Sunday, August 23, 2009

"Stand" / R.E.M.

Talk about earworms. This song came on the radio today, and I couldn't help singing it -- and singing it and SINGING it, long after it had played out its three minutes on the air. It's not just that it reminds me of 1989, when you couldn't escape this song on radio and MTV. (I'm not sure I want to remember 1989, anyway -- worst year of my life.) It's not even that it was the deliciously idiotic theme song of the ultimate slacker TV show, Get a Life, starring that underrated genius Chris Elliott. Hey, I even love Weird Al's parody version, "Spam" -- which, unlike a lot of Weird Al's devious take-offs, doesn't ruin the original for me at all. With its backbeat groove and upbeat melody, "Stand" is just a fun song. Period.

Now I've gone onto Songfacts (a really nifty site for background on various tracks of music) and discover that Michael Stipe calls this the stupidest song R.E.M. ever did. Intentionally so. He recalls that his guitarist (whom I always refer to as The Divine Peter Buck) came up with such a stupid guitar riff, Stipe decided to write the stupidest lyrics he could come up with, to match the riff.

But you know what? That stupid riff plugs into some vein of pop gold; it may be a cliche, but it works. And those "stupid" lyrics of Stipe's are so opaque (Stipe's trademark) that it's easy to find a message in them. "Stand in the place where you live," he begins, which I can't help reading as "make a moral stand in your hometown." "Now face north," he orders, the three monosyllables marching along sternly. Okay, that's about getting a new point of view, even in a familiar place. "Think about direction / Wonder why you haven't before," he counsels. Well, why don't we think about our directions in life? Are we too caught up in our daily routines?

Stipe goes on to advise the same for the place where you work, only here you're instructed to face west. Then, some tips for wilderness survival in the bridge: "If you are confused check with the sun / Carry a compass to help you along" -- and of course I end up imagining a moral compass, not just a dial with a magnetic arrow. Stating the obvious, he goes on, "Your feet are going to be on the ground / Your head is there to move you around." Simple? Yes. But true, and sometimes in life it helps to be reminded of the glaringly obvious. Keep your feet on the ground, and use your head to think clearly. We all need to be reminded of this from time to time.

Another cool thing about this song is the way that the lines alternate -- the first and third lines stay on the beat, like a kids' marching song, while the second and fourth lines hit the offbeats, styling around like a samba. Just as in life, you have to keep changing your rhythms, tripping over yourself. Not only that, the key shifts upward when the chorus repeats, like a truck changing gears as it roars uphill. It implies effort, growth, progress, modulation -- all part of the process of engaging in your own life.

Okay, I may be stretching this. But the thing is, R.E.M. have that anthemic vibe going for them -- Stipe's braying vocals sound preachy, no matter what he's saying, and their jangly, revved-up sound couldn't seem reflective or wistful even if it wanted to. And when a song sounds like a battle hymn or a protest song, you just naturally expect it to be about something.

Which begs the question -- if Stipe didn't envision a deeper meaning for this song, is it there or not? What matters: the writer's intention or what the listener gets out of it? R.E.M. have also gone on record as saying that the song is about people becoming involved in their communities (the video showed folks recycling and volunteering etc.), which may have been some after-the-fact back-pedaling. But if that's what the audience got out of it, why CAN'T it be the meaning of the song?

Stand sample


wwolfe said...

I very much like your reading of the lyrics. I'd never heard them in that way, but they make sense with your interpretation - and they gain added enjoyability (is that a word?) in the bargain.

Dave Marsh has often written about how the inter-action between artist and audience is almost a form of collaboration, with the end result being that the creative work takes on a meaning the artist never anticipated. A positive example he discusses at length is the early Who and their Mod audience. A less happy example might be the meaning attached to "Born in the U.S.A." by an unfortunate number of less-than-attentive listeners (Ronald Reagan being the most famous example). And there's "Louie Louie," where the audience's response to the Kingsmen's record became maybe a bigger story than the record itself.

Holly A Hughes said...

Cool! I'll have to check out what Marsh wrote. The song does take on a life of its own. I hadn't thought of the Springsteen example, though that is a cautionary tale. But then there's Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding," which began as satire and ended up totally sincere, even when Nick himself sings it.

Perhaps there is a playful god of songwriting somewhere, and Michael Stipe is merely his unconscious instrument....