A look back at the controversy surrounding the Pearl Jam video Jeremy and how it relates to the recent episode of Sons of Anarchy where a school shooting brought tragedy to our front door…
By Damon Martin — Editor/Lead Writer
Follow on Twitter @DamonMartin
The year was 1992 and I was just entering high school.
Back then like a lot of kids my age, I grew up in the grunge age of music and followed Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain like they spoke the gospel truth. I’ll never forget the day I bought Pearl Jam’s first record ‘Ten’ because about two months later I had to buy another copy of the cassette because I listened to the first one so much I eventually wore the tape out and it snapped.
One of the most powerful songs on that first album was the sixth track on the front side of the cassette titled ‘Jeremy’. The lyrics and the music were haunting enough, but in 1992 in the midst of Pearl Jam’s rise to fame they released a music video for the song directed by Mark Pellington.
It was a dark, disturbing flash of images as a young boy fought for his parent’s attention and love and found none. He was bullied and tormented at school, and was just portrayed as the outcast. In the final scene of the video, the boy enters his school, tosses a shiny apple to his teacher and pulls out a gun and with a quiet smirk plastered on his face he begins to raise the gun. The last images of the video show a class full of shocked teenagers sitting in fear and covered in blood as the boy ‘Jeremy’ took his life in front of all of them.
The video was met with a ton of blowback and controversy over such disturbing and violent imagery. Nothing like that had ever been done before, but the powerful story behind the song and video couldn’t be ignored and ‘Jeremy’ eventually went on to win ‘Best Video of the Year’ at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards. Still, censors, parents, and just about everyone in between wanted the video banned because of the graphic images and suggestion shown in the video.
At the time the video was released, I was 14-years old. I remember watching the video and feeling like this is a song that meant something to me. I went through a big part of my first year or two at school being bullied and pushed around because I was the shorter, heavy-set kid who wore glasses. Life got better as I got older (and shooting up to 6’3″ didn’t hurt) but that video helped me to understand that there are other people out there feeling what I’m feeling, but it also made me realize that I could never actually go through with hurting myself the way that boy in the video did. It was almost like I was scared straight. I never wanted to be Jeremy, but I learned a valuable lesson from the video.
Fast forward seven years and the tragic school shooting that took place at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. On that day, hundreds of students had their innocence ripped away from them as two boys walked through the school shooting and killing classmates and teachers. No child should have to hide under a desk, fearing for their lives, as gunshots ring out and kids not even old enough to drive or vote are snuffed out and silenced. It was a horrific incident that affected hundreds upon thousands of friends and family, and rocked the nation to its core. It also became a pulpit for voices to be heard that the young boys who committed this atrocity were fans of heavy metal groups like Marilyn Manson, and that music and violent imagery helped lead them down this dark path of destruction.
The video for ‘Jeremy’ disappeared off of music video stations for good after that. Despite the song winning multiple awards for putting a powerful issue on front street, it quickly become untouchable because it featured a similar incident as to what happened in Columbine that April morning in 1999. To this day, the video for ‘Jeremy’ is rarely seen on television outside of a few specials on networks like VH-1 and it’s hardly ever shown in its entirety.
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Last Tuesday night, the outlaw biker drama Sons of Anarchy brought the school shooting tragedy right to our front doors again when an 11-year old boy left his house one morning and after making it to school, pulled out a KG-9 semi-automatic weapon and proceeded to enter the building and fired off multiple rounds, presumably killing several classmates and teachers.
A day after the show aired, the Parents Television Council unleashed a tirade on the show, FX networks and show’s creator Kurt Sutter. Parents that had children killed in Sandy Hook — another tragic school shooting — also came after Sutter for not caring about their pain and suffering while capitalizing on the tragedy by commercializing the issue on television. Sutter came back with his own response later that day, mostly targeting the Parents Television Council for their desire to somehow silence him, his show and his art from even being available for audiences to view.
It brought me full circle back to Jeremy in 1992.
Watching the scene in Sons of Anarchy wasn’t easy even though I had heard rumors about the controversial act before the season started. When I saw the young boy toting around his backpack and narrowly missing several encounters with the members of the motorcycle club, I had a feeling I knew the rumors I heard were coming true. When the boy sat down on the bench, and revealed an arm full of cuts either self-inflicted or perpetrated as abuse, my stomach cringed because this is the kind of pain and suffering that can lead to extreme acts. When he laid down his notebook and we see the violent images scrawled out on the pages, it was like I was back in high school and the table full of outcasts would routinely be hassled and bullied by the jocks, and these kids were forced to let out their pain on a piece of paper or a canvas because no amount of punching, kicking or fighting was going to stop the endless cycle of abuse. As the boy pulled out the gun and another clip full of ammunition, it brought me back to the heart wrenching scene in Michael Moore’s Academy Award winning film ‘Bowling for Columbine’ when they showed how easy it was for anybody to pick up bullets just by visiting their local K-Mart store. Once the boy entered the school, and a shrill screech went up before the gunshots began, my heart dropped into my stomach.
