Circus Envy

May 31, 2007

“Circus Envy,” a deranged surf-rock tune at the end of Monster, is the single noisiest track in the entire R.E.M. discography. It’s also one of the best engineered. Peter Buck and Mike Mills both achieve highly specific effects that might have been drowned out in a lesser mix, but the balance maintained throughout the track is both ideal and evocative. Guitar noise seems to hang in mid-air before slowly decaying into nothingness, bass notes drip like melting ice cream, and riffs coalesce like sticky gobs of neon-colored tar. Meanwhile, the percussion feels crisp and brisk despite some seriously overbearing accompaniment. It sounds like no other song that I’ve ever heard.

Michael Stipe’s voice is also distorted. It’s pinched and extremely lo-fi, exaggerating his nasal quality to fully inhabit the scrawny, geeky protagonist of his lyrics. Like most of the songs on Monster, “Circus Envy” is a song about obsession, but it’s not exactly romantic, and its sexuality is mostly sublimated. It’s essentially a take-off on the classic Charles AtlasThe Insult That Made A Man Out Of Mac” advertisements from the 50s and 60s — a muscle man bullies and emasculates a “97-pound weakling” on the beach, triggering his feelings of inadequacy, jealousy of his tormentor’s hyper-masculine power, and intense desire for revenge. When Stipe’s character is fearful of the “monster” within his psyche, it’s unclear whether the “awful feeling” he’s talking about is his repressed aggression, or his desire to acquire the physical power and sexual dominance of his nemesis.

The geek’s dilemma is underlined in the final verse: “If I were you, I’d really run from me / I really, really wish that I were you.” For the longest time I took this as an expression of extreme self-loathing, i.e., he wishes that could run away from himself, but I’ve found that it implies more or less the same thing if you take it at face value. He hates his own lack of strength and traditional masculinity far more than the bully, and his revenge fantasy is ultimately a quest to obliterate his own identity.

A breakfast cereal note: Up until very recently, whenever I heard the line “I spelled your name with Oatios,” I never thought that he was lining them up in his milk to form letters, but rather that the name was like “OOOOOOO,” which is far more creepy and nonsensical.

23 Responses to “Circus Envy”

  1. Justin Says:

    FYI: Pepper in your coffee is no darn good.

  2. Aerothorn Says:

    Heck, coffee is no darn good:P

  3. Ignis Sol Says:

    Then there is:

    ‘I’ll settle for a cup of coffee…’ in “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream”

    Pepper in coffee could be good. I live in Seattle and I bet some one some where serves pepper in coffee here. They should call it “Circus Envy Latte.” Serve it with a bowl of Oatios.

  4. Aerothorn, you bastard. Welcome aboard.

  5. scottyf311 Says:

    I’ve always taken the geek’s dilemma at face value, just like a lot of REM lyrics. It just makes things more interesting.

    P.S. – Anyone see Pearls Before Swine in the comics on Sunday? Classic REM joke.

  6. dan Says:

    The second half of Monster has never gotten enough love from me. Whereas I used to consider it a lame grungy riff-rocker, I see now that I was wrong — “Circus Envy” is every bit as energetic and weird as a great R.E.M. song should be. It’s like they finally got “Burning Hell” right! I like it.


    How much stuff does R.E.M. have in the vaults, do you think? Is there ever going to be a box set with stuff like, say, Monster demos?

  7. ozon Says:

    One of my absolute favorites. I love the constant how the constant feedback in the left channel is used as a kind of instrument and the lyrics are really ‘fun’ to sing along to.

  8. Kirsten Says:

    “I forgot to bark on command”
    Pure hatred for someone who treats you like shit and expects you to be greatful for it. I know people like that….

  9. jek Says:

    great writeup on what is probably one of my favorite R.E.M. songs — for real. i only wish they’d add it back to the setlist; if the next album is indeed the long-awaited “rocker,” they should open shows on the subsequent tour with “Envy.” it would give the line “here comes that awful feeling again” an awesome, ominous double-meaning.

  10. aniche Says:

    this is a hell of a blog idea.keep going.we’re rooting fr ya till the end.
    chck out my blog for daily humor columns

  11. Justin Says:

    I think Stipe recorded that vocal on a Walkman, which lends the performance that distant air.

    The lyrics are so full of great imagery, as people have noted. “Put pepper in my coffee, I forgot to bark on command” is fucking great wording. I like the break before he says “on command” with a slightly exaggerated Southern accent. Also I love how each chorus evolves, “I am tired”, “I am getting tired”, “I am jealous of your dodge ball sugar shack,” if that’s in fact what he says. I always thought “Otios” was “Oreos”.

    I’m glad you gave this song the attention it deserves. It’s a great if overlooked number.

  12. ozon Says:

    Justin, I think it’s “I am jealous of your dodgeball circus act” which would also explain the title. Not sure what that line really means though.

  13. maclure Says:

    Nice job, Michael. I think you’re Monster comments are always spot on… I get the impression you dig this record. Great track. Just picking up on the “Monster” theme I like the way Circus Envy ties in with lyrics from CGTFH. It’s like the geek is trying to live this maxim out, but gets caught in a spiral of self-loathing…

    When the world is a monster
    Bad to swallow you whole
    Kick the clay that holds the teeth in
    Throw your trolls out the door.

    ps. Do REM talk about monsters anywhere else?
    pps. Is the next album really touted as another “rocker”? I saw them in Hyde Park, London at the very end of the last tour and the encore featured an upbeat number about a DJ – can anyone confirm if this is theirs and, if so, will it be on the next record?

