Sad Professor

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.

36 Responses to “Sad Professor”

  1. transformerdog Says:

    you mean Stipe wrote a song about me ?
    Thanx Michael

    I haven’t had a drink in four years though
    And I’m not a professor though I talk like one

    Well, it’s good to NO LONGER be pathetic
    But I can relate to the character

  2. Bree Says:

    For me, the poignancy of this song is in the admission of defeat, the reconciling of a life the character wishes was authentic and almost grandiose but is actually fatuous. It parallels “Diminished,” also on “Up,” in its stark admission of guilt, “I watched you fall/I think I pushed.” I like thinking about this shadow side of the characters in reference to their superstar singer: a person so totally unordinary and larger than life is still plagued by the guilt of existing just like any of us: of forwarding a public face knowing that we are, in our most private thoughts, something totally different.

  3. wolfy Says:

    This is a favourite song from UP-the songs are about characters and Stipe handles that esp. well. I like both old and new REM songs.

  4. Paul Alferink Says:

    I always thought the song was a bit more hopeful then you let on. It’s while he might be wallowing in self-pity, at least he recognizes his problems. It’s a moment of clarity and his admission to his readers that he really doesn’t know where his life is going anymore. Maybe he takes steps to correct it. Maybe he fails, but at least he might try.

    The chorus is probably the highlight of Up. “Late afternoon, the house is hot. I started I jumped up.” I can picture a drunk academic, in a old Victorian/ Turn of the Century house with no or little A/C cluttered with books and papers. Basically like everyone of my Profs house who taught any liberal Arts class. Perhaps the action of the “I started I jumped up” is the part that gives me hope. Great Song. Up lost me a bit, but this song was definitely one I could latch onto.

  5. transformerdog Says:

    I started in as I began or I started as in “a sudden startled reaction or movement” ?, the latter methinks..Right
    on,
    Paul..one of my least favorite songs on the record but that’s only because there’s so many other songs on the record that I really like, certainly intriguing and unusual subject matter– IMO:)

  6. Paul Alferink Says:

    Really? I Never could love it as much As I did most of the others. With ATS, I understood. I really didn’t listen to it enough to find hidden gems, if they exist. But this album was on constantly. I think I was replaying “A link to the Past” while this was on. Everytime I here the start of”You’re in the Air” I get a mental image of Link tramping through some swamp somewhere. Really, only about three songs, IMO work really well start to finish.

    also, my one year old is dying to add h7yjlkkjtyh,m hjnb n mbj mnmn bnoll,j.,:?? m, muuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuujmmmmmmm ./.][[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[]
    edxbjuyh 5555555rrrrgg,, mlujyyyyyyy.yyyyyyyyy mnnn , ,k,k,

  7. transformerdog Says:

    the third of the REM Grating Trilogy ,where-in there are elements of the song that intentionally make it grating in order to better express the intense ,emotional frustration of the song……….. 1. The Wrong Child
    2. Let me In
    3. The Sad Professor

  8. Mr Cup Says:

    hmmm…I’ve always thought this was a song only a mother (or father) could love. The skip function on my CD player started to get a work out. This album kind of ushered in a series of slower plodding songs that anaesthatised me to the joys I once felt with REM. It was also around this time that I started to play down my devotion to the band. What am I missing?

  9. transformerdog Says:

    Mr. Cup , it’s just that you were into REM during the IRS years (I’m assuming) not like myself who got on board much later, that’s the source of your frustration , I reckon

  10. Mr Cup Says:

    You are probably right. But does it work in reverse? Do you listen to Life’s Rich Pageant, say, and go “Too loud. Too fast”?

    What is a latter day fan hearing when they go back and discover the earlier stuff?

  11. Justin Says:

    The phrase “late afternoon, the house is hot” is one that will stick with me to the grave. It constantly pops into my head because it’s just so damn efficient and real.

    You fall asleep in bed or on the floor in your clothes, you wake up sweaty and sticky and disgusted with yourself. In six words, and entire genre of emotion is knowingly captured.

