Shiny Happy People

May 26, 2008

Ah, yes. The most unfairly maligned song in the R.E.M. discography.

Actually, that’s not quite true: It’s actually one of the band’s biggest hits, though they’ve gone out of their way to distance themselves from it by never performing it in concert, and omitting it from their second greatest-hits collection in favor of several songs that were not even close to being popular.

Though I can understand why the song would not work well in concert — the string accompaniment is crucial, and perhaps the single best thing about the composition — it’s a bit sad that the band are not proud of it, or at least enough to acknowledge that it is one of their most successful and best-known singles. It’s a lovely song, and it takes the band’s long-established penchant for chiming, jangly chords and sunny harmonies to a logical conclusion: Full-on retro bubblegum, complete with a guest vocal from the high priestess of camp, Kate Pierson.

Clearly the trouble with “Shiny Happy People” is not the song so much as the lyrics. Frankly, it’s always a bit tricky to work out to what degree the song is meant to be ironic. There’s certainly a touch of irony in it — I mean, c’mon — but I think what puts some people off is that it’s mostly quite sincere. In the middle of an album of love songs and/or songs about love, “Shiny Happy People” takes it all to a radical extreme: It’s this relentlessly cheery vision of utopia where everyone is in love, all of the time. Whether you laugh at it, cringe, swoon, cry, or sing along, it’s revealing something about your outlook on life. It’s kinda like a Rorschach test that way.

68 Responses to “Shiny Happy People”

  1. profligateprofiterole Says:

    I’m not one of ’em

  2. milesy Says:

    1991 was a great time to be an REM fan. ‘Yes it is great, isn’t it? No, not all of their stuff is exactly like this…’
    The anti-ignoreland. There’s no point denying it. Put it in your heart, where tomorrow shines.

    Here we go…
    Dit dit dit dit

  3. 3d Says:

    it’s not that “shiny” is a bad song, i quite like it in fact, it’s just that i’m rarely in SUCH an insanely happy mood to actively want to listen to it. i prefer “stand” by miles because, while poppy, it’s more angular and leans towards classic rock. “shiny” is just slick and bubbly and, uhm, shiny!

    and i also prefer “furry happy monsters” over “shiny”, simply because it takes the goofiness out of a grown-up territory, and into a playground, where it does not feel out of place at all. i love the band for turning this song around like this.

  4. mark reed Says:

    It’s a damn fine song. Thematically the antithesis of its composite album and the bands work in a whole, but a rare and fresh interpretation of the ideal of love that most of the rest of their canon has tried to deconstruct : in essence, the neccessary counterpoint to stuff like “Sweetness Follows” and “Country Feedback”

  5. 3d Says:

    ha ha and thanks for choosing this song on my birthday 😉

  6. ZipPop Says:

    After reading the post and the comments, I was about to leave a comment. But at the last second, I realized the song in my mind was not the song this post is about. And I think it was the lead sentence that threw me. “Ah, yes. The most unfairly maligned song in the R.E.M. discography.”

    So, okay, I disagree with you. “Stand” actually deserves its malignance. And you shouldn’t make up this post to pretend it doesn’t.


  7. Jerad Says:

    I’ve heard this song on the radio three or four times in the past week. I don’t hate it, but you really do have to feel in the right mood to choose to play it.

  8. Macphisto Says:

    File under CRAP! This song should have been reserved for Dead Letter Office Part II, fan single, or a b-side.

  9. Ben Says:

    I remember reading that the title came from a peace of Chinese propaganda that the Chinese government put out after Tianeman(I’m sure I spelled that wrong) square, that had a first line that translated to read “the shiny happy people holding hands”, which always lead me to believe that the entire song was not only meant to be sarcastic, but it was meant to be almost bitterly so. Simply put, a song to mock the overly happy fits of lunacy that people put out to mask real life problems.

    Unfortunately for REM, the song became what it was mocking.

  10. Kid A Says:

    I love Shiny Happy People. Bite me.

    Wonderful fluff (with just a bit irony), a great melody (aren’t those strings great?), and I love Kate Pierson in this.

    Oh, and I recently downloaded “Time of Outtakes” the other day; for those who don’t know, it’s a bunch of Out of Time demos. On that set, the string part is played on an organ (I think that’s what it is, anyway). They could do that for live performances, if they wanted.

    “Time of Outtakes” is highly recommended, by the way. So are the “Green” demos.

