Pop Song 89

October 20, 2007

“Pop Song 89” may be R.E.M.’s most peppy and light-hearted song about “conversation fear,” but its straight-forward, understated lyrics absolutely nail the dull aggravation and quiet anxiety that even the most well-adjusted people can feel when to having to make small talk with people they barely know. The song is essentially a playful inversion of the aggressive extroversion displayed in the Doors’ “Hello, I Love You,” with Michael Stipe playing the passive role and doing his best to stay polite while also mildly resenting the silly social game he’s being forced to play.

The lyrics are broad enough to apply to virtually everyone, but lines like “I think I thought you were someone else” take on a slightly different meaning in the context of Stipe’s celebrity. We all have to deal with awkward moments in which people know us but we cannot remember them, but for anyone in a position of celebrity, it happens more often and the social pressure of the situation is exacerbated by their fame. The chances of hurting someone’s feelings are far greater because you’re running the risk of people reaching a bitter and somewhat unreasonable conclusion along the lines of “oh, he’s an asshole big shot rock star, he didn’t remember me from that one day from fifteen years ago.” If you’re trying to maintain a self-image based upon the notion that you’re just a normal guy, it can be extremely nerve-wracking. Thankfully, “Pop Song 89” does not sulk or pout about the nuisance of engaging in fluffy banter, but rather attempts to dismiss it all with a good-natured shrug and  a few cheery power-pop hooks.


48 Responses to “Pop Song 89”

  1. Dark Bob Says:

    I always took this as a song about how some people can be two-faced. Like a politician who promises one thing and then does the complete opposite once elected. It’s about not being able to trust someone’s word.

  2. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I love this is Tourfilm , the epitome of the svelte slinkiness of the Slinkmeister on display , he looks like he REALLY IS not of this world with the make-up and all . It’s just such a great song , too. Great guitar hook , a faint hint of distaste and rebellion in the “government” line…..No , let’s NOT talk about the government !!! Let’s talk about religion . Bad idea .

  3. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    He can’t talk about religion! He’s losing his religion! Wait, that’s not til the next album, nevermind . . .

    Good opening track for Green, I’ve always thought it was a pleasant listen and should have been a bigger hit as a single, but still only an average track for me and one of my least favorite on Green. Also, it seems a little dated to me, one of the few REM songs that does.

  4. Mr Cup Says:

    Hello my friend are you visible today?

    I really love that line. I thought maybe it was a reference to schizophrenia and/or the duality of politics. Thought maybe the song was in some way about the end of politics. Maybe I’m just way off the mark.

    Pissed myself laughing when I first saw the film clip and Stipe’s nips had been blacked out. I can’t listen to this song and not sashay my hips. Impossible.

  5. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Michael referred to this as a “piss take, I guess it’s the prototype and hopefully the end of the pop song..I think it describes where a lot of pop music stands right now.” The bland questioning in the lyric looking at artificial provocation and stimulation, conversational devices that mean nothing, a dig at the superficiality of the modern world….(in the words of Bowler and Dray. thank you gentlemen)…

  6. Scott Says:

    Taken together, the title and the lyric suggest that the pop song is a form of conveying a “boy meets” story. The reference to the year–1989, which was a couple of months away when “Green” arrived–hints that the pop song is ready to evolve from “boy meets girl” to a more global “boy meets.” Boy meets boy, boy meets himself, boy meets world. Anyone he meets, he must also talk to, and there lies the rub. Of course, there’s always music to talk about, right?

  7. xman Says:

    the 89 refers to it being r.e.m.’s 89th pop song. in 1987 it was called pop hit 87.

    good song, good video.

    check dis out- it’s a song called “i’ve seen trouble”, i think. it’s not on the new abum so don’t be afraid to listen.

