It can be hard to decipher R.E.M. given the singer’s deliberate mumbling, though gradually Michael Stipe came out of his shell. This song is from the band’s 1987 Document album. It appears to echo a familiar refrain from artists bemoaning consumerism – “What we want and what we need has been confused” – and has been interpreted as a dig at the free market, pro-capitalism administration of President Ronald Reagan. A reference in the lyrics to Henry David Thoreau, who took to a cabin in the woods for a few years, implies living simpler or rejecting this type of greedy society.
Well, one R.E.M. member went on to leave the band to take up farming, but do people see through rock stars bashing consumerism and capitalism? After all, there are no better examples of entrepreneurs than artists, who are self-employed, selling their art, and in the case of alternative rock giants like R.E.M., living comfortable lives as part of the 1%, not the Occupy 99%. Not to begrudge their success, of course.
If this is hypocrisy, R.E.M. would join a large crowd, so let’s keep their legacy intact. Take the song as a call to critically think through the status quo and not mindlessly follow whatever the dominant paradigm is, economically, socially and politically: “Take your instinct by the reins, your better best to rearrange,” Stipe suggests.