  12. transformerdog Says:

    oh no, not at all , Mr.Cup….they were kids then , talented and hungry, prone to moving faster and playing faster –I think their career as a whole fits together and is compelling in a way that no other band’s career does/is ; they are getting old, sure , but I think they are doing so gracefully, progressing nicely, and still putting out great stuff. I love their rocking stuff and I love their slower stuff.

  13. Figgy Says:

    You’re right, Justin. A great line. I also know first-hand how that feels!

  14. Mr Cup Says:

    Don’t get me wrong, I like a lot of the recent slower stuff. But there are some songs that just grate on me. All of them from the last 3 albums. (In fact there is now an albums worth of them). Back in the day these songs may have complemented the up-tempo tracks beautifully. But to me the weight of numbers tends to drag the recent albums down.

  15. Figgy Says:

    There definitely has been a lot of slow tracks on recent albums. However, the recent Dublin shows seem to promise some rockers for the next one. Here’s hoping.

  16. Evan Says:

    I had a professor in graduate school who claimed — plausibly — that this song was about him. Apparently his son worked for R.E.M. in some capacity, and Stipe wrote it based on the son’s account of his father.

    The guy was indeed sort of sad — he was fifteen minutes late to class one day because he had fallen asleep in his office — though no longer an alcoholic.

  17. Scott Says:

    Justin, that’s the line for me, too. I think of a professor blacked out drunk on a floor of Georgia hardwood in summer, waiting for the succor of classes, and I think of an Ivy League washout facedown on an Oriental Rug in an overheated house in February. It’s an all-season description, a hot house in late afternoon when the climate is controlled by an alcoholic versed in the classics.

    “Up” is Michael Stipe’s lit invention, his best set of lyrics. The first-person experiments of “Out of Time” and “Monster” take on muscle here, and Stipe’s opacity serves him as never before (or since). The album is a hall of mirrors in which decency sees itself distorted over and over, reshaped into sadness, jealousy, confusion, dislocation, fury, sympathy and resignation. It’s a beautiful, searching record.

  18. Ignis Sol Says:

    This song scares me because I do not want to end up like the “Sad Professor:” A man lost, alone and drunk amongst his pile of books – his own stories in the stale air of an old house. In singing along with it, I feel a release and a bit of empowerment. I feel a sense of hope by the end of this song (I agree with Paul A.). I recognize and then in turn conquer this fear.

  19. Adam Says:

    Just a quick note – I had mentioned before that I lived on the same street as Stipe in Athens and the “late afternoon the house gets hot” line is just from real life.

    I don’t know what it is about those houses or where the sun hits but at 4:00 it is almost unbearable. I used to hate that time of day because it sort of made you crazy. The houses are all old, from the 20’s, with really high ceilings and no central air (at least mine…) and something makes them really bake in the afternoon. I think he was just talking from personal experience.

    I always liked the line though…

  20. maclure Says:

    Great comments on this one: I like the themes on UP and I think it is a lyrically very strong record. Themes of academia come through on Hope, The Apologist too.

    I’ve slated REM’s 2nd chorus to 3rd verse breaks on this blog but this is another one that is spot on… simple understated piano bridge from Mike. I always look forward to that when the song starts up.

  21. huub Says:

    Great song, one of my UP-favs. I never really listened to the lyrics though, I just love the sadness which is in this song.

  22. transformerdog Says:

    Adam , once saw a photo on rotten.com of a man found dead in his bed from natural causes about a week after the fact …..in the deep south …in the height of the stultifying summer…a previously undiscovered new shade of unworldly bloated purple yellow.

  23. JimD Says:

    Probably my favorite track on Up.

    This is truly a pathetic character depicted in the song. After a long list of self-admitted flaws, the final lament ..” I hate where I wound up”.

  24. Ignis Sol Says:

    transformerdog- ewww, so that’s rotten.com…?😉

  25. Kirsten Says:

    This song makes me want to drink.
    This song makes me want to cry.
    This song makes me want to sit alone in a dark room in the foetal position.
    This song makes me feel like a sad professor.

