Turn You Inside-Out
December 23, 2007
A three-way collision of trebly post-punk guitar, thundering arena rock drums, and melismatic gospel, “Turn You Inside-Out” ranks among R.E.M.’s weirder hit singles. In lesser hands, the song may have come across as disjointed and gawky, but the band managed to put the piece together well enough that the final result does not call much attention to its unlikely, somewhat asymmetrical combination of genre signifiers. It’s a huge, bombastic song, but it’s actually quite subtle in the way it plays upon audience expectations, and implies this passionate stadium anthem without following the traditional form of such a thing. Map it out — there’s only one verse, but there’s two different choruses and a bridge. The song is in a huge hurry to push the listener to ecstatic heights, and it’s not at all an accident — it’s a manipulative song about a manipulative character.
“Turn You Inside-Out” is a song about the power a performer has over their audience. The type of performance is left purposefully vague — we’re meant to read between the lines and equate the skill set of an actor or musician with that of a charismatic politician. It’s essentially the same theme as Living Colour’s “Cult Of Personality” (which came out only five months prior to the release of Green in 1988), but R.E.M.’s take on the subject is more nuanced, and considerably less literal and ham-fisted. The big difference is that Michael Stipe is not at all strident in this song, and though the lyrics certainly work as an auto-critique, it’s not exactly an exercise in self-flagellation. If anything, it’s a work of art that makes us understand what it feels like to wield power over an audience of any kind. It’s an intoxicating rush, it’s terrifying, it’s occasionally morally dubious. There’s no clear value judgment in “Turn You Inside-Out,” no assumption that having this sort of power automatically makes a person corrupt. It’s more about asking the audience to be aware of this type of power dynamic, and to recognize its patterns and pitfalls.