Copyright © Jason Voegele
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.
While many of the concept videos seen on MTV are either less than imaginative or almost entirely disconnected from the song, the video for Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" is both fully realized and important. "Dark, foreboding, obscurely symbolic...["Jeremy" is a] grim fairy tale" (Rolling Stone 71), about individuality, abuse, and suicide. But it is not mere exploitation of adolescent angst; the subject of the video is not glorified or sensationalized. Rather, it is a cathartic expression of an important issue, that goes in depth in its study of the causes and effects concerning its story. In the video, the young boy Jeremy is at first shown to be a creative and, if perhaps a bit introverted, a generally happy and care-free boy. He is, in fact, an artist living in his own blissful little world. However, the video goes on to show how he is neglected by his parents and abused by his schoolmates, and how this damages him psychologically. The video ends with a shot of a blood-spattered, statuesque students, after Jeremy, standing in front of the classroom, shot himself in the head. In dramatizing Jeremy's sad demise, the video indicts the "affluent suburb[s]" (Jeremy Video) and the idealized fantasy world television creates with its unrealistic portrayals of eternally happy families, and such "traditional family values" as conservatism, puritan work ethics, and disciplined obedience.
"Jeremy" starts out by deceptively creating an apparently happy setting. "3:30 in the afternoon...64 degrees and cloudy...an affluent suburb" flashes intermittently on the screen and then the camera cuts to an image of a kid-sized chalkboard swinging by the strings from which it hangs. As the picture closes in on the blackboard and fades into a shot of Jeremy in the woods, it gives the impression that we are entering a happy fairy tale, and that impression lasts for some time. Jeremy seems happy, his isolated world seems blissful, and the music is lively. The images of the video are faithful to the sunny images evoked in the song lyrics: "drawing pictures...of mountaintops...with him on top...lemin yellow sun...arms raised in a V..." This technique is characteristic of the rest of the video; the full meaning of the story can be grasped only through the counterpoint of the images and the song and its lyrics.
After creating this initially happy setting, the video takes a turning point. With the line "the dead lay in pools of maroon below," we perceive that Jeremy is a very disturbed child; there is something bubbling under the surface. Also at this point, the music becomes more ominous and the words "the serpent was subtil" flash on the screen. This is the first among several Biblical references in the video ("Genesis 3:6", "the unclean spirit entered"). And while the meaning of these allusions is not entirely clear, the fact that all of them refer to the book of Genesis suggests that the video may be trying to create a parallel between the suburbs in the video and the Garden of Eden from the Genesis. These specific allusions, referring to Original Sin, suggest that Jeremy is poisoning the supposed paradise of his surroundings. He is in many ways the serpent itself ("the unclean spirit entered"), threatening to disrupt the order and conformity his suburban paradise.
After establishing Jeremy's instability, it immediately lays blame on his parents: "Daddy didn't give attention...to the fact that Mommy didn't care." Parents are the first among many representations of the institution to come under criticism in the video, and its portrayal of Jeremy's parents as empty suits is a revelation. Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament was quoted as saying "I think every kid in the world related to that" (Rolling Stone 71). The parents are obviously wealthy, residing in "an affluent suburb" and wearing proper busines attire. They are also unresponsive towards Jeremy's needs, justifying their rules with the dismissive "because I say so." When the video shows Jeremy animatedly shouting at his parents, both sit motionless as statues (Jeremy is the only character in the video who actually does move). The large, open eye in the background represents Jeremy's act of reaching out, but his parents unresponsiveness causes him to withdraw into himself once again. The eye in the background closes, and Jeremy's retreat into himself is represented by his retreat into the woods, where his imaginary self "King Jeremy the Wicked rule[s] his world."
The fact that Jeremy's parents are often represented as empty suits suggests that who they are does not matter, because they represent a larger idea. The students in Jeremy's class too seem to stand for more than just his abusive peers. While Jeremy is shown to be a bit different from them from the outset, the rest of the students seem to be the essence of conformity when they are shown with fingers pointed at Jeremy, mouths agape in laughter--and still utterly motionless. They are all dressed alike, which, on the surface suggests a catholic school, but more latently suggests an ideal of conformity that these students and perhaps the catholic school system represent. Even more than catholic schools, though, the video is a condemnation of indoctrination in general. Schools are not only for educating, but inscribing a certain way of thinking. Catholic schools, unlike liberal universities, don't try to hide this by pretending to foster free thought, but all schools represent an attempt to indoctrinate their students to certain belief systems. This representation of mass conformity as a destructive force is rendered even more potent by the references the video makes to Naziism: when the students are shown holding their hands to their hearts in reverence of the flag representing their institution, the picture flashes for just the briefest second to a shot of the students with arms raised in a "Heil Hitler" pose.
The larger ideal that these things seem to represent is that of what many people call "traditional family values," and often what they are referring to is the ideal family of the fifties. This "ideal family" would be a middle- to upper-class suburban family with disciplined, obedient, well-dressed children who probably attend a catholic school. Ultimately, the "ideal family" is one which, by definition, represents very conservative values. Of course, such an ideal has never existed on a large enough scale to be representative of the typical family of the time period, not in the fifties any more than now. When people point to the fifties as a decade in which these traditional family values played in important role in peoples lives, they are pointing to a myth that was largely created by family television shows such as Leave It To Beaver.
"Jeremy" plays with this myth, and criticizes it, by casting its characters (parents, students, schools, suburbs) as the typical stereotype for such "traditional family values," and reveals its source by flashing "wicked...90210" on the screen. Jeremy is shown to be an individual who does not conform to this ideal, the artist in a conformist society, thus he is the object of ridicule to the other students and the object of neglect to his parents. When Jeremy kills himself, he self-assuredly stands in front of the classroom, tosses an apple to the teacher (just as the serpent in Genesis proffered Eve the forbidden fruit), and shoots himself. This is not as a self-pitying act of weakness; it is an attempt to lash out against the mindlessness of his surroundings, as is implied by the subtle violence of the line "try to forget this...try to erase this...from the blackboard" (an image made ambiguous by the edited version of the video aired on MTV, which deletes the image of Jeremy placing the gun in his mouth and leaves to the interpretation of the viewer whether Jeremy killed himself or murdered his classmates.)
Because he is different, Jeremy is devoured by his unaccepting surroundings, as is shown when he stands (arms triumphantly raised in a V) in front of a painting of a wolf, his head centered in the wolf's gaping mouth. Jeremy's personal tragedy can be seen as a metaphor for all artists in our often closed-minded society. The video draws the parallel between Jeremy's plight and that of Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder by constantly juxtaposing the two of them on the screen, until it becomes evident that they are one and the same, at least in the ideal they represent. Vedder, who has openly mused about his previous thoughts of suicide and how "there have been times... when those feelings came back," (Hilburn 81) obviously views conformity as a corrosive force, and cathartically expressed his fears through Jeremy. And "Jeremy" has shown what can happen to those who are different and cannot cope with the pressures, as did--so tragically--Kurt Cobain.
Although we are not all a mass of intolerant Nazis, "Jeremy" shows us how dangerous it can be for us to expect everyone to try to live up to idealized family values. Contrary to the popular beliefs of so many nowadays, not only are we unable to live up to that myth, but also probably shouldn't, for such values represent the seed crystal for fascism. While not as powerful as Hitler or Big Brother, tradition can be a much more subtly dangerous force.