In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re talking about the songs we hate by bands we love.
R.E.M., “Shiny Happy People” (1991)
I am far from the first to say that I hate R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People.” One year ago, The Lawrence Arms’ Brendan Kelly laid out on this very website, with brutal precision, the many reasons to hate it, from its “fucking jangly riff” to its “sad French circus breakdown.” Over the years, it’s found itself on various lists of “Worst Songs Ever” and “Wussiest Songs Of All Time.” Even Michael Stipe himself grew to dislike it, reportedly keeping it off the greatest hits album In Time despite it being the band’s last Top 10 single, refusing to play it live, and eventually admitting to reporters it had “limited appeal” to him. (He was much harsher in 1995, when he said to Space Ghost flatly: “I hate that song.”) To hate “Shiny Happy People,” you have to meet me in the crowd, and get in a long line of people holding hands. Pee-eeple! Pee-eeple!
But while my distaste for “Shiny Happy People” isn’t unique, realizing that I hated it was nevertheless meaningful for me, in several ways. I was 13 years old when Out Of Time was released, and my music appreciation was both wide open and severely limited. Along with INXS and Depeche Mode, R.E.M. was among the very few bands I knew of that I considered “mine”—not borrowed or shared with my parents, like The Beatles and U2—and among the few bands I knew of, period. For the most part, my tastes were broad and indiscriminate the way a 13-year-old’s are. I liked John Williams’ film scores and cassingles of songs I’d heard in movies, like Bon Jovi’s “Blaze Of Glory.” I enjoyed novelty tunes like “The Humpty Dance” and “Do The Bartman.” I owned three DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince albums. In other words, I wasn’t yet to a point where “coolness” was a factor when it came to my music.
All that changed with “Shiny Happy People,” my introduction to which was the first moment I remember thinking, “What is this shit?” I mean, I’d already become used to R.E.M.’s more upbeat, let’s-just-say-irritating pop confections: Both “Stand” and “Pop Song 89” from the previous album, Green, have moments where they tried the listener’s patience with inane, sing-songy lyrics that just made you want to yell at Stipe to pipe down back there or you’ll turn this goddamn car around. Even Out Of Time itself kicks off with “Radio Song,” whose KRS-One rap breakdown makes Blondie’s “Rapture” sound like Wu-Tang Clan. But “Shiny Happy People” was a special kind of inane—an inanity that pretended to be profound.
Stipe’s insistence in interviews that it was a darker song than critics realize—that it’s based on Chinese propaganda posters and meant to be ironic—is neither borne out by the non-annotated version of the song nor is it a particularly cutting form of irony. (“They’re so happy—but not really!”) Even in 1991, before irony had seeped into every aspect of pop culture to be sponged up by my adolescent brain, I recognized that “Shiny Happy People” was making cloying pabulum more than mocking it.
(Also, Kate Pierson’s braying backing vocals are fucking terrible. I offer no broader context or elaboration for this.)
The recognition that “Shiny Happy People” was weirdly embarrassing to listen to proved to be an important step in my evolution as a music fan and as a person (for better or worse). Cringing at “Shiny Happy People” led directly to me taking a more discerning view toward pop music and pop culture in general; to this day, I can’t stand songs or other artistic works with a forced, manufactured sense of fun. It also taught me the important lesson that the artists you admire aren’t infallible. Sometimes they’re going to release something that makes you question everything you like about them. Even more importantly, it taught me that asking those questions can give you a deeper appreciation of their work.
In fact, I grew to love Out Of Time in spite of “Shiny Happy People,” which put into stark relief just how great surrounding songs like “Half A World Away,” “Texarkana,” and especially “Country Feedback” were. It also made me value far more the side of R.E.M. I like that isn’t “Shiny Happy People,” which the band really delved into on next year’s far more melancholy Automatic For The People. In a sense, hating “Shiny Happy People” gave me a rubric for understanding what kind of music I really enjoy—and therefore, who I really am. So in the end, who’s to say that, despite my hating it, I’m not far, far better for having heard it?
Eh. Given the choice, I would still rather not.