  11. profligateprofiterole Says:

    this is a extraordinarily great song as is Ignoreland, mighty fine, mentioning these two songs in th esame breath is quite a testament to the band’s range of repertoire ..No other band except perhaps The Beatles can so powerfully portray such extremes of emotion from song to song.

    well, they played Ignoreland live the other night, maybe SHP is next, would be a fabulous fourth encore, the gaping maws of the monkeys will be grinning as they stumble out of the arena, one might even swan dive off the mezzanine with a smile

  12. Macphisto Says:

    The Out of Time and Green demos are VERY good. I love the early version of Texarkana.

    Ignoreland…live, I love it too. I hope they play it in DC. The song is still relevant.

  13. Heyberto Says:

    I’ve always had a guilty pleasure kind of love for this song. It is a rarity for the band, a straight forward song about love and harmony. An ‘Imagine’ for dummies. The reason it works is that its intended to be a bubblegum songs with no apologies, As straightforward as it comes. If they had made any more songs like this, it wouldn’t stand out so much and I probably would hate it.

  14. Brian Says:

    All I know is I’d kill to write a song this good, even if many people are put off by its simplicity.

  15. Brian Says:


    LOVED you billing it as the “anti-Ignoreland” by the way. Nearly crapped myself in excitement when I saw that they’ve now played it twice in two shows!

  16. Mr Cup Says:

    REM’s tango with uber-success in the 90’s now means that when I’m loading my shopping trolley there is a fair chance that I will hear an REM tune on any given day. They may not be my favourite REM songs but hey, if I’m being subjected to bubblegum, theirs is the flavor for me.

    It’s a classic REM song in just about every way. Having Low and SHP on the same album is testament to their repertoire.

  17. Justin Says:

    It is what it is. I would be embarrassed to sing that song in front of anybody, let alone a crowd, I’ll tell you that.

    I remember I used to play this for my little brother and sister all the time, and they’d dance to it.

  18. fuse Says:

    Also worth mentioning:

    After Endgame, the stately 3/4 string-heavy intro feels like the whole record is going baroque. At least that was my first impression when Out of Time came out. But then it snaps into 4/4 with a “here we go” and turns into one of the lighter, sillier songs of REM’s canon. Sneaky sequencing, that.


    The pretty stupid video did as much damage to Happy Shiny People as the song itself.

  19. profligateprofiterole Says:

    or Low , Country Feedback, SHP, and Near Wild Heaven on the same record. And I thought I was riding the roller-coaster of life. Shit, what do I know. ???

  20. Dark Bob Says:

    As undeniably catchy as this song is, I never liked it.
    I remember Michael Stipe referring to this song “As an abortion” I think this suits the muppets just fine.

  21. Kirsten Says:

    Good song, certainly not one of their best, but in the right mood it’s great to sing and dance along to. You just have to leave any self-consciousness behind. A tragedy if this is all anyone knows of REM – could stop them becoming fans. Way too dorky.

    I enjoy the video, it compliments the song perfectly with it’s bright colours and cheerful dancing. Bill and Peter clearly struggle expressing that sort of stupidity, but Mike, Michael and Kate do really well, letting themselves (and possible some of their pride) go and just had fun with it.

    Throw your love around.
    Love me, love me.

  22. Dark Bob Says:

    It’s so obvious by the way Peter keeps rolling his eyes that he was not very shiny or happy while they were shooting this video.

  23. Tim Says:

    The song that introduced me to REM, and I remember getting made fun of by my other 6th grade friends for liking it. I bought the cassette single at the mall…I think I still have it somewhere.

    I have a live version of Shiny Happy People, from Santa Monica 4.3.1991, was this a concert or some sort of radio station gig or something

  24. Michael Says:

    Tim, they didn’t play it at Santa Monica, but the bootleg of that show also contains their performances of Losing My Religion and Shiny Happy People from Saturday Night Live 10 days later.

    There’s a Michael Stipe quote about dumb pop songs where he says Pop Song 89 and Get up are the ‘cool’ ones and Stand and Shiny Happy People are not. Or something like that. I see what he means. To me, Stand and Shiny Happy People are the songs with perhaps the shortest longevity in the REM catalogue. I like them, but I don’t ever put them on anymore, and haven’t for years.

