This week marks the 25th anniversary of R.E.M.’s seventh studio album, Out Of Time. The album solidified R.E.M. as one of the biggest bands in the world, particularly due to the success of the single “Losing My Religion,” which proved to be one of the band’s most enduring songs. It also featured crucial deep cuts like “Country Feedback” and “Low,” which are beloved by the band’s most dedicated fans. But among those revered tracks, the albums also hosts one of their most reviled: “Shiny Happy People.”
That song is a part of the band’s history that few look at fondly. In 2004, Blender named it as one of the 50 worst songs of all-time, Michael Stipe himself has expressed his distaste for it (although he somewhat warmed to it in more recently), and perhaps most tellingly, it was left off the track list of R.E.M.’s 2003 greatest hits album In Time, despite being one of the band’s biggest hits. Ask nearly anyone, and they’ll you that “Shiny Happy People” is a skeleton in the closet of an otherwise incredible band.
But does “Shiny Happy People” really deserve that reputation? Sure, it’s not the deepest song you’ll ever hear, but it’s also a pretty fun, lighthearted song that can be pretty damn enjoyable if you’re in the right mood. And hey, it’s not as though America is averse to songs about being happy; we loved a certain Pharrell Williams song two years ago, and one could argue this R.E.M. tune was pretty much the same thing two decades earlier. With that in mind, what if the problem with “Shiny Happy People” isn’t that it’s a bad song, but rather that it’s just not the type of song one would expect from R.E.M.
At this point in their career, R.E.M. had established themselves as a “Very Serious Band.” They wrote about topics like environmental decay, the use of agent orange in Vietnam, and of course, the apocalypse. When a band so well-known for covering serious topics writes a fluffy little pop song about feeling shiny and happy, it was bound to rub people the wrong way. This wasn’t the R.E.M. they knew and loved! Perhaps compounding this problem was the timing. Out Of Time was R.E.M.’s second major-label release, and it solidified them as a commercial force after years of being indie darlings. The band had already released one somewhat silly hit, “Stand,” off of 1988’s Green. That song was goofy enough, but it was hard for some fans not to think the band had gone too far this time, and that “Shiny Happy People” represented the dreaded “sellout” move. Of course, that wouldn’t prove to be the case; the following year, they would release Automatic For The People, one of the darkest and best albums in their discography. At the time, though, fans had no idea that was coming, and you couldn’t blame them for being a tad concerned about the state of their favorite band.
With that in mind, perhaps the best way to enjoy “Shiny Happy People” is to separate it from everything else R.E.M. achieved as a band. Don’t think of it as a song by the same band who wrote “Fall On Me” and “World Leader Pretend,” think of it instead as a lost one-hit wonder from a different age. By any measure, it’s still a pretty great song — it’s ridiculously catchy and the perfect song to celebrate with when you get an A on the test you spent days studying for, or you ask your crush on a date and they say yes. Sure, it’s a bit of an awkward fit in the R.E.M. catalog, but that certainly doesn’t make it a bad song. And if you can separate it from the more serious aspects of the band’s work, you’ll find what is essentially the platonic idea of a pop song, and just because it came from a rather surprising source doesn’t mean we can’t embrace its shiny, happy message.