R.E.M’s Green was released in 1988. I was very young at the time. I mean, not so young that I shouldn’t have been listening to the album. I was maybe just a few years younger than those who the album was targeting. And I have to say that Green was responsible for getting me some major cred points among my classmates. A few years earlier, I had distractedly scrawled ‘R.E.M’ onto my jeans and ‘it’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine’ on the margin of my notebook during study hall and CR, your average teenage boy who made a point of noting anything that did not conform perfectly to accepted norms, had called me a freak. Only ‘freaks’ listened to R.E.M and The Cure and The Smiths at that time.
Then Green came out, and everyone was dancing around to Stand, and suddenly I got a reputation for knowing about music. In case you have not guessed, this is me rolling my eyes.
Anyway, the thing is, I listened to Green a lot. I mean, a lot, because it was a pop album, at its core- it had catchy hooks and even some straightforward lyrics. But to be perfectly honest, I did not pay them much mind. Usually, with Michael Stipe lyrics, I found little gems in the gibberish and clung to them even if they meant to me something altogether different than what was intended. Even if I could not get a complete handle on what Stipe was trying to say in The Finest Worksong, I could celebrate the poetry in “what we want and what we need has been confused, been confused.” Green seemed a little bit of a departure, because the lyrics were seemingly a bit more obvious.
Maybe. But I was still too young, too new to the world to really have them mean a lot to me.
And I did not really revisit a whole lot of R.E.M. Maybe because the assault of Losing My Religion and Everybody Hurts cured me of the need to hear much of them. Also, R.E.M, while it was often played by teenagers and on college radio, was never really a band for teenagers, I realize in retrospect. They really lacked the angst of adolescence.
There is no better proof of that than World Leader Pretend which that troublemaker Pied Piper brought back into my consciousness recently. It is not like I had forgotten about that song. He mentioned it and almost reflexively, I heard the lyrics this is my mistake, let me make it good. But it did not mean anything to me. When I was listening to this song as a little punk, it was someone else singing to me. I mean that it was about someone else. It was a character, and I was listening to his story.
Surely not mine. I hadn’t made a mess of much, hadn’t built walls, hadn’t brandished weapons, hadn’t done much damage. I had little to regret. The song was not about me, not then. So imagine my surprise when I revisited the song and found it was telling my story. I am not entirely certain I am glad of that. I sometimes don’t think of myself as that different, who I was as a little teenage punk and who I am now. But this song is all about the contrast, all about how it's impossible to go back, how some changes are irreversible.
I do not mean to suggest that I am in any way special, and I suppose that is the point. You get this far in life, oh, you’ve done some damage, you’ve eaten the pavement a few times. Which gets to my original point. The song was always meant for an adult. And I was not one when I first heard this song. And ultimately this:
This is my world and I am world leader pretend
this is my life, this is my time
I have been given the freedom to do as I see fit
It’s high time I raised the walls that I’ve constructed
Well, this is rather hopeful in my opinion. This fills me with a sense of purpose. It’s an urge, an entreaty not to simply give into patterns and history with melancholy and resignation. In some ways, the peace treaty is just as big of an undertaking, just as big of a fight as the war.