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The original column was published on November 15th, 2019 and can be found below.
Should we talk about the weather?
(Hi, hi, hi)
Should we talk about the government?
(Hi, hi, hi, hi)
Currently, I’m in the final stages of a new music project that I’m so excited to release and it’s a great new direction for my writing. I’ve dabbled in political songwriting in the past, but I usually fell short and started feeling that when you make a political message the main focus, the song too often becomes more about sending the intended message over writing a great song. Sacrificing catchiness for importance. Placing relevancy over memorability. But this time, helped by the fact that someone else is writing most of the music, we’ve really crafted a record that I think is about some really important things, but never at the expense of making a great record that people will (hopefully!) want to listen to. And nobody balanced those two things half as well as R.E.M. did, especially on their 1988 album, Green.
Sometimes I feel like I can’t even sing
(Say, say, the light) I’m very scared for this world, I’m very scared for me
(Say, say, the light) Eviscerate your memory, here’s a scene
You’re in the back seat laying down
(Say, say, the light) The windows wrap around to the sound of the travel and the engine
Green was released on November 7th, 1988, the day before the 1988 American Presidential election. R.E.M. was very outspoken at the time against then-candidate George H. W. Bush and supported the Democrat, Michael Dukakis. Using their first major label release to raise their platform, it was clear that this album was going to be even more political than they’d been in the past.
Green is an interesting album in R.E.M.’s catalog. They’d been primarily playing in minor keys with more traditional instrumentation, but with Green they somehow managed to be more mainstream, while also becoming more experimental. Their songwriting became more major key and accessible, but their instrumentation was becoming much more diverse. This album features a lot of mandolin and pedal steel guitar, played by Peter Buck, and it layers the record in an eerie, but deeply, beautiful way. The higher string instruments interweave perfectly under Michael Stipe’s voice, which was reaching new highs with each new album, of which Green is no exception.
This is my world and I am the World Leader Pretend
This is my life and this is my time
I have been given the freedom to do as I see fit
It’s high time I raised the walls that I’ve constructed
It’s amazing what devices you can sympathize (Empathize)
This is my mistake, let me make it good
I raised the wall and I will be the one to knock it down
You fill in the mortar, you fill in the harmony
You fill in the mortar, I raised the wall
And I’m the only one, I will be the one to knock it down
Just about every single song on Green deals with some sort of bigger picture. They all certainly resonate with me, but the diversity in the messages, alongside the diversity in the musical directions the album pushes into, help make Green a truly iconic album. I never really hear anyone talk about R.E.M.’s influence on music and pop culture, but they’re a real benchmark of the transition from the punk-focused Reagan-era of political music, back into a more mainstream level of politics in popular music. The most famous song on the record, “Orange Crush” doesn’t shy away from the explicitly political message at the heart of Green. Everybody knows “Orange Crush,” but I don’t know how many casual listeners realize what it’s about. It’s not soda, that’s for sure. Right underneath the endlessly catchy hooks is a story about Vietnam, specifically the chemical weapon, Agent Orange.
High on the roof
Thin the blood
Another one came on the waves tonight
Coming in, you’re home
“We would circle and we’d circle and we’d circle
To stop and consider and centered on the pavement
Stacked up all the trucks jacked up and our wheels
In slush and orange crush in pocket and all
This here county, hell, any county, it’s just like heaven here
And I was remembering and I was just in a different county and all
Then this whirlybird that I headed for I had my goggles pulled off;
I knew it all, I knew every back road and every truck stop”
(Follow me, don’t follow me)
I’ve got my spine, I’ve got my orange crush
(Collar me, don’t collar me)
I’ve got my spine, I’ve got my orange crush
(We are agents of the free)
I’ve had my fun and now it’s time
To serve your conscience overseas (Over me, not over me)
Coming in fast, over me
This record really captures the dichotomy that I struggle with every time I put my creative voice into a project. I always want to be fun, optimistic, and inspiring, but I, more often than not, end up just wanting to unload all my anger and angst. I just want to shake people and yell at them to give a shit about whatever issues are really stuck in my brain at the time. To just berate them with rhetoric until they finally feel what I feel. But too often, it just comes off callous and angry. Maybe it’s better to give a more empathetic message, giving the audience the opportunity and the agency to come to some insightful conclusions on their own. And if you can put it all in a super catchy single, that definitely won’t hurt. You catch more flies with honey and all that.
More than anything else, R.E.M. is pure honesty. Green was the very first album I listened to when I got my own car and I’ll never forget the rush of hearing the album blaring (through a Discman, powered by two piggybacked AC adapters and a cassette converter) as I slammed the clutch, shifted into third, and merged onto the expressway for the first time. It was a relatively new album for me at the time, but I just couldn’t bring myself to listen to anything else. It was such a perfect blend of angst and optimism. Relevance and memorability. Catchiness and importance. It so perfectly encapsulates my constant struggle between trying to bring everyone up and to make sure everyone knows how important it is to get up and stand for something. The world makes me want to scream every single day. But those screams are not uniform. Screams of joy, screams of pain, screams of love, screams of hate. And that’s ok.