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 Atlas “The 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.