    I’ll never say anything bad about Shiny Happy People cos it was one of the songs that introduced me to REM when I was 13. I wonder how I would feel about it if I’d been a fan from the start…? Here was a band that had done everything the hard way, with integrity and dignity. Then they were all over MTV, dancing in a colourful video, singing a song which at that time was easily their most commercial thing yet. I might have been a bit disappointed…

  25. Paul Alferink Says:

    Space Ghost (aka Tad Ghostal): Okay then, sing that song, sing that, “Shiny Shiny People” song.

    Michael Stipe: No.

    Space Ghost: I’ll get you started. (sings) “Shiny shiny people, shiny shiny people…”

    Michael Stipe: I hate that song, Space Ghost.

    Space Ghost: Oh, me too, Michael, me too. Say, Mike, do think I’m a shiny shiny person?

    Never has it been said finer. . .

  26. Paul Alferink Says:

    If value judgments were made solely on the basis of popularity, this would be a Beatles Blog. Or a “Thriller” blog. But it’s not.

    Listen, when I was in Junior High, two bands with limited musical talent had radio hits. One, named “Ugly Kid Joe” had two hits on the radio. The first was a really stupid song called “I Hate Everything about You,” Which was special for only one reason: On radio, were sappy love songs are the norm, it’s fun to have a song that that reverse that conversion.

    The second band, is called “Green Jello” (Or Green Jelly, or one of the 1000 other names they’ve been called). They admit they suck, but there were funny enough to right a song retelling the three little pigs story. The song was popular for one reason: It’s gosh darn fun to sing:

    in a fake metal voice and even more fun to sing

    These song were all over the radio when I was in Junior High. I mean, they played them CONSTANTLY, probably about the same time, or a little before, Shiny Happy People came out. Now, I haven’t thought about either of these song in probably 10 years before tonight. Why? Because they were novelty songs, and once the novelty wears off, the device that made you like it in the first place starts to grate on you. Sometimes, especially in the case of the two I mentioned, some of the songs flaws become more exposed the more you listen to them.

    Shiny Happy People is basically a novelty song. The phrase “Shiny Happy People” is so inane, that it elictis mirth at first. “Shiny Happy People” Wow, that’s crazy! What’s a Shiny Happy Person?”

    Now play in on the radio 5000 times.

    Listen, it’s not a bad song. But the novelty has warn off. The sharp changes between the strings, the chorus and the melody aren’t that cool. The riff isn’t cool. Kate Pierson sounds way better on “Me In Honey.” And the lyrics aren’t inspired or interesting. The song has nowhere to go and nowhere to grow on you. It’s all right there. Which is why songs that are tougher nuts to crack are better loved by REM fans. And especially REM. Can you imagine having to play this mess for the next twenty years? You think radio free Europe gets boring to play?

  27. Paul Alferink Says:

    Oh yes, and WORST VIDEO EVER. One dour looking Peter Buck can’t be wrong.

  28. Andy T. Says:

    Paul’s last paragraph with heavily critical remarks above has some very good points. The one that I strongly disagree with is – I’ve always liked that wacko jangly lead guitar riff. The strings…. aren’t that great but I like them anyway. Lyrics, a bit banal. Kate might sound better on Me In HOney, but on this song with the three-way vocals, I think works out pretty good actually. BUT… the only way I’d want it to be a percentage of a concert ticket to support hearing such a song though would be is if they actually had a string section and Kate present to perform behind it. Since that isn’t going to happen I can happily live without it for live shows.

  29. Mr Cup Says:

    Can you imagine my disgust…

    I was hitching through The Rockies in 1993 and got a lift with this redneck in his pickup. 10 mins into the drive, with a backdrop of sublime beauty and majesty, this tool cranks the aforementioned Ugly Kid Joe song. Absolutely cranked it.My ears were almost black from the bruising. One of the most spectacular drives of my life forever scarred by that turgid novelty song.

    Hate that song.

  30. Patrick Says:

    Interesting that profligateprofiterole references the Beatles on this one. I don’t think that SHP is any more or less of a song than “Love me Do” or “She Loves You”. And the Beatles are revered as much for those ditties as they are for “Let it Be” or “Hey Jude”. Aren’t they?

  31. 79km Says:

    It is, and alays will be, one of my favourites. It’s so pretty!

  32. Mr Cup Says:

    Good point.

  33. milesy Says:

    Ah yes, Peter’s rolling eyes. This is the symptom that Marcus Gray calls ‘Fun with Buck’ in his entertaining chapter on videos in It Crawled From the South. Always worth another read, especially for the OOT and AFTP recordings. Highlights include his ‘dangerous’ look as he is sprayed with a water cannon for Drive, and his persistent reading for Everybody Hurts. Mike normally comes out not much better, apparently claiming he is about to barf after the first slow rotation of the stage for Sidewinder.