  14. Patrick Says:

    The song you’re thinking of, “I’m gonna DJ (at the end of the world)”, was played in just about every encore on the last tour. It is an R.E.M. original, yes. (I’m not sure if that’s the proper title, but that’s the main lyric. Although, now I’m suddenly not sure if it’s “I wanna” or “I’m gonna”…?)

    Michael said during the concerts that he hoped it would make the next record. But there have been one or two tracks in the past that have been played live but didn’t make an album.

    Personally, I thought it sounded like something that could have come off Fables. It was definitely the most careless thing they played. (And I mean that in a good way.)

  15. The song is just “I’m Gonna DJ.” It’s alright but I kinda desperately hope that it’s not on the next album because the lyrics will be an easy target and I’d kinda like to see them, um, NOT get mocked by the music press. The song is fun and catchy but the lyrics are very questionable, at least in the sense that the phrase “kickin’ playlist” is uttered.
    I don’t think it sounds anything remotely like any of the songs on Fables. It’s more along the lines of “The Wake Up Bomb.”

  16. maclure Says:

    Thanks for the heads up on the DJ song. Found some threads about it on – lyrics seem pretty, well, poor, to be honest, so agree with you there Matt. Any versions of it knocking about to listen to?

  17. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I absolutely LOVE “Circus Envy”! It is such a powerful song both musically and lyrically. A true REM gem that is mostly only known about by real fans. I always loved how this song fit in perfectly with the feel of Monster, yet sounds different than the rest of the CD as well. And Dan, you stole my thunder, I have always thought that “Circus Envy” was like a full-effort redo of “Burning Hell”. The bass part in both songs is very similar, and I’ve never heard anyone else make the connection, so it’s good to know I’m not crazy! (At least not for this reason :))

  18. ADB Says:

    This is what I love about this site. ‘Circus Envy’ has always been one of my least favourite songs on Monster (which is in turn one of my least favourite REM albums.) Stipe’s lo-fi Walkman vocals grate on me, lyrically and musically it struck me as obvious and unsubtle and, most of all, the ‘… on command’ bit at the end of the chorus has always really bugged me. As a result, whenever I’ve revisted Monster over the last few years, I’ve not really given it my full attention.

    But having read this entry and the other comments that follow, I thought I’d give it another go and, you know what, I got a lot more out of it than I ever have before. There’s loads going on in the mix which I never really heard previously and lyrically I appreciate it more too. It’ll never be one of my favourites, but I like it much more than I did. I rediscovered ‘Crush With Eyeliner’ after that entry too, so maybe I’ve been unfairly harsh on Monster in the past. I still think you’re going to struggle to convince me on ‘King Of Comedy’ though…

  19. Justin Says:

    ozon: I bet you’re right. That Stipe, always keeping you on your toes.

    One thing I meant to say after Matt so wonderfully analyzed “Crush with Eyeliner” – I think Monster has the best sleeve out of the entire R.E.M. discography. I like the inclusion of all the discarded lyrics and song titles, a neat precursor to Stipe actually including lyric sheets later on. The grahics, the colors, all beautiful. My personal favorite, unless you bring up the deluxe edition of Hi-Fi.

  20. Oh, you know, I originally meant to talk a bit about the album’s cover in the write-up for this song, but I guess I’ll get to it in another entry. I think it’s an ideal cover for the record, and really nails the sonic character of it. Very inspired.

  21. Patrick Says:

    That’s what wonderful about music I suppose, and perhaps R.E.M.’s music in particular. I don’t think I’m Gonna DJ sounds anything like The Wake Up Bomb. So we’re not hearing the same things in it.

    For me, the carelessness of it makes it more in tune with Fables than anything else. I think that’s where I was going with that.

  22. transformerdog Says:

    I always imagine the band as having been totally buzzed when recording this record, just floating on cloud nine –was there even one acoustic guitar in the studio, like maybe leaning disregarded in the corner somewhere ?– I mean buzzed on sucess mostly , mainstream mammmoth success, but more importantly the post-cathartic buzz-buzz that comes with the catharsis of creating truly great art (ie, the last three albums, AFTP in particular)..when , as an artist , you feel that you really nailed something , expressed something very important to you, threw it off and got it out there and that now you can ,maybe, have a little fun with some angles and stuff that are more fluffier and fun ..Like you just released this gigantic weight and you’re not really working and now you are just going off in all directions and yet even the most seemingly casual turn of a phrase, idea, or snippet takes form and comes massively to life almost effortlessly –IN THE ZONE so to speak–and then when it’s all captured in it’s glorious campiness you just kinda sit back and say , “Damn, did I really just create this ?”….So , so true how this album really rocks but in a way that hasn’t been done before , part punk/glam part fuzzbox intergalactic robot rumble …..I don’t know how to describe it…Monster it most certainly is . Very original.

  23. Brian Says:

    Going back and listening to this song again after seeing that the band played it in LA the other night, I can imagine it fits in well with a lot of the Accelerate material.

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