Sunday, August 20, 2017

Songs With Which to View the Solar Eclipse

"It's The End of the World
As We Know It" / R.E.M.

Suppose you hadn't read a dozen newspaper articles about the solar eclipse, or heard about it 22 times on TV, or seen endless Facebook and Twitter references. Suppose you'd never studied basic astronomy in school.  If you looked up in the sky one day and saw the sun disappearing behind a black disc, wouldn't you freak out?

On Monday, when that happens, birds and animals and insects -- who haven't read all those articles -- are going to go a little haywire.  Centuries ago, solar eclipses threw people into apocalyptic panic.

Mostly we imagine the apocalypse in terms of fire and fury. But what if it's just a meaningless scrum of off-kilter details? That's how R.E.M. offers up apocalypse in this track from their 1987 LP Document, released as a single nearly 30 years ago in November 1987.

It's anxiety-riddled, with that hectic tempo, the ping-ponging melody, the frenzied stream of consciousness patter. Michael Stipe's vocal lunges at us, almost breathlessly rattling off a weird checklist of disconnected images. It's full of sound and fury, signifying nothing -- and that's the point. It seems to spit out the flotsam and jetsam of our pathetic culture, projecting a hopelessly splintered reality.

Guitarist Peter Buck has said in interviews that this song is in the tradition of Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and yes, I can see it in the churning instrumentals, the flurry of internal rhymes. If anything, "The End of the World As We Know It" goes way beyond Dylan's social satire. Right from that first line -- "That's great! It starts with an earthquake" -- it's stuffed with natural disaster and cataclysm. There's a hurricane in there, a combat site, and "the furies breathing down your neck." Planes seem about to crash into buildings, a TV tower bursts into flame, cars blow up, books are burned. In the third verse, I swear I see goose-stepping soliders ("Watch a heel crush, crush"), and in the fourth verse, mountains seem to topple.

By the end of the song, it's like a fun-house full of mirrors, populated by an oddball assortment of cultural icons -- "Leonard Bernstein, Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce, and Lester Bangs" -- who share nothing but the same initials. (Michael Stipe claims these people all appeared in a dream he had.) By that point, everything seems ominous and evil, even "Birthday party, cheesecake, jelly beans, boom!"

And what's the ultimate irony? That while humanity is going down in flames, the singer isn't all that concerned -- as the chorus insists, "It's the end of the world as we know it, / And I feel fine." Is it because he feels helpless to stop it? Or because things have already become so rotten, it's not worth saving? 

And yet, there's something curiously buoyant about this song. It's full of pumped-up energy, as if bungee-jumping over the chasm -- and there's something exhilarating about that, isn't there?

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