July 22, 2007
I was there when R.E.M. debuted this song at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1998. I taped the show on a crappy walkman, and listened to the songs over and over for weeks, savoring this song and “Suspicion” in particular. For some reason, I was convinced that “Sad Professor” was going to be an enormous hit, but I didn’t know what it was called back then — Michael Stipe introduced the song with a line like “this is…it,” and so I figured that it was called “It.” The chorus in that version was a lot more dramatic, with Michael’s voice shooting up on the line “I started, I jumped up.” The album recording is deliberately understated — his voice is alternately reversed, clipped, and awkward, and the accompaniment jangles along in slow motion as ambient noise hangs behind it. There’s no percussion, and when the dynamics shift, it’s like someone fumbling around in a hungover haze.
That last bit is not an accident. The title is very literal: It’s a song about a despondent, alcoholic academic who breaks down and wallows in self-pity. Stipe’s view of academia is rather bleak — “professors muddled in their intent / to try to rope in follows / to float their malcontent” — but his character rings true, and his stilted, pretentious words prop up his ego while distancing himself from his “readers.” Even when he’s hit rock bottom, he still tries to put himself in a position of superiority and authority. He knows he’s a bore and a drunk, but his sob story just seems like a self-conscious attempt to spin his broken life into something sort of glamorous — a “lit invention,” as he puts it. There are more despicable characters in other R.E.M. songs, but the “Sad Professor” may be Stipe’s most pathetic protagonist.