  8. Martin Says:

    I’ve always thought that the lyrics were intended to be describing the typical pop song you’d hear on the radio and on MTV. It fits beautifully and perfectly describes the lack of depth and meaning a pop song contains. To me, a pop song of such kind is one where the artist singing nearly aren’t involved in the production of the song (which is reflected through the artist’s lack of enthusiasm, like they couldn’t care less as long as they got their money). Also, it has very straight-forward lyrics and no purpose whatsoever. Kind of a joke actually.

    “Hello, I saw you, I know you, I knew you”

    Could be describing the time-limit a pop song contains. It’ll hit and then pass. No consistence whatsoever.

    “I think I thought you were someone else”

    Saying that they all sound alike more or less and that over time, it would be hard to distinguish between them

  9. maclure Says:

    Good write up and comments – as usual, I end up looking at the song in new ways. For me, though, I just see this song as one of the most obvious record openers REM ever did. I think of the title as kind of ironic – like a Pop Song should be sugary, shallow and catchy. This one is catchy, but it asks some important questions which the album itself begins to form answers to – and the answers are deeper, darker and more complex. Like the album cover itself – Green, but its a sickly, fading yellow. There’s more to this record than simple categories and cliched conclusions. (this ties in with the excellent comments that somebody made – sorry cant remember who – about Green being a journey out of childhood).

    Anyway, those questions: Should we talk about the government? (World Leader Pretend) Should we talk about the weather? (I recall it wasn´t fair, wasn’t fair outside – I remember California) are you visible today? (the wrong child) and generally this sense of trying to locate oneself in the world, in relationships (i know you, i knew you) seems to be echoed throughout the album for example in Stand and Untitled.

    POP QUIZ: Can anyone think of any other album openers by other bands that include the words ¨hello¨ or ¨hi¨. I can think of at least one other.

  10. protimoi86 Says:

    Matt, you’ve done it again. I never saw this song as a take on celebrity encounters, and trying to avoid looking like an asshole if you jsut don’t care what someone has to saw. I always saw it as seeing an old friend but realizing that you don’t have more than small talk to make. One of their best pop songs – and really, what else could they call a song like this? It’s obviously a working title that stuck.

    Interesting that it’s the 89th song in their catalogue…i love coincidences like that.

  11. Paul Alferink Says:

    The only one I can think of is the Doors song.

    This is a fun song. Although now, when I hear, I still think of Beavis and Butt-head watching the video and saying “Hey, that chick has small boobs.”

  12. Kirsten Says:

    Mr Cup – I always do the dance too! I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing the “censored” version of the clip, but am hoping to track down a copy one day.
    I always loved how Michael explained the clip as a “political stand” against all the t&a on MTV. No. You just wanted to dance around with a bunch of naked chicks. The grin on your face says it all. No other rock star would’ve gotten away with that explination, but we all just seem to presume Michael is just so righteous.

    Should we talk about R.E.M.?

  13. Mr Cup Says:

    Hi. Hi, hi.

    Was this around the time and a response to that Robert Palmer style film clip or just general MTv fodder?

  14. Kirsten Says:

    I don’t believe it was a comment on any specific person or band, just MTV in general. If he thought Robert Palmer was bad he’d have a heart attack if he saw half the clips these days!

    I think I can’t remember your name…

  15. Dark Bob Says:

    In response to Maclure’s question, “Hello” by Oasis, opening song on What’s the story morning glory. And “Hello Hooray” by Alice Cooper, opening song on Billion dollar babies (Showing my age on that one!)

  16. Kirsten Says:

    What about the last line in NAIHF:

    I’m outta here.

  17. beonetraveler Says:

    Was trolling for some lyrics (“Kahoutek” by the way) and came across the site.

    In my view, “The Doors” connection weaves its way through the song beyond the “Hello” as the lyrical treatment of the uncomfortable, fidgety, apathetic, celebrity, conversation and recognition/visibility thing proceeds. “You know(,) I never knew that it could be so strange/(Strange)”

    Not exactly “faces look ugly/when you’re unwanted”. Still, some line or (ugh) looking glass has been crossed. Maybe the IRS to Warner Brothers line.

    Van Halen’s 5150 opens with “Hello, baby”.

