New Test Leper

April 18, 2007

“New Test Leper” is the first half of what appears to be an intentional diptych of tracks on New Adventures In Hi-Fi that deal with the conflict of organized religion and secular humanism. Michael Stipe’s character in the song is an agnostic who has somehow found himself as a guest on a televised talk show. He’s pitted against argumentative believers, but can’t bring himself to get too combative — he ends up turning Biblical quotations back on his opponents, and getting cut off for commercial breaks.

The song isn’t really about this specific debate, but rather how commercialized forums tend to reduce serious discourse to reductive “us vs. them” binary conflicts fought out with quick, harsh sound bites between advertisements for car dealerships and laundry detergent. The singer is patient and well-intentioned, but all that comes across to the audience is his alienation and condescension. Stipe sounds deflated and resigned from the start, and even when he acknowledges that the program is unflattering, he still seems mildly surprised when he realizes how poorly he has expressed his point of view in a venue that rewards bluntness and antagonistic rhetoric.

26 Responses to “New Test Leper”

  1. Michael Says:

    There are some really nice individual lines in this song, like “i am not an animal / subtitled under the screen” (though shouldn’t it be, not taking into account meter, “at the bottom of the screen” and not under?). But overall, I think talk shows as a subject are a pretty easy target, probably too easy. I love me some NAIHF, but if I had to trim, this is one I’d trim.

  2. “New Test Leper” has never been a big favorite of mine, but the other day it hit me how nicely this song fits into the sequence and sets up “Undertow,” which I’ve always loved. It’s a fairly subtle song — I used to think the same thing, “oh, talk shows are a bit easy,” but now I like the way it gently nudges the listener toward its point rather than verbalizing it.

  3. Michael Says:

    You’re right, the music softens it a bit. I do like that about the song. The music half of the equation is well done, including the vocals.

  4. dan Says:

    as someone who listened to r.e.m. for years without trying to interpret meanings, this is one song that stood out to me lyrically. even today, though, many of its lyrics are just sounds to me — i have no idea what stipe is saying (i didn’t know, for example, the “subtitled under the screen” part).

    it’s one of my favs on NAIHF, though.

  5. Paul Says:

    This blog is a really inspiring project — love tracking its progress.

    Any thoughts on the song title?

  6. 2fs Says:

    Michael: but the “animal” he isn’t is “under the screen,” from the viewers’ perspective, also under the subtitles. You could parse the phrase “I am not an animal, subtitled, under the screen,” if you prefer. Anyway: the subtitles become a label, a stamp, a cage of sorts. A very nice, evocative line.

  7. ADB Says:

    See, I always thought the protagonist of New Test Leper was physically impaired or deformed in some way (“I am not an animal” was the Elephant Man’s famous protest). Another interpretation I’m sure I’ve read somewhere is that he / she is HIV positive and is on the talk show to confront the ignorance of the wider world (“I thought I might help them understand”), but is treated as a leper, by the audience and by the other guests who ‘are scared and hardened’ by his / her appearance / illness. Whatever, it’s a great lyric…

  8. I think there’s a very strong chance that the character in the song is HIV positive, yeah.

  9. Josh Says:

    That was always my idea too – I always figured that’s what the ‘test’ in the title referred to. I like this song quite a lot, especially the refrain.

  10. Oh, the “New Test” is definitely short for “New Testament.”

  11. dan Says:

    good call! so it’s obviously a case of stipe writing it that way for short and then it sticking. well done, sir.

  12. Nicholas Says:

    This is great–would you ever consider doing the same thing for Pavement?

  13. >This is great–would you ever consider doing the same thing for Pavement?

    Not to steal anyone’s thunder by responding to this, but, you know, WordPress makes this really easy, and within a few minutes you could have a blog set up to do Pavement songs yourself.

    I was recently inspired by this blog to give a similar treatment to Talking Heads. It would be great to see a whole assortment of bands handled by different people.

  14. Yeah. What he said.

    Who knows how I’ll feel in a year or two, but I’m reasonably certain that by the time I’m done getting through all the songs, I’ll be kinda relieved and not eager to do it again. I’m only 26 songs deep as I type this, and I’m a looooong way from the goal right now.

  15. lulu Says:

    Just found your blog. This is so great! I used to live in Athens and saw REM play the Forty Watt a gazillion times! I must admit I’m more of a fan of old school REM.

  16. Michael Says:

    It’s given me the idea to perhaps do one for Pearl Jam. Another long arduous task. I’d love to do a Pavement one myself, but although I have everything but Westing, I don’t feel steeped enough in the lore.

