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In Defense of… R.E.M.’s ‘Shiny Happy People’

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Ladies and gentlemen of the court, after decades of standing by as the good name of R.E.M. was dragged through the M.U.D., “Shiny Happy People” is now being formally prosecuted for alleged crimes against music. As the defense in this case, I’m only too proud to stand up for those who attempt to tarnish this song and the people associated with it – especially the shiny, and let’s not forget the happy.

Now I understand that as R.E.M. fans – and I’m sure there are many in this courtroom today – we’ve sometimes had a difficult relationship with the second single off of Out of Time. Perhaps some of you, sitting at middle school lunch tables, were asked about your favorite band. You named R.E.M. and were greeted by a couple of junior high jerks flouncing in circles as they sang, “Shiny happy people holding hands…” with fake smiles on their faces. “Well, I don’t really care about that song,” you said defensively, fumbling through an objection. “I’m way more into ‘Country Feedback.’ Michael Stipe says the f-word and everything.” But it was too late.

Today we stand (yeah and that poppy R.E.M. hit was all right, too!) up to the bullies, the macho rock fans, the Denis Learys of the world who aren’t just incapable of enjoying this joyful pop-rock confection, but appear somehow enraged by its existence. Let it please the court that this defense will present several pieces of evidence to demonstrate that “Shiny Happy People” should be demonized or dismissed no longer, allowing R.E.M. fans to fully embrace this shiny, happy corner of the band’s esteemed catalog.

Exhibit A: In the early ’90s, happy songs were despised.

“Shiny Happy People” was released in 1991, the same year that grunge broke. Although R.E.M. were idolized by some of those guys (chiefly Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain), the newly popular alternative rock reveled in darkness. Hit songs were about abuse, violence, drugs and war. Love, unity, hope and holding hands might work in some crowds, but not one that counted Polly and Jeremy among its members. The anti-happy sentiment extended beyond grunge. Plenty of loyal Bruce Springsteen fans turned their backs on the Boss when he began to write from the perspective of a contented family man in the ’90s. Many of them didn’t come back until Bruce could help them make sense of 9/11. It didn’t take that long for R.E.M. to regain the trust of the depressives; 1992’s Automatic for the People would more than balance this shiny bit of optimism. But why should a band be limited to one aesthetic?

Exhibit B: R.E.M. were not to be constrained to a narrow definition of alt rock.

Which brings us to our next piece of evidence: the band’s unwillingness to conform. What many R.E.M. fans celebrate about the group is that no two of their albums sound the same, that the band continued to evolve and try on new sounds every time out. That doesn’t mean the fans were obliged to applaud every direction R.E.M. took, but there’s a difference between not liking “Shiny Happy People” and disparaging the tune. I didn’t hear such outrage when Mike Mills sang the equally sunny “(I Am) Superman” at the end of Lifes Rich Pageant. Or is that how you prefer your R.E.M. pop dalliances? It’s easy to kid yourself about the band’s more melodic leanings when the track is a dashed-off cover at the end of an LP. But when it becomes a Top 10 hit, you can no longer shield yourself with irony.

Exhibit C: It’s a beautiful recording.

Maybe it’s too poppy or dance-y for you. Maybe you’re allergic to a perceived Up With People vibe. Fine. But you can’t deny that “Shiny Happy People” is a well-made recording, in which waltzing strings lead into Peter Buck’s nimble guitar riff, which gives way to a bouquet of layered vocals. This might not be Stipe’s best turn at the mic, but R.E.M. throws the windows wide open when his voice combines with contributions from bassist Mills and guest star (and B-52) Kate Pierson. And it’s not as if the band’s penchant for lush, elegant pop was an anomaly – see: “Superman,” “Stand,” “At My Most Beautiful” and all of Reveal. Buck and Mills are Beach Boys nerds; Stipe loves the Monkees. It’s no wonder these guys set aside any “cool rock guy” inhibitions and just had fun. I beseech the jury to try it for themselves.

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Exhibit D: Overplay of the song and its music video hurt it’s reputation.

Although seemingly few will admit it now, someone had to like “Shiny Happy People” because it became a Top 10 hit (one of only four R.E.M. songs to achieve this in the U.S.) after being released as a single. But popularity is so often paired with backlash, and this one was spurred by the song’s constant presence on radio and the heavy rotation of its music video on MTV. I don’t know about the other people in this court, but I could hear “Losing My Religion” every day for some time before tiring of that masterpiece. “Shiny Happy People” just isn’t the same kind of song. The pop confection has its place, no doubt, but constant exposure just makes it sickeningly sweet. Its video can be described as aggressively cheerful (Love them! No, Loooove them!) and did the song no favors – although Beavis and Butt-Head seemed to enjoy it.

Exhibit E: Homophobic repercussions?

“It’s a fruity pop song written for children,” is how Stipe once described “Shiny Happy People.” Between a music video that featured two bisexual performers and a message of inclusion, the track became inextricably tied to homosexuality (even though the title was inspired by a Chinese propaganda poster). Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I’m not suggesting that if you don’t like “Shiny Happy People” you hate gay people. But the song’s association with homosexual acceptance damaged its reputation among rock fans in the ’90s, who might be OK with musicians being gay, but didn’t want them to sing about it. Even in our present, more enlightened age, this can be a struggle, which is why I, as the defense, was pleased to discover we were not trying this case before retired judge Roy Moore.

Exhibit F: Even R.E.M. like it now.

For years, R.E.M. fans could defend their distaste of “Shiny Happy People” by citing quotes in which band members distanced themselves from the track. They could point to the fact that R.E.M. chose not to include the song on a 2003 best-of compilation, even though it was one of the group’s biggest hits. Even though Stipe and co. maintain that they don’t want this to be the sole song for which they are remembered (and why should any band so consistently compelling be distilled into one tune?), their opinions seem to have softened. Buck heard the song years later, while on vacation. “It sounded really, really good,” he said. “If we did one of those per record, I could see how it could get a little embarrassing. But we only did it once.”

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Exhibit G: “Furry Happy Monsters” on Sesame Street

Boys and girls- er… ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this piece of evidence is brought to you by the letters R, E and M. Without “Shiny Happy People” we would have never seen R.E.M.’s wonderful 1999 appearance on Sesame Street, in which Buck, Mills and Stipe transformed their pop hit into a lesson about feelings called “Furry Happy Monsters.” I don’t know what’s more fun, watching the guys try to console demonstrative, sobbing monsters or the presence of a Kate Pierson Muppet. You’d have to be just about heartless to not take pleasure in this wacky clip.

Which brings us to the defense’s closing statement: “Shiny Happy People” is a beautiful pop song with lush orchestration, an interesting tempo switch and gorgeous vocals. The upbeat song encountered a backlash for being out-of-step with alt rock attitudes, when its message of acceptance was ahead of its time regarding attitudes among mainstream Americans towards gender and sexuality. At worst, “Shiny Happy People” is one, harmless pop strand in the colorful quilt of R.E.M. But at its best, the song brings together an undeniable beat with a beautiful vision of inclusion that even embraces Muppets.

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