22 Years Later, "Jeremy" is More Haunting Than Ever

"Clearly I remember picking on the boy…but we unleashed a lion…"

Anyone that knows grunge music at all, or rock music in the 1990’s knows about “Jeremy”. We know his story and how it ends. We know Eddie Vedder, the lead singer for Pearl Jam, and the way he sings the song in a callous matter-of-fact tone. 

That was 1992. Now some 150 school shootings later, the song “Jeremy” has even greater relevance. In 1992, two school shootings took place in America. In just half a year in 2014 thus far, we’ve had 31 different occurences of violence in our nation’s learning institutions.

Those grave statistics have to stop us in our tracks. They have to make us ask a simple, yet honest question: what in the world is going on?

Pearl Jam’s song “Jeremy” had quite the controversy of its own back in the day. The song was inspired by a story of a student in a Texas high school that killed himself in the middle of a second period class. While the song is certainly somber enough in its lyrics, the video is where the drama was set: it shows classmates covered in the blood of the boy after he’s blown his head off with a .357 Magnum.

The song is odd: it’s got a relatively catchy chorus: "Jeremy spoke in class today" repeats several times. It’s got Vedder’s gruff vocals and imaginative lyrics. At the same time, the subject matter cannot be discarded (nor was it ever intended to be). School violence is increasing at alarming rates, and besides heated quibbles over gun laws and mental illness, little seems to be in the works to change things.

What “Jeremy” proves to us is a number of things. First, songs about important issues always stand the test of time. Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” is always appropriate during times of war and unrest. Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” rests uncomfortably on our ears even today in its poignant imagery of the hanging of innocent black men and women. “Jeremy” seemed to be, at least now, well ahead of its time. The barrage of gun-related incidents in schools is astounding, one that not even the horrors from the real life Jeremy could have predicted.

In April of 1999, 15 people were shot and killed at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Before the events of 9/11, this event stood out as the “Pearl Harbor” of our generation. The idea that an instrument intended to destroy life would become so commonplace in our institutions of learning is frightening. Even as a senior in high school then, the possibility of a classmate killing other classmates in school was a foreign concept.

We’re desensitized to much of it now. Almost weekly during the school year there are stories that pop up of, if not a gun-related death, then a student caught bringing one to school. It’s only big news now if dozens are slaughtered.

Perhaps the most unfortunate reality we face as Americans staring down the proverbial barrel of the school shooting dilemma is that we can’t get past our own rights. We’re more concerned with the need to protect our desire to own firearms than we are protecting kids. Not just protecting, but really trying to understand the countless layers of mental and emotional fragility that so many kids are weighed down with.

Some will read this post and load their reactionary ammo magazines with one of the following responses: “Eddie is toeing the liberal line, and wants gun rights revoked” or “Eddie doesn’t understand these kids, they’re all crazy” or “It’s the parents, they don’t know how to handle their kids or their guns”. 

Maybe all of those reactions are right. I’d rather not waste time or space wringing hands over petty politics. I’d rather not use cliched blame tactics. Honestly I can’t really find one side of the fence to be on regarding gun rights. I don’t know how to handle mental illness among our teenagers in schools. I don’t know if there is legislation or social programs that will help the crisis of guns in our schools. I do know the conversation must continue. It must progress. The future of the next generation is at stake.

22 years since Pearl Jam released a rock song with a controversial video, we still haven’t figured out how to keep Jeremy from bringing the gun to school. We haven’t figured out how to talk to him before that cliff-hanger moment comes to point him to a better way. We haven’t figured out how to tip the scales to protecting children rather than protecting our rights. 

Through the endless complexities of each school shooting, we’ve got to get this question answered correctly: when Jeremy speaks in class, how can we replace his gun and bullets with dreams and a future?