  18. maclure Says:

    Yeah, I had the Oasis one in mind. It’s good to be back, it’s good to be back, (drone) hheeeelloooooooo…

  19. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I love Oasis.

  20. Heyberto Says:

    This is a bit off topic, but Matthew’s blog for this song reminded me of meeting Michael Stipe (sort of). When I was at school at UGA, I was in the magazine store across from REM’s offices one Sunday. I was reading a magazine when someone behind me said ‘Excuse Me’ so I moved forward to let him pass. All of a sudden it hit me.. I knew that voice. I looked over and it was Michael (his back was to me, but I recognized the tatoo on his hand) in hat and glasses. He went to the counter and purchased some magazines, and spoke to the guy behind the counter. Obviously they new each other, but it was just cordial small talk. I never spoke to him, choosing instead to respect his privacy, but I was a little star struck. Living in Athens 5 years I had never seen him. If he hadn’t spoke in his unmistakeable voice, I would never had known it was him.

    I told that story to a friend who lives in Rhode Island, and she couldn’t believe I didn’t say hello. If I had run into him somewhere else, I suppose I would have. New York, L.A., Clevaland… If I were him, I’d have expected to get noticed in other places, but not at home. But that’s why Athens is home for people like him. He doesn’t get hounded. He doesn’t get hit up for autographs. He can retreat. If I were in his shoes, I’d want the same consideration, so why would I act any other way than I did that day in that magazine shop? What would I have to say? Small talk?

  21. maclure Says:

    Heyberto – cool story and very apt to the song as its about conversation fear. I’ve been to Athens. I went in 98 on a pilgrimage (gained momentum). If I had seen MS in a store I’d at least have troubled him for a handshake. You’re a better man (or woman?) than me. But I think, to re-iterate the point I tried to make earlier, small talk is what this song is – but the rest of the album turns out to be big talk.

    BWD – I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or not (re: Oasis)?

  22. Andy Says:

    Speaking of Robert Palmer, I once heard a live recording of him performing “New Day Rising” by Husker Du.

    …it made me like him.

  23. Jared Says:

    “Hello” by Poe instantly came to mind. It’s a fantastic album (“Haunted” is also very good, for those who don’t know much of Poe”..)

  24. karen Says:

    it didn’t occur to me until just now that “there is no conversation fear” in (the pavement song) “we dance” is a reference to “9-9” by r.e.m. – it seems so obvious now but i’d just never thought of the two together. neat!

  25. Andy Says:

    doesn’t he sing “there is no castration fear”?
    Or am I heading into revealing freudian territory?

  26. The first line of “We Dance” is “there is no castration fear.”

  27. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Kirsten, you got a sick sense of humor
    Robert Palmer died of a heart attack in a Paris hotel a few years ago

    xman , I never knew that about the 89th song
    don’t think the title was a coincidence (though humorous the implications of that , counting songs now)

    heyberto, what year was that when you ran into
    Michael in the bookstore ?

  28. xman Says:

    there’s a silver jews song that starts out “hello my friends…”, dunno the name of it..it’s from the album that sounds like all their other albums, you know the one…

    whoa i just had a thought about zack wylde doing the riff to this song. that would be good.

  29. AlexK Says:

    This is random, but that’s me. This song reminds me of the scene in American Beauty where Kevin Spacey is attending the big party with Annette Bening and they run into Peter Gallagher. The situation is very forced and uncomfortable, thanks in part to Spacey’s intentional efforts to make it so. But when I see that scene, I think of these lyrics!

    I love the acoustic version of this they did on MTV Unplugged.

    If I met MS, what on earth would I say that would make the moment better? Just seeing him up close would be good enough. Yes, I would be starstruck beyond words, and maybe that’s why my words at that moment would do me no good.

