The History And Enduring Controversy Behind Pearl Jam's 'Jeremy' Music Video
Grunge was still in its relative infancy when Pearl Jam’s music video for “Jeremy,” the band’s third single, debuted in 1992. While the song hit No. 5 on the Mainstream and Modern Rock Billboard charts and remained in heavy rotation on MTV for months, the music video tells a story that is deeper than one might have guessed.
“Jeremy” is based on a tragic true incident of an emotionally anguished teenager, Jeremy Wade Delle, who ended his own life in front of his classmates in 1991. Combined with lead singer Eddie Vedder’s intense vocals, the song's lyrics captured the alienation and loneliness of Generation X while the music video brought visuals and drama to the narrative.
The video that aired on MTV was not the full cut, however, and the pivotal scene that was eliminated changed the video's message entirely, causing confusion and controversy for years.
'Jeremy' Is Based On The Tragic True Story Of A Teen Suicide
On the morning of January 8, 1991, Jeremy Wade Delle, a 16-year-old from Richardson, TX, arrived late to his high school English class. His teacher sent him to the office to get a tardy slip. Instead, Delle returned to the classroom and announced, “Miss, I got what I really went for.”
The teenager pulled a .357 Magnum out of his waistband and ended his own life in front of his 30 classmates and teacher.
One of his only friends at the time, Lisa Moore, reported that they would pass notes back and forth during in-school detention. Delle normally signed his notes with “Write back,” but his final note was signed “Later days.”
In a 1991 Billboard interview, Eddie Vedder noted that he’d come across the newspaper article covering Delle’s demise. Combined with a personal experience Vedder had in seventh grade with a classmate who fired an arm in a geography class, the incident led to the penning of "Jeremy."
The Video Tells The Story Through Close-Ups And Still Images
The now-legendary video begins with stills of innocuous-sounding text: “3:30 in the afternoon. An affluent suburb. 64 degrees and cloudy.” Throughout the video, text flashes across the screen that tells the fictionalized story of Jeremy’s family pain and school struggles: “peer… described as… bored… ignored… harmless…”
In between are images of the Jeremy character (played by 12-year-old Trevor Wilson) growing increasingly agitated as he scribbles demented images on paper, argues with his parents, and stares eerily into the camera while wrapped in an American flag.
MTV Censored The Video’s Pivotal Scene, Resulting In Erroneous Interpretations
In the uncut video’s pivotal moment, Jeremy walks into the classroom, tosses an apple to his teacher, and slides the barrel of an arm into his mouth. The intro text repeats across the screen: “3:30 in the afternoon. An affluent suburb. 64 degrees and cloudy.” The scene cuts to a tableau of school children recoiled in horror, blood spattered across their faces and hands.
Complying with rules against portraying graphic imagery, MTV omitted the scene with the arm, so the audience only sees the image of the blood-covered classmates. This censure causes controversy and confusion to this day, leading most viewers to believe that Jeremy shot his classmates, rather than only himself.
There Was A Precursor Music Video That Never Made It To The Screen
Photographer Chris Cuffaro originally approached Vedder to produce a music video and was given permission by Epic Records to use any song from Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten. Cuffaro chose “Jeremy.” The catch? Epic wouldn’t fund it. Cuffaro sold half his guitar collection and borrowed money from friends for an anemic $20,000 budget.
During production and editing, Pearl Jam’s popularity was blowing up. By the time the Cuffaro video was edited, Epic shelved Cuffaro’s project, opting to fund a “more polished” production with well-known music video director Mark Pellington. The budget: $400,000.
Director Mark Pellington Initially Passed On The Project
Pellington had growing clout as a music director, working with ‘90s megastars including U2, PM Dawn, Public Enemy, and De La Soul. Pellington later said that when he was approached to create the video for “Jeremy,” he wasn’t a Pearl Jam fan, didn’t feel drawn to the lyrics, and initially passed on the job.
Thankfully for music history, Pellington’s producer urged him to listen closely to the lyrics. Pellington says he locked himself in a room and listened to the track on repeat. After speaking with Vedder about the song’s meaning, Pellington had his proverbial “Aha!” moment and agreed to do the project.
The Official Video Featured Mostly Vedder, Not The Band
Unlike the original Cuffaro video, which focused heavily on each of the band members playing their respective instruments and only in microdoses on the narrative of Jeremy, Pellington’s video hardly shows the band at all. Instead, the director honed in on telling Jeremy's story, with Vedder’s intense performance intermittently shown to narrate the dark tale.
After the massive media attention of Pearl Jam’s first two singles, “Alive” and “Even Flow,” Vedder was relieved not to be the sole focus. During filming, Pellington described Vedder as having a “possessed look,” a description that’s evident in the final official video.