    That’s why it’s so good.

  26. transformerdog Says:

    damn Kirsten , are you alright?

  27. Aerothorn Says:

    One of my fav R.E.M. songs, and despite me loving most of Up, it emerged as my favorite. It’s just so…honest.

  28. Paul Alferink Says:

    Kristen-

    You’ve been so sad
    It makes me worry
    Why not smile?
    You’ve been sad for a while
    Why not smile?

    I would do anything
    To hear you speak of it
    Why not smile?
    You’ve been sad for a while
    Why not smile?

  29. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I never really enjoyed this song. One of my least favorites on Up actually, it has that shapeless, woozy, drunken feel to it – like Beachball, and those are 2 of my least favorite REM songs. It may be what was intended, but I don’t like it.

  30. Kirsten Says:

    Thanks Paul. In the entries for that song, we all said it was just like a big hug, and you know what, it is! I just have a family member that I am closest to in hospital. He was given about 2 hours to live, but that was 4 days ago, so just struggling with the anxiety and anticipation of this devistating event which could happen at any minute. Once he’s gone, I’ll hit rock bottom and then start to slowly feel better. So I’m not going through anything that we all haven’t been through before, and sadly will have to go through again. So I appreciate all the kind words from everyone, but I am alright and I will be alright, it’ll just take a bit of time…🙂

  31. daniel Says:

    i was there at tibetan freedom concert, as well, when they debuted this song (i had fought through the crowd for an hour and a half so i could be at the front bars when they took stage… i made it, barely).

    and i have to say it was the new song that struck me the most. still it is one of my faves and “up” has remained one of my favorite rem albums.

    now that i’m a little more grown-up, i realize that we place significance on things like songs because we subconsciously decide that there is meaning in them for us as individuals; as opposed to an inherent intended meaning that objectively resides in them. but at the time, i swear to god, i thought he was looking right at me when he sang “i hate where i wound up,” and it was quite a powerful moment. such is the beauty of youth and whimsy.

    also, at the time i thought he said “it’s late afternoon, the house is hot; I STARTED A CHAPTER,” which kinda works, too.

  32. Kevin Says:

    This song unnerves me, just because it hits a little too close to home. (Not recommended for anyone in the academic fugue state of late-term dissertation writing and/or job market.) As someone said above, I like how it plays off “The Apologist,” in that this sad character has clearly been beaten down by alcoholism, loneliness, and failure…but at least he hasn’t turned into the kind of 12-step monster of the previous song. Two paths along the same main road.

  33. David B Says:

    Re Evan’s comment above – the professor whose son worked for Stipe (as his personal assistant) was John Sutherland, who’s an ubiquitous media presence in the UK and a self professed former alcoholic. He has written about how he thinks the song is about him, but I think Stipe’s too good a lyricist to be so specific…


  34. […] one of the more bitter and unflattering characters presented in an R.E.M. song, along with the “Sad Professor,” the creepy sociopath of “I Took Your Name,” and the defendant in […]

  35. soul searcher Says:

    when i listen to this song, i don’t just think literally of a sad professor. professor in this case to me is anyone who is constantly professing, how desperate and sad their life may be. “everyone hates a sad professor,…” who wants to be around the guy that has nothing positive to say, has no uplifting spirit and even realizes it on their own.

    this song, has a college setting, because stipe is in athens. most of hi ssongs go with that feel as all of you know.

    sad professor could be that one student who seemed to have all of the smarts, yet never quite fulfilled his/promise. and he knows it and drinks himself daily. and there’s nothing he can or willing to do about it.

    that’s just my opinion. i love the songs on up, but then i like pretty much all rem songs except man on the moon.

  36. Tim Mason Says:

    The article in which Sutherland raises the possibility that he might be the model for this song is here : http://www.lrb.co.uk/v21/n04/suth01_.html He concludes, as you do, that Stipe would not be so specific.


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