Begin The Begin
February 1, 2008
The first time I saw R.E.M. perform “Begin The Begin” was the last time I saw them in concert, which was kind of a long time ago: It was the night after George W Bush won a second term as the President of the United States back in 2004. The band opened the show with “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” which was very unexpected and droll way of dealing with the crushing disappointment, but as soon as they ended, the launched into “Begin The Begin,” and the context underscored everything great about the tune.
Most obviously, “Begin The Begin” rocks with great force and urgency. Within a couple seconds of the intro, the entire band sounds focused and driven, as if on a life or death mission. It’s not the heaviest or fastest song they’ve ever written, but it’s certainly one of the most aggressive. On one hand, it seems designed to shake the listener out of their apathy, and on the other, it’s meant to inspire and motivate. “Begin The Begin” isn’t a passive sort of protest song, it’s not just some bitter commentary on the poor state of the world; it’s a call to arms. By the second minute of the song, the thesis of Lifes Rich Pageant as a whole is laid bare: You don’t like the way things are? You hate the way our institutions have become corrupted? Well, let’s begin again.
Much to his credit, Michael Stipe doesn’t ever pretend that a new beginning is something that could come easy. He’s not spouting revolutionary language for the sake of it, but instead acknowledging that real, lasting change is something that takes time, work, and often a great deal of failure. “Begin The Begin” isn’t about the short term; it’s not an exhortation to riot. It’s asking the listener to become an active participant in their society — if there’s any hope of standing up to the powers that be, you have to engage, create, and build. You need to have a voice, and more than that, a voice that can and will be heard. After all, “silence means security, silences means approval.”