  30. ScottMalobisky Says:

    xman, did Foreigner name an album after you, Agent Provocateur ?

    feel the need to clarify for those who care and do not know that RP dropped dead of The Big One as he was preparing to go out to dinner with his wife ; don’t want to give the impression wrongly that he had The Big One as a result of self-indulgent rock star shenanigans ..but then again I guess it’s possible ..I never saw the toxicology report, but just the fact that he was with his wife and going out to dinner makes me inclined to think it was more an unfortunate cataclysmic natural causes sotra thing…..When John Entwhistle died of The Big One, significant cocaine was found in his system, most likely a direct cause (at the Hard Rock Cafe Hotel and Casino in Vegas a few yeas ago , the night before The Who were due to begin a new tour )..Can you imagine dying of a heart attack as a result of acute cocaine intoxication ???!! No, I cannot , how horrible that would probably be …

  31. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Lionel Ritchie , “Hello , is it me your lookng for ?” 😦
    Is that the first song on the record , does anybody out there wanna fess up to owning it ? 🙂

  32. ScottMalobisky Says:

    maclure , I don’ think BWD is being sarcastic , he’s a strange bird , that one…….

  33. karen Says:

    i figured out my lyrical flub just as i was trying to do a complicated work task this morning. i guess it was a bit early for me when i wrote that…

  34. ScottMalobisky Says:

    oh, Agent Provocateur is a lingerie company based in the United Kingdom……sorry xman…imagine that Foreigner referring to lingerie…….

  35. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Hey Scott , where’s that package I been waiting for ? Need to receive it before the house burns down .Need to hear that version of Ambulance Blues before I die so that my life will be complete….Got a very serious and disturbing situation here in S.Cal. Burning Hell , worst wildfires ever …..:( very bad .

  36. maclure Says:

    Comfortably Numb, Pink Floyd – but its not an album opener I guess.

  37. xman Says:

    hello my baby hello my honey hello my ragtime gaaaal

  38. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Hello It’s Me by Todd Rundgren is preceded by Piss Aaron and followed by Some Folks Is Even Whiter Than Me

  39. Ignis Sol Says:

    I overcame my “conversation fear” to talk to Peter Buck years ago when he came into my book store. My co-worker urged me not to speak to him out of respect, but I decided to give him good customer service (he did have a question regarding a CD). I nervously approached him and said “HI!…” I was rewarded with a brief and friendly conversation as Patty Smith’s latest was playing in the background. He told me he had just had her over for dinner the night before.

    I always enjoy this song. Great opener for “Green.” The video is HIlarious. The censored version is funny because it black-out Michaels breasts, too!

  40. Heyberto Says:

    Scott Malobisky, that was 1999 I believe….

    and it really was just a newspaper stand, not a bookstore. It’s still there, and I’m sure he still goes by on occasion.

  41. adam Says:

    may indeed be the best album opener of all. the production and the fuzz bass..at the time (and it still holds up) was so cool, crisp and big. it felt very very new.. different than the rocking document.. this was REM taking a newer, poppier, stranger turn again.

  42. Holygoof Says:

    Long time lurker, first time poster…Lovin’ the journey, Matthew — big, big fun!

    Here’s a couple more “Hello” songs:

    ‘Hello Resolven’, Beulah
    ‘Hello City’, Barenaked Ladies

  43. Kirsten Says:

    Sorry ScottM, no disrespect intended, I had simply forgotten about RP’s heart attack. It was natural (as opposed to drug-induced). I read he was a very clean-living, religious man – very opposite to his music and video clips.

  44. Kirsten Says:


  45. lenny Says:


    Here’s another: “Hello There” from Cheap Trick Live at Budokan. (OK it’s a live recording, so what else are they going to open up with? Surrender?)

  46. Michael Black Ph.D. Says:

    I actually agree with Matthew on this one. The following was well-said…

    “The song is essentially a playful inversion of the aggressive extroversion displayed in the Doors’ “Hello, I Love You,” with Michael Stipe playing the passive role and doing his best to stay polite while also mildly resenting the silly social game he’s being forced to play.”


  47. ScottMalobisky Says:

    What would Conan O’Brien say ?

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