By 1991, you’d be hard-pressed to find a band who balanced critical acclaim and commercial success better than Georgia alt-rockers R.E.M. Through their first decade of existence, the band built a core audience through college rock radio and constant touring, eventually ascending to the status of stadium rock and top ten singles. Nothing could be levelled against them: ditching a beloved indie label for a major, streamlining their style, writing pop songs – none of it mattered. R.E.M. were beloved by audiences of all kinds, and their momentum was so strong that it seemed as though nothing would bring them down.
Then came ‘Shiny Happy People’. To be clear, the song’s parent album, Out of Time, continued the band’s status as critical darlings, and the success of ‘Losing My Religion’ meant that a once-niche Athens folk-rock band were able to sell nearly 18 million copies of their album worldwide and notch three Grammys. R.E.M. were mainstream, but they never felt mainstream, and they never sacrificed their values in order to compromise on the music they wanted to make.
However, Out of Time sounded a bit different from the band’s previous work. Michael Stipe’s vocals increased in both volume and self-assuredness as the band became more popular, leaving behind the unintelligible mumbling of the band’s early records. Acoustic instruments also began to take over. Whereas 1988’s Green featured songs like ‘You Are the Everything’ and ‘Hairshirt’ balanced out with rockers like ‘Orange Crush’ and winking acknowledgements of their new popularity in ‘Pop Song 89’, Out of Time found R.E.M. making the least-R.E.M. sounding album of their career.
Peter Buck’s mandolin playing, which had slowly been integrated on the previous album, was now at the forefront of arrangements and compositions. Country music had a profound influence, infiltrating songs like ‘Near Wild Heaven’ and ‘Texarkana’. But the band’s attempt to adapt to modern pop was what ultimately made Out of Time such a puzzling album to revisit.
‘Radio Song’, a logical extension to ‘Pop Song 89’, found R.E.M. embracing humour, funk, and most bizarrely, guest raps from KRS-One. It’s meant to be a silly rebuke of then-contemporary music, but ‘Radio Song’ is arguably the song that aged the poorest among Out of Time‘s tracklisting. Well, either that or ‘Shiny Happy People’.
Once again, there are precursors to be found for ‘Shiny Happy People’: ‘Stand’ was a bubblegum pop song with a bright and poppy sensibility, and while it might not hold universal acclaim within the R.E.M. canon, it never inspired anything close to the disgust and vitriol that wound up surrounding ‘Shiny Happy People’.
It’s hard to say what it is about the track that causes so much disdain. It has a cloying hook, but so did ‘Stand’. It’s got guest vocals from Kate Pierson, but so did ‘Me In Honey’, and that song rarely gets mentioned among the band’s worst. It’s got a folky central guitar riff instead of Buck’s mandolin, one of the most sorely missed aspects to R.E.M.’s previous sound. Mike Mills and Bill Berry are as rock solid as ever. So what’s the deal?
If I was a betting man, I would point to Stipe’s unabashedly optimistic and surface-level lyrics as being the main offender. Stipe has said that his intention was to have “a fruity pop song written for children”, but the utopian imagery curdles and becomes overwhelmingly saccharine almost immediately. He succeeded, but probably too well, since lines like “There’s no time to cry, happy, happy/Put it in your heart where tomorrow shines” are just a step too far for a group like R.E.M.
Although they’re a beloved institution, ‘Shiny Happy People’ is often the first song detractors will point to when looking for R.E.M.’s flaws. Their run from Murmur to New Adventures in Hi-Fi lasted fifteen years, and it’s one of the most accomplished peaks of any band’s career — but it wasn’t exactly perfect.
If you want the ideal illustration of why ‘Shiny Happy People’ is R.E.M.’s albatross, just look at the comments they’ve made about it, mostly from Stipe. “I hate that song, Space Ghost,” will never not be hilarious to me, and just to solidify his feelings, Stipe claimed in 2016 that, “If there was one song that was sent into outer space to represent R.E.M. for the rest of time, I would not want it to be ‘Shiny Happy People’.”
Luckily for Stipe, the major hit from Out of Time that would be forever associated with that album’s era wound up being ‘Losing My Religion’, a far more haunting and beautiful track. When the moment arrived to assemble their compilation In Time, every single from Green to 2001’s Reveal made an appearance. All but one: ‘Shiny Happy People’ was not included.
‘Shiny Happy People’ remains divisive among fans. It was the band’s last top ten hit in America, and it could very well have been the last R.E.M. song that casual pop fans may have heard from the band. Apart from their 1991 musical guest spot on Saturday Night Live, the group has never played ‘Shiny Happy People’ live. For most diehards, that’s perfectly fine. For the band members, that’s perfectly fine. But the eternal goofball nature of ‘Shiny Happy People’ isn’t actually as bad as its reputation might suggest, and its place as R.E.M.’s last major brush with the mainstream should make it a proud pillar in R.E.M.’s foundation, not an embarrassing catastrophe that the band are eager to forget.