Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Shiny Happy People

These days, recently, I've been really getting into R.E.M. They were an Athens-based alternative rock band, from Georgia. I like several of their songs - "It's the End of the World as we Know it (And I feel find)," "Losing my Religion," "Stand," "Man on the Moon," and this one - "Shiny Happy People."

The first time I'd heard of it was simply as its title. I'd never heard the song before, couldn't recall it. Then I heard it on the radio, or at Wal-Mart, and hearing the title sung out loud gave it away.

It's one of those songs currently on high rotation in my head when I'm not listening to it. What drew me in right away was the guitar - and guest vocalist Kate Pierson's attractive voice during the chorus. At first it sounded to me like a twelve year old boy, but the obvious feminine undertone and inflection told me otherwise, and it was simply extremely attractive to my ears, especially when I discovered it was Kate Pierson's voice. Athens produced two notable groups - R.E.M. and the B-52s (probably best known for "Rock Lobster" and "Love Shack"). Both Michael Stipe and Pierson guest-sung on each other's band's songs over the years.

Visually, R.E.M. as a band seem quite simple. Yet I can never remember the drummer's name. Michael Stipe, who kind of looks effeminate and in the music video for "Stand" looks like a shy boy, writes and sings. Pete Buck plays guitar and looks almost identical to the drummer, as if they were twins. Both have bushy eyebrows. Then the bassist, Mills I think his name is, looks small and kind of nerdy with those big spectacles. The way they appear in "Stand," in quick shots as the camera pans from their feet, I wasn't sure if I was looking at two children (Stipe and Mills) and two obviously much older guys who look similar (I reviewed "Stand" on here four years ago and it was one of the first songs of the band I watched a music video of).

They had their largest success around the time I was born, between 1988 and 1994, particularly in 1991 with "Losing My Religion." I don't remember hearing it as a hit on the radio as a newborn, nor do I remember 'Shiny Happy People' either, even though it probably was played at one point (it was released in May, only two months before I was born in contrast with "...My Religion" having been released in February). But I'm hearing it now.

Other than Pierson's voice, a few other things appeal to me in the song. I like the way Buck plays the guitar during the chorus. I like the structure of the verses, how they end up on a catchy E chord. The bass is simply catchy and in a good style.

I've read that the band came to severely dislike the song in retrospect, and that it's been included in all sorts of "worst or" or whatever negative connotation list since. I've also read that few understood the meaning - that the lyrics were rather intended sarcastically. That makes sense. The view of people being "shiny and happy" simply put as a written phrase sounds sarcastic and ridiculous. When I read it as a title before even hearing it I saw the sarcasm. I don't know. Then again, it is kind of unfortunate to have this point of view - to take the very idea of people being happy or shiny in any sense as ridiculous.

In the end, really, I just like the music. I do like that kind of sound - the guitar-led sound - of that period, whether it's this or "Losing my Religion" or "Love Shack" (I really like the guitar in that song) or "Roam" or most other alternative rock stuff. It's got an easy, bright sound to it.

This song starts in B. I didn't know that until I learned how to play the bass to it by ear. The chorus starts on a high B. Its high pitch is probably what helped this uncertainty, as well as the unique context my synesthesia created for the sound itself. Heard in different songs or sounds, there will be a different context for one note no matter what, and unless it's in an obvious pitch - not too high or too-too low - I won't necessarily pick the note out right away until I find it on the neck of my bass or the key on my keyboard. The verses start on F#.

The music video is decidedly...happy, I guess. It seems to accentuate inane positivity, with 'happy' thrown around like crazy. "Love me, love me!" Reading the lyrics online sort of really put that in my face, as if some sort of fuzzy, fawning, loving creatures from a preschool program were bouncing around purring those words out in cute voices. This effect is helped out by a bright, jumpy, silly video where the band and Kate Pierson jump happily and flamboyantly in front of a similarly-themed backdrop rotated by an elderly man on a bicycle located behind.

It's really another one of those inane things from the band in similar fashion to their song 'Stand.' That song had its own share of ridiculous lyrics. "Stand in the place where you live! And face north!" "Your feet are there to move you around..." etc. I remember saying in my review that it sounded like a preschool song written for toddlers on how to stand and begin to walk. This song sounds just the same, except lyrically more ludicrous and infantile. Real sarcasm stretched far I guess. Perhaps Stipe and the band dislike it because they went too obviously purry and happy and campy, etc., over-reached their point.

The video made me realize that bassist Mike Mills begins the chorus, followed by Pierson, and then by Stipe. The bassist's voice really meshes well with Stipe's; I thought it was the same person at first. But no; the camera started the scene on the nerdy one...and ended on Stipe.

I can't forget the introduction and bridge. It's a slow string-led thing that sounds kind of apart from the rest of the song and makes me think of two old ladies sitting on a porch in the country, and everything's slow and right and lovely. Thankfully the elderly man is allowed to stop peddling by that point and is offered water before earnestly watching the enlarged crowd jump about like adult preschoolers, from the background. There actually is a shy boy of preschool age that makes an appearance.

Music: A-
Lyrics: C+
Video: B-

R.E.M.'s a great band and they've come up with some nice, appealing, catchy stuff, including the music of this song, but otherwise it's another one of their unusual preschool-sounding things like Stand was. If it is sarcastic, which is very probably is, then it stretches that to a huge degree. Extremely sarcastic. Particularly unfortunate that they have to be sarcastic of something rather positive and something you'd see normally in a perfect world. Music's great though. And Pierson's vocals are just attractive altogether.

Justin C.

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