    I agree with whoever made the point above that SHP’s video (literally) coloured the song, and doesn’t help the way we think of it. I like it, as long as I can believe there is just a little bit of irony in there…

  34. Rob Says:

    I remember playing OOT for the first time and finding this song surprisingly enjoyable and refreshing. It only really started to grate after the single release. I just listened again for the first time in years – still love Kate Pierson’s vocal.

    They may not play it at gigs but they were happy enough to do this a few years later…

  35. milesy Says:

    Stand is great! Go and watch Tourfilm again!! I can well believe the band laughed out loud when they heard the guitar solo: it makes me want to do the same, with amusement and joy. Ditto for the instrumental verse (Stand!!!), and the wonderfully cliched key changes at the end.

  36. OllieJ Says:

    This song got me into REM….I remember being driven to primary school with it blaring from the radio…a big hit in the UK, still played on many stations to this day. Not a song they should be ashamed of at all.

  37. Rob Says:

    I was 12years old in 1991. I had no idea who REM were or what alternative music was. I remember finding a tape that belonged to my sister and with some friends, some tennis rackets and a hairbrush dancing around like loons to this song. I had forgotten that this was my introduction to REM, it was three years later that I started really listening to music and rediscovered them through my sister’s old tapes. This song also led me to discover the early B-52’s albums. Though I rarely listen to it anymore every so often I’ll hear it in some unexpected place and smile. My sister now has an 18month old daughter who squeals with delight at the Furry Happy Monsters clip on You Tube.

  38. maclure Says:

    Lordy, this song has opened the floodgates of comments. That’s what I get for not paying attention for 24 hours.

    From the top 3d said i prefer “stand” by miles. I read that as “I prefer stand by milesy”. Haven’t heard that one yet. Any good, milesy?. Fuse said what I wanted to say above, but here is me saying it again…

    This is REM doing the Wonder Stuff. I also got into REM around this time when I was 11 or 12 or so and listening to OOT with teenage, non-critical ears I never paid much attention to SHP’s sequencing in the album or even its message and overtones. For some reason, I translated “shiny” in a literal way for a while – futuristic, robotic, metallic, happy people living on a utopian planet – a kind of science-fiction bubble that resembled the tin man skipping along the yellow brick road. The video shattered my carefully constructed fantasy as it seemed to be saying there is NO irony in what we’re doing (and Buck’s rolling eyes confirm his disgust with this) and that this song is basically REM doing The Disney World attraction “It`s a big, big world after all…”.

    But, when it comes on in the supermarket I’d rather this than some other pop tripe. Like you’ve all said, a song that shows the breadth of what REM are capable of. Low vs Shiny Happy People vs Ignoreland vs Stand. That’s why we love this band!

  39. milesy Says:

    One day I’ll learn guitar and form a band, and the first cover will be Stand. It will be called milesy standish;-)

  40. Mr Cup Says:

    It’ll be your Proud.

    mwa haa

  41. profligateprofiterole Says:

    My band will be called The Turgid Turgenovs

    …..Dark Bob , Your’e getting darker…..

    Kirsten nailed it, “dorky”.

  42. milesy Says:

    The b-side will be a suspect version of Leave, which is never really my proud…

  43. maclure Says:

    I just realised I said I was a teen aged 11 or 12. I was young, despite the years.

  44. 3d Says:

    i was 6 when this song was released, but i don’t remember it getting airplay on romanian radio. i do have another memory of it though: at some point there was a band called mr. president that had a radio hit called “happy people”. for some reason i liked that song and told one of my good friends about it. she said it reminded her of this other “happy people” song she’d seen on tv when she was but a wee lass, played by a band of guys and this one red-haired chick. she said she’d love to hear that song again, and, by some bizarre coincidence, mtv played the “shiny happy people” video the very next day after this conversation. so she told me about it, not without surprise, and said “i found out the name of that band. it’s r.e.m.”

    and so my life changed.

  45. Paul Alferink Says:

    Let me add:

    Ugly Kid Joe’s other Hit? A cover of Harry Chapin’s lovely sappy “Cat’s in the Cradle,” There version was unremarkable and nearly identitcal to the original. The reason that was a hit had nothing to do with UKJ and everything to do with the song.

