The Wrong Child

March 30, 2007

There’s a good chance that “The Wrong Child” would be nothing more than a tear-jerker about a troubled little kid if it didn’t have its skewed, vertiginous arrangement. In its way, it seems like an attempt to approximate the aesthetic of Cubism in the format of a pop song, presenting its emotional content from multiple perspectives simultaneously in order to provide a greater context. Michael Stipe sings two contrasting leads on the verses — the foregrounded part is highly earnest and expressive, and the secondary vocal is dispassionate and monotone, lagging behind enough so that they barely overlap. Much of the band’s approach to background vocals involves the secondary lyrics implying a dialogue by commenting on or challenging the lead, but “The Wrong Child” makes a point of remaining self-contained in order to emphasize the character’s sense of isolation. The arrangement is filled out with a slow drone of acoustic guitar, a mesmerizing high pitched lead figure played on a mandolin, and a strangely reassuring piano part on the bridge that marks the most obvious dynamic shift in a piece that purposefully obscures its own structure. The only moment of clarity in the otherwise disorienting song comes on the chorus (“I will try to sing a happy song…”) which sounds hopeful and optimistic in the most emotionally gutting way possible.

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21 Responses to “The Wrong Child”

  1. annie z Says:

    Stipe reportedly wrote this song from the perspective of a burn victim, so it bothers me a bit to call the protagonist ‘troubled.’ Reading the lyrics, I’d call him/her someone who longs to belong with other children, who wishes he/she had the physical stamina or ability to do simple summer things — running through the sprinkler, playing on a swingset, just being in a group of kids outside. For the protagonist, this isn’t an easy, given thing; it’s something that’s a luxury, something that’s not necessarily easy. The panic he feels when he *is* around other kids — social uncertainty, fear of seeming weird — becomes prominent in the music lyrically and musically as the song progresses thanks to the mass of Stipe’s layered vocals. You hit the nail on the head with the analysis of “It’s OK”; that part has always gutted me, as the kid is obviously trying (likely unsuccessfully) to convince himself that things are OK, that he can fit in. I grew up with a disability, and the sense of isolation/alienation inherent in this song really resonated with me back when I first heard this song, as someone who always felt painfully left behind and different. A completely underrated REM song.


  2. Annie, do you have any recollection about where you read Stipe talking about the song’s subject?

    One of the things I’m going to be trying to do is respect the ambiguity of a lot of the lyrics, and just work with the text that is available, and back off of outside of context as much as possible. I think in the case of “The Wrong Child,” it really helps that the problem is very vague, both to open it up to identification, and to focus on the person and not the specific problem.

  3. annie z Says:

    i think i read that in one of the REM books i’ve had over the years or some long-forgotten interview, although this link:

    http://www.flim.com/remlafaq/green/thewrongchild.html

    also confirms. (although the internet isn’t always right, and i wish that web site would note its sources.)

    oh, ‘the wrong child’ *is* definitely vague enough that the problem is undefined; it’s not like, say, morrissey’s ‘november spawned a monster,’ which specifically mentions a wheelchair, if you’re talking about songs involving disabilities. i actually didn’t know the purported context when i first had such a visceral reaction to the song in the 1990s, either; i interpreted it based on my own experiences and perspective as someone who has a disability, and only found out later what inspired Stipe.

    but i hesitate at the word ‘troubled,’ just because to me that word has a negative connotation, signifying that somehow the experience and the child are abnormal. (it’s like when news stories might say that someone ‘suffers’ from a disorder, or is ‘confined’ to a wheelchair.) it’s painful to be left behind or isolated due to physical factors outside of your control — someone might be sad, or depressed or pretty despondent. it doesn’t make them troubled.

    but of course, the beauty of REM is that their lyrics are ambiguous and can be interpreted based on your own experience. and there’s no one right answer!

  4. Chris Says:

    The sources on that site are not factchecked, but they are noted. That one, for instance, came from a person who went by “nauthiz”. Not MLA style, admittedly. The site used to have e-mail addresses but they were removed lest they be spam harvested.

  5. Michael Says:

    Note that Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder has worked in a few lyrics from “The Wrong Child” into their end of song jams on that band’s “Daughter” from time to time.

  6. Eclipse Says:

    This is one song that both enchants me and rubs me the wrong way, at the same time. The dichotomy of the melody and harmony along with the tinkly-broken-piano-box sound of the mandolin all contribute to this disjointed, broken yet earnest feel. Truly, an odd song.