For a brief moment, the shooting felt real to me again. It brought me back to the morning I heard about Sandy Hook and Columbine and all the other tragic school shootings we’ve experienced as a nation over the last two decades. It reminded me that while television is an escape from the normal, everyday lives we lead that there is still a great big world out there and tragedy can strike at a moment’s notice. The pain can come from anywhere — even an 11-year old boy who maybe just slipped through the cracks that no one noticed what kind of hurt was behind his eyes.
Sutter has spoken quite a bit since the controversial scene aired on Tuesday about how the act itself plays into a larger story for this season of the show. His group of outlaws are gun-runners and their business is unloading hundreds of illegal firearms into the communities in and around their home town of Charming, Calif. For the past five seasons, the club’s activities have mostly caused suffering around their circles. Club members have died. Rival club members have been killed. A baby was kidnapped, but it was all part of the circle of violence that surrounds the outlaw life.
Still for the most part of five seasons of the show, it was outlaw vs. outlaw and the average, everyday citizen never became involved in the storyline. It harkens back to a scene in the 2001 film Training Day when Alonzo played Denzel Washington is dropping a little knowledge on his rookie team member Jake Hoyt played by Ethan Hawke.
Jake Hoyt: That’s street justice
Alonzo: What’s wrong with street justice?
Jake Hoyt: Oh, what, so just let the animals wipe themselves out, right?
Alonzo: God willing. Fuck ’em and everybody that looks like them.
The point of the scene was to illustrate that the world doesn’t care too much if one gang banger kills another gang banger. If one drug dealer wipes out another drug dealer. So long as it doesn’t make it into the homes or neighborhoods of John Q. Taxpayer with his 2.5 kids, a white picket fence and a Range Rover in the garage. It’s the same premise on Sons of Anarchy, but this school shooting is going to hit the club hard and where it hurts the most because their gun running landed a weapon in the hands of this 11-year old boy who decided to take out his pain and anger on a classroom full of children.
It was one of the most powerful scenes in the show’s history and I think we should applaud Sutter and his team for bravely taking television to this place. We ask our artists to be better, to talk about bigger issues, to help empower the world with knowledge and make us all think about the world we live in. Sutter brought the tragedy of a school shooting into our homes last Tuesday night and reminded everyone that this kind of event can happen anywhere, to anybody. No one is safe.
I can’t speak to the pain and suffering the parents in Sandy Hook or Columbine felt the day that those school shootings happened, and the kind of anguish and sadness I’m sure they wake up with everyday. Their feelings matter and they have the right to be upset about anything that relates back to the events that took place in their respective towns. Just like the Sandy Hook parents who got so upset that some conspiracy theorists started splashing an asinine video around the internet saying the entire event was staged, they have the right without regard to get upset about something like this.
My point is this — look at the bigger picture what this does for our society.
Sutter brought the school shooting and the world of illegal firearms right into our living rooms, and more than 8 million people witnessed it all unfold. We were reminded of the lives lost at Sandy Hook and in Columbine and all the other horrific school shootings that have happened. What we will see in the coming weeks is how these outlaws that were never supposed to be a threat to John Q. Taxpayer deal with the fallout of their illegal lifestyles. This incident wasn’t commercialized for controversy. It was used as a reminder of how these tragic events happen in all of our communities, and now Sutter will show the consequences that go along with those actions.
Sometimes we need a harsh reminder to put us back into the frame of mind to never forget those moments. Whether your take away from the show was to remember how many illegal guns flood our streets everyday or it was just to go up and grab your kid and hug them a little bit tighter, nobody walked away without learning something that night. We here in America tend to have short memories, there’s no doubt about that. Maybe it’s just the nature of tragedy that we want to move on and not think about it any longer, but we sometimes are forced to when it happens again.
Sutter’s vision was exactly that. It was a harsh reminder that should have brought sadness into our hearts, and maybe given us all a little bit of conviction to try and prevent these things from happening. This was a dramatized version of a real tragedy, but it can also be a message that we learn from and help make us better.
The 1992 video for ‘Jeremy’ was based on a true story as well. Back when the video was released, lead singer Eddie Vedder said that he read about the event in a small blurb at the bottom of a newspaper, and he felt that it wasn’t enough that this kid’s tragic ending was left as just a tiny column in a local paper. So in response he wrote ‘Jeremy’ and the video was made thereafter.
Instead of censoring the video for ‘Jeremy’ or saying that Sutter is an uncaring, insensitive television writer who is trying to monetize a tragedy, maybe we should look at each of these pieces for what they truly are — a harbinger for what happens when we bury our heads in the sand, ignore the world around us and drown in sea of Kardashian reality shows and Miley Cyrus songs.
We should ask more TV showrunners to push the envelope and involve real life issues in their programming. The events that affect us most, at our cores, go beyond a politician sending pictures of his crotch to a girl on the internet. The real problems, those that should make us all wake up in a cold sweat one night are when our friends and loved ones are being sent off to fight a war overseas, or a severely damaged political system, or maybe a school shooting that should sound off about 100 alarms we need to hear.
Today, I’m thanking Kurt Sutter for putting together one of the best shows on television while giving me a hard slap of reality to the face to never forget what’s going on in the world around me.