The majority of independent musicians hope for a career trajectory like the one that R.E.M. had. They endured a steady ascension until becoming one of the biggest artists in the world after becoming the darlings of the critics thanks to the success of their debut album Murmur. Michael Stipe had already produced a good number of timeless songs by the time the alt-rock revolution of the 1990s arrived, but one of their biggest hits was not a song of which Stipe had ever been particularly proud.
As the new decade got underway, Stipe began experimenting with alternative lyrical strategies for the album Out Of Time, even bringing in rapper KRS-One for the song’s opening track, “Radio Song.” Stipe is still most pleased of the song ‘Losing My Religion’ from the album because it perfectly captures the awkwardness of being apart from the person you love.
The song “Shiny Happy People” ushers the album into a sugary realm just after searching into some of the darkest recesses of his psyche. This is about as clean-cut and bubblegum-pop as R.E.M. would ever get, featuring bassist Mike Mills and The B-52s’ Kate Pierson, who was already benefiting from the popularity of “Love Shack.”
Stipe composed this song as a challenge for himself, drawing influence from some of the syrupy pop bands of the 1960s and putting together some of his most likable melodies ever. Even though they never intended to be the world’s heaviest band, this song sounds more like it belongs in a children’s show’s closing credits than it does with alt-rock royalty.
Although the song’s melodic depth may have been a little lacking, the words were far blunter than I had anticipated. The title of “Shiny Happy People” was inspired by Chinese propaganda posters, notably those depicting the Tiananmen Square rebellion, despite the song sounding like the ideal music for a daytime variety show.
Since the song required some honey to be appreciated, Stipe’s chorus puts a positive spin on an unfortunate circumstance. But the message easily passed the ordinary listener by, making the upbeat song a huge smash. Stipe said to Mojo (via Songfacts) that he has become a little more resentful of “People” over time. “The guys threw me the stupidest song that sounded so buoyant and weird, and I was like, OK, I accept the challenge. So it was bubblegum music made for kids. Don’t hate it. But I don’t want to sing it.”
Despite Stipe’s distaste for the song, drummer Bill Berry was nevertheless proud of it because of how difficult it was to play. The song even used many time signatures by switching from a waltz vibe to a conventional 4/4 pace. When the band performed the song on Sesame Street with the words changed to “Furry Happy Monsters,” they even had their bubble-gum credentials confirmed.
Stipe did appear to soften on the song on their final tour before their breakup, telling The Quietus, “I was always at peace with it. It’s just a little bit embarrassing that it became as big a hit as it did!”. Even though the song is included on a few of the group’s upcoming compilation albums, the fact that the albums’ titles are Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, and Part Garbage says volumes.