“Shiny Happy People” is one of those songs that almost everyone seems to hate. It’s constantly viewed as not only the worst song in R.E.M.’s career, but one of the worst songs ever recorded. (A pretty lofty claim.) I blame much of this hatred on the song’s video. It took an already cheesy and campy song, and double-dipped it in a sugary glaze that would make Krispy Kreme donuts weep with its bright colors, and awkward dancing courtesy of Michael Stipe. Viewers who had grown up with the R.E.M. of the mid-80s (when they could do no wrong and recorded a string of near-perfect albums) cried foul. That band was nowhere to be seen in the video for “Shiny Happy People”.
But let’s think about this for a second. Yes, the video is pretty bad. The song itself, not so much. It’s incredibly poppy and silly, but it’s not like R.E.M hadn’t recorded goofy songs before. “Stand” is pretty much a pre-cursor to “Shiny Happy People” and “Pop Song 89” is pretty goofy too, especially when Michael Stipe did his patented should dance when the band performed the song live. And as for embarrassing, has anyone recently listened to “Radio Song” off of Out of Time (the same album which “Shiny Happy People” appears on) recently? Even the mention of that trash makes me cringe? KRS-One and the band must have been good friends (and possibly stoned?) for that to be recorded and actually see the light of day. And to make matters worse, the fucking thing opened the record! In case you were wondering, I also count Reveal and Around the Sun as being embarrassing too, but I usually just become sad when I think about those records.)
As a kid, I loved “Shiny Happy People”. I was about 9 when Out of Time came out, and it was one of the few songs on the album I could actually relate to. It made me incredibly happy, even though I loved the rest of the album too. But it was a nice contrast to the acoustic and folk influences that permeated the rest of the record. I loved the carnival-like intro and its reprise during the bridge. Mike Mills count-off and exclamation of “Here we go!” when the band kicked back into the main riff made me giddy.
When I became a teenager, I grew to loathe the song and had a hard time defending it to kids in my high-school class. Whenever I’d profess my love for R.E.M. (which was pretty often) almost inevitably, someone would bring up, that song. “Yeah, yeah…it’s pretty bad…but you should check out…Murmur or Reckoning,” was usually my response.
After years of not hearing it, I heard it on the radio a few years ago and was shocked by how much I didn’t hate it. Hey, it’s not that bad! It’s certainly better than I remember. The guitar riff was pretty good and in its own way, classic Peter Buck. But as soon as Kate’s Pierson’s voice came in syncing with Michael Stipe’s it occurred to me that “Shiny Happy People” wasn’t really a R.E.M. song after all. It makes much more sense if you think of it as a B-52s song.
“Love Shack”, “Rock Lobster” and “Roam” (among many others) are all overly campy, silly and sweet and those songs have become staples. You’re likely to hear “Love Shack” at almost any wedding or reception that has dancing involved. The audience knows what they’re getting from a B-52s song, and many people love them for it.
But R.E.M. isn’t known for that – even though both bands came out of the Athens music scene in the late 70s and early 80s – they’re a serious band. Imagine if the B-52s had recorded “Shiny Happy People”. It might not be universally loved, but I’d be willing to bet that it would be more popular than it is now and people wouldn’t hate it the way they do.