Visit the following sites if you need help. https://mentalhealthhotline.org/ or https://988lifeline.org/



Thanks to the linked sources found in this post and the one below for helping me with research for this post.

Written by Kristen Petronio

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