Never before has a rock and roll band been as lyrically political as R.E.M. From Murmur to Fables of the Reconstruction, Green’s “World Leader Pretend” and “Orange Crush” to Automatic for the People’s “IgnoreLand,” R.E.M. is the only band of the 20th century that legitimately crossed over from rock to pop and could appeal to hardcore college radio denizens as well as teens who first heard of the Athens-based quartet while surfing the mainstream radio dial.
What other band could draw tens of thousands and sell out arenas with lyrics like, “These bastards stole their power from the victims of the Us v. Them years/Wrecking all things virtuous and true/The undermining social democratic downhill slide into abysmal/Lost lamb off the precipice into the trickle down runoff pool.”?
As Kurt Cobain said in one of his final major interviews (in Rolling Stone), “If I could write just a couple of songs as good as what [R.E.M. has] written…I don’t know how that band does what they do. God, they’re the greatest. They’ve dealt with their success like saints, and they keep delivering great music.”
The group sold more than 85 million records worldwide on the strengths of songs that savaged Republican policies (and politics in general), raised awareness to economic inequality, and questioned why we weren’t more aware of our environment. R.E.M.’s post-1996 catalogue doesn’t have nearly as much luster as the records leading up to New Adventures in Hi-Fi, which is a reason why most associate the group with its most pop-y songs like “Losing My Religion” or “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Those are both great singles, but they represent such a minuscule percentage of R.E.M.’s overall message and artistic critique.
And that’s a shame, because viewing our current world through the prism of Michael Stipe’s lyrics gives more context to where we find ourselves than any other cultural discourse.
In particular, Document, which was released 30 years ago this September, is a must listen not only because it has several classics of the R.E.M. canon, but also for its politically-charged stance. On the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Salon’s Annie Zaleski delved into R.E.M.’s relevance in 2017, and what discovering the group can mean in this political climate. As Mike Mills, the group’s bassist, told Melody Maker in 1987, “It’s not that we’re making light of America, it’s just that I can’t look at it the way Bruce Springsteen does.”
Unsurprisingly, “Document” emerged during a time of worldwide political and social upheaval, as well as anger toward the American government. Both Wall Street greed and the Iran-Iraq war continued to rage, while president Ronald Reagan’s mishandling of the Iran-Contra affair dominated during the early part of the year…Thirty years later, it’s somewhat horrifying to feel like history is repeating itself. In that sense, R.E.M.’s “Document” is more important than ever. Its righteous anger and blunt condemnations are inspiring, comforting and engaging — a blueprint for forward motion when everything in the world seems untethered and chaotic. “Document” is a grounding, centering presence.