  7. dave g Says:

    For better or worse, probably my least favorite R.E.M. song of all time. Cloying lyrics, and something about the melody and the weepy-eyed mandolin just rubs me the wrong way, though I can’t pinpoint exactly why (see also “I Remember California”). Being sandwiched between “World Leader Pretend” (ironically my favorite R.E.M. song of all time) and “Orange Crush” doesn’t do it any favors either.

  8. ozon Says:

    Didn’t really like this at first but it grew on me. A very odd, but very beautiful song if you take the time to invest in it.

  9. Dan23 Says:

    Great synopsis!

    I always think of a person confined to a bubble, yearning to be “normal”. The song always brings up feelings of how “we” may be trapped in “our” own bubbles.

    I love how descriptive the lyrics are, and remind me of when I was young and how my hands smelled after swinging, that rusty iron like smell… One of my favorite songs too.

  10. Catapult Says:

    The “It’s OK” part makes my eyes well up every time, which is a bit embarrassing. But it speaks volumes about the poignance of Michael’s lyrics, and his ability to paint a vivid picture through his poetry. I find this kid’s strength of character so profoundly touching, as he watches the other kids doing all the things he wants desperately to do, but knows he’ll never be able. But it’s OK.

    On a lighter note, it always makes me smile the way Michael says “Leap the sprink-ell-er.”

  11. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Although I respect this song greatly for its message and its amazing ability to convey the lonelineness of being different then others (espeically for a child) it really is a hard song to love – although I think somehwat purposefully. The two parts of the song sit beside one another very uncomfortably. I think that musical tension is purposeful and for me “The Wrong Child” is a hard song to listen to. Not because it is a bad song or poorly written, but because the song is emotionally very raw and purposefully difficult. It’s a song that is meant to make you think more than a song to make you comfortable and happy. But because of that it’s a song that is easy to admire, but hard to love.

  12. Swallow the Rapture Says:

    Around 1988, Michael Stipe did an interview with, I think, Hot Press in Dublin when he referred to a young Irish writer/poet called Christopher Nolan as being one of the sources for the song. Christopher Nolan suffers from severe cerebral palsy yet has written several books and communicates with his family through eye movement

  13. lonestarleprechaun Says:

    MJS is quoted mentioning the burn victim in the first edition of It Crawled From The South, BTW. One of my absolute desert island REM songs. Vastly underrated, muc like King Of Birds, and an example of Michael’s knack for providing crystal images through his lyrics. You can see the staring kids through the protagonists eyes, and running toward you. I always thought the ‘It’s OK’ was the child jus tsluffing off the humiliation and abuse from his peers because he’s either used to it, or because he/she doesn’t want you to know it hurts. But it obviously does.

  14. transformerdog Says:

    as BWD so aptly puts it , this song is purposely difficult to listen to, created that way intentionally , jacks up the empathy process, one really feels for the poor kid

  15. brooks Says:

    Coming to this a bit late, but whatever.

    I think I’m an atypical REM fan in that I the lyrics are are always a secondary thing for me and it’s the vocal and instrumental melodies that are the most important. And if I pay any attention to a lyric it’s mostly the fragments when there’s that perfect collision between the instrumentation, the vocal melody and a phrase where a moment is created and the world comes into alignment for a short moment. The “It’s Okay” line is one of those for me.

    I guess I have to disagree with most everyone else in that I find the song extremely easy to listen to. It’s lovely. I think that’s the best word. Lovely.

  16. gluefoot Says:

    this, for me, is one of REM’s greatest triumphs.. stipe’s vocals and heart-wrencing lyrics are incredible.. the musical arrangement is sublime.. peter’s best use of a mandolin of all.. it’s almost unbearably affecting.. the instrumental part is truly heart-breaking, the way it lifts and falls.. a glorious song..

  17. bes1966 Says:

    I don’t know if Stipe ever read, “That Only a Mother”–a 1950s short sci-fi story (he often wrote lyrics from his impressions of books)–but this song fits the mood and some of the specifics of that story eerily well.

  18. Paul Alferink Says:

    Best line:

    The smell of swingset hands

  19. Imitation of Life Says:

    Particularly like the comment about Cubism – I knew something was odd, that kinda crystallises it.

  20. Brendan Says:

    I have a mildly autistic son and so listening to this song is very hard for me. I also had trouble making social connections as a child, was not very athletic, etc. The song makes a strong emotional connection which is all you can ever ask.

  21. RedParakeet Says:

    I always interpreted this song to be about a schitzophrenic child, lyrically and also the way Stipe sings twice, in two different octaves, mirroring the two personalities. I knew it was about a troubled child though, that’s sort of a given, also the way Stipe sings “Hey those kids are looking at me”. Very interesting song.


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