  17. jek Says:

    i always took this one as stipe obliquely addressing his sexuality, though you could make a case for the HIV thing if you read it modern day:HIV::New Test:Leprosy

  18. >It’s given me the idea to perhaps do one for Pearl Jam

    Let me know when you get it going, and I’ll link to you. (My link is

  19. Nicholas Says:

    Part of the fun here (or with Talking Heads or Pearl Jam) is that although I’m a big fan and I’ve worn out my copies of Document and Hi-Fi I’m _not_ steeped in the lore. Same deal with Pavement, so I was throwing it out there.

    The only artistsI think I could do justice to would be Bjork or Rufus Wainwright. Maybe this summer.

  20. Maclure Says:

    Am enjoying this website immensely. NTL was always my favourite of NAIHF, from first listens to this day. Not sure why this is – I always like the 3/4 or 6/8 songs from most REM records, also the Buck-feedback at the start of the third verse is spine-tingling. Also, I am a Christian and find Michael Stipe’s treatment of religious issues always sensitive and refreshing… I share his occasional confusion, resignation and bafflement at some of the outworkings of the Christian faith (ie. talk shows etc.) even if I ultimately disagree with his conclusions. His Grandfather was a Methodist Minister, I think?

    Anyway, this website has inspired me to get on with something I wanted to do a while ago: a blog for interpretations of great but lost songs from British bands in the 1990s, Kingmaker, Longpigs, Gene etc.

  21. Patrick Says:

    I have always believed the protagonist in New Test Leper to be referencing his homosexuality in the line “I am not an animal…” But mores the wonder of the song that there are many things he could actually be talking about. I’ve always loved the song. It’s grand and powerful in its simplicity.

  22. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    This is one of my favorite REM songs from one of my favorite REM albums. I love how the Hi-Fi album was experimental, yet still largely fit into the framework of the traditional REM sound, whereas the later post-Berry albums are experimental and seem to largely purposefully repudiate that sound to some extent (although I think McCarthy’s production makes that divide seem more substantive that it truly is).

    I believe New Test leper could be about anyone or group that is seen as an outsider or ostracized by the mainstream: HIV positive people, homosexuals, etc. Although I am sure Michael had something particular in mind when he wrote the lyrics. I actually almost took the opposite view upon my first few listens in that my initial feeling was that the song’s protaganist was a religious person who was being mocked by the secular world for their religious point of view, kind of an ironic twist on the New Testament leper imagery – in a sense saying that today the religious of the world are the lepers, the outsiders. Of course, this is not likely Michael’s interpretation as REM tend to have a failry liberal political agenda (although I do believe they are spiritual people), but I just goes to show that they lyrics could pretty much apply to any group being shown as different. So more than being an attack on talk shows (as many people have pointed out, an easy target) its more a plea for understanding and acceptance of those who are different than us.

    Finally, I have to disagree with the person who said that the title “New Test Leper” was short for New Testament – it’s a play on the phrase “new test subject” which is fairly common scientific jargon for an object of study in an experiment. The New Test Leper of the song believes he is there to honestly explain his point of view, but in reality is simply the subject of the experiment, the butt of the joke, the person for the audience to hate and revile for their views. The show is not a true forum for discussion, but an experiment in hatred and closemindedness. No matter wether the “new test leper” has AIDS, is gay, or a religious conservative in a secualr world.

  23. Oneear Says:

    You’re all right of course. But i’d always listened to this as a love song. A misunderstood protagonist, a frustrated communicator – unable to express themselves to their partner, finding themselves lost and alone. An outcast from the relationship, looking for a way back in.

  24. Scott Malobisky Says:

    funny thing just happened to me , listening to Pavement which I have running on Rhapsody while reading this blog ..Crooked Rain, (totally unfamiliar with their songs but listening because you guys turned me on to them ..a few weeks ago) And all of a sudden I’m like wow the beginning of this song sounds just like Camera so I maximized The Rap to get the title and sure enough it is camera…Gee Willickers and Bush Whacked

  25. Scott Malobisky Says:

    addendum: by “this song” I was referring to the song that was playng by Pavement on The Rap, obviously New Test Leper sounds not at all like Camera..(Bush Whacked but not bonkers I am ); note , Wilco has a Kamera with a ‘K’, or did somebody already say that ?

  26. Moss O' Brien Says:

    I saw the song as a play-off between the nastier elements of right-wing Christian extremism and a very earnest agnostic who, like Matthew P says, is surprised and hurt that his very well reasoned and well-meaning opinions are completely shot down by ignorance and prejudice.

    I felt that the leper reference was Stipe’s wry way of pointing out this ignorance; these people (Christian extremists) – who use their knowledge of the bible as a reference for everything – slander him by calling him a leper, but Jesus had compassion for the lepers; he healed them and listened to them when nobody else would.

    It is also of course, a song that points out how cringe-worthy these trashy talk shows are, and how scary it is to think of how many people follow them and identify with them.

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