Weird Fact #23: Pearl Jam’s infamous music video “Jeremy” was not about a school massacre.
With the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School the public consciousness was yet again assaulted by the horrors of random violence when a deranged gunman took the lives of more than two dozen people, most of them children, as morning classes got underway.
But as with other mass shootings, especially those at a school, the awful scenes that may have popped unwillingly to mind probably came from popular culture rather than the real world. Particularly for those of the MTV generation, they may even have been associated with a name.
Released by Pearl Jam in 1991, the creepy and controversial music video of that name featured shots of a manically glaring, eerily wailing Eddie Vedder, belting out a song that appeared to narrate a troubled boy’s chilling descent into a nightmarish world of rage and insanity. Intercut with flashed words suggesting evil influence and dark scenes of the young man’s building anger and alienation, it ends with a ghastly shot of a shirtless Jeremy strolling into a classroom and casually tossing an apple to his teacher before leaving his classmates spattered with blood, their faces frozen in expressions of shock and horror. Vedder’s emotive and unnerving refrain of “Jeremy spoke in class today” still sends a cold shiver down the spine.
Artistically well-crafted, gut-wrenchingly offensive and viscerally disturbing, the video is still seen as controversial more than two decades after its creation. Released eight years before the killings at Columbine High School, it was thought in some ways to presage – perhaps even contribute to – a coming culture of random mass gun violence and its school setting made it particularly relevant to incidents like Columbine, Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech. In fact, the band’s hit was even cited in court as an influence in the defense of a Washington state high schooler who pleaded insanity after being accused of murdering a teacher and two classmates.
Yet, there is a surprising twist to the story of the song that became so emblematic of – and occasionally blamed for – mass killings in contemporary America.
The video had absolutely nothing to do with a massacre and it was never intended to convey a child murdering his classmates.
In reality, Jeremy was based on a real-life tragedy, a young man who did indeed come to school with a gun. But the actual Jeremy didn’t kill his fellow students. The Texas teen shot himself in front of them with a .357 Magnum. In the video version, the blood staining the students’ crisp white shirts isn’t meant to be their own but rather that of the titular character himself. The video is about a suicide, not a mass murder.
The reason for the mistaken impression?
It was a combination of censorship and poor editing. The original cut of the video showed Jeremy walking in, drawing a weapon and putting it into his mouth. That, understandably, was a bit too hot for MTV which nixed the idea. The gun scene was cut leaving simply the shot of Jeremy entering and the closing tableau of blood-soaked students. The implication of the video changed entirely.
The director of the piece, which won several awards, called the resulting misinterpretation his “greatest frustration” and said he still received calls about it years later, particularly after Columbine occurred.