Chairman Mao is culpable for the deadliest famine in history. It’s estimated that between 15 and 55 million Chinese citizens lost their lives under his reign. His story is not one that traditionally lends itself to the song. Bizarrely, his murderous regime also inspired one of R.E.M.’s most treasured tracks.
It should be noted, ‘Happy Shiny People’ is far from a celebration of Mao. Without contextual knowledge, one wouldn’t be able to uncover the meaning hidden behind the positive energy it relentlessly exudes. Shockingly, the title derives from a Chinese propaganda poster from the Mao era, which read, “Shiny happy people holding hands”.
Frontman Michael Stipe later referred to it as “a really fruity, kind of bubblegum song” in an interview with The Quietus. In the same interview, the singer also admitted: “It’s just a little bit embarrassing that it became as big a hit as it did”. Despite its immense notoriety, the band only performed the song live twice, confirming their uncomfortable relationship with its popularity. It also very nearly became the theme tune for the popular sitcom Friends, which would have only made Stipe disassociate from the track even further.
On the surface, ‘Shiny Happy People’ goes against the archetypal image of R.E.M., but it’s unavoidably riddled with dark undertones. The political climate in China had gained debate within the Western World around its release, and the facetious feel that emanates from the song could easily be regarded as insensitive, despite that not being the band’s modus operandi.
Two years before the track’s release in 1991, the world grieved the victims of the tragic Tiananmen Square massacre. The Chinese government brutally killed hundreds of student protestors who sought democracy. The irony of the phrase, ‘shiny happy people holding hands’ was heightened following the harrowing events at the hands of the communist regime.
Sarcasm is not a trait inherently associated with Michael Stipe’s lyricism, and ‘Shiny Happy People’ allowed him to express a more jovial side to his artistry. “Many people’s idea of R.E.M, and me in particular, is very serious, with me being a very serious kind of poet,” Stipe later commented about the effort. “But I’m also actually quite funny—hey, my bandmates think so, my family thinks so, my boyfriend thinks so, so I must be.”
Adding: “But that doesn’t always come through in the music. People have this idea of who I am probably because when I talk on camera, I’m working so hard to articulate my thoughts that I come across as very intense.”
It’s emblematic that R.E.M.’s most uplifting and energising track was born out of a horrifying catastrophe. Even when the band attempted to offer a hopeful platitude, an undercurrent of darkness runs through their endeavour.