    And just like Kaiser Souzee, like that, Ugly Kid Joe was gone. . .

  46. dumbek Says:

    I love this song, if only for the reason that it inspired the creation of a Kate Pierson muppet. Give me SHP over “Everybody Hurts” any day.

  47. lenny Says:

    …and thank God they’re gone. Well said, Paul.

    By the way, Paul — you lost me with the “space ghost” comments, and “shiny shiny people”. Huh?

  48. adam Says:

    the sesame street version – ‘happy furry monsters’ still airs all of the time.. my kids know that one more than the original – and kind of sums up what the band was trying to do .. this is fun pop for kids.. REM was having a good year

  49. Paul Alferink Says:

    Michael Stipe was “Interviewed” for a fake talk show called “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” that was on Cartoon Network for some time. I liked the show. It was very tongue and cheek and worked the Ironic Generation X angle pretty much as far as it would go, reserrecting bad, forgotten Saturday morning cartoon heroes for a bad talk show. Stipe did an episode. The above text is a snippet from that interview, (As well as a joke with a picture of Stipe “In the Corner.”)

    Yes, it pales in comparission to the Bjork episode (Which, if you can find it, will make you wet your couch.) But I still think it’s a good time.

  50. pggtips Says:

    I followed R.E.M. in that because they were a little embarrassed by it, I was too such that I indicated that I didn’t like it but Matthew you are so right, it is a fabulous song and the string sections are fantastic, in fact almost on a par with John Paul Jones’ arrangements on AFTP.

    My opinion on this song has fluctuated wildly over the years but now its very much a winner. Silliness is such an under-used component of the R.E.M. catalogue but when they do as in this song and others like I Believe and Stand its such a great way to get across their messages.

  51. Scott Says:

    They played ITEOTWAWKI (aiff) when Bush won in ’04. You don’t think they’d break this out if Obama wins this year?

  52. Ignis Sol Says:

    “Shiny Happy People” is a precious gem on dollar ring. I want to break out my guitar and do it acoustic style and sing it to my friends (with clothes on next time, “Furry, Happy Monsters” comes to mind?). It is a very sweet song about love even if it is ironic.

    Michael Moore made great use of this in Fahrenheit 911.

  53. jim jos Says:

    I have been thinking about this song’s post ever since the blog began. I was always under the impression, Matthew, that it would be your parting shot. Interesting now that it isn’t, what the last song reviewed will be. Sucks to be right all the time, I must admit.

    I don’t think I hate this song, but I hate what its become, there are way, way too many people who say “R.E.M….they made that song about being Shiny and Happy and I hate that song.”
    I do think it would have been better for the band if it had been left on the cutting room floor.

    Kind of like you have a real fashion sense, and are always really well dressed and known for that. However, the one thing that everyone remembers most is that one time you went to the party wearing some ugly lime shirt. Then you become lime shirt guy, forever. That is an analogy I associate with this one. Not that has happened to me…hope that makes sense.

    Blender did a list of 100 wussiest songs and this was number 1….most wussy song of all time.

    I also remember watching Beavis and Butt-head years ago and this song came on…one of the funniest moments in the shows history.
    They were watching the video and a mid camera shot, showing from Kate’s neck to her knees came on and Beavis says “Happiness….” Always has cracked me up.

    Plus, the Moore reference from Fah. 9/11.

  54. There’s definitely a plan for the last round of songs. I have to work through three or four more, and then it’s go time. Once I get over that hump, I have a good sense of how the order will go, which wasn’t really the case for the longest time. I’ve known for a while now what the last song from each record would be, and which of those were going at the very end.

  55. maclure Says:

    A plan? I like it. Like a well sequenced REM record that finishes strong.

    Matthew Perpetua what would it take for you to do Accelerate after the end of all this? After all, we will have had long enough to dwell on the new record and many of us will have seen it performed live by the time you’re through with the others. I’ll buy you a beer next time I’m in your part of the world (New York, is it?) if you could just cast your expert eye over the 11 most recent songs in the REM catalogue when you’re over all the rest.

    Here’s starting a petition. We, the undersigned, would like MP to do Accelerate.
    1. Maclure

  56. profligateprofiterole Says:

    I think the happiest song ever recorded is Everybody’s Got Something To Hide ‘cept For Me And My Monkey. Absolute unbridled joy (with cowbell)

  57. profligateprofiterole Says:

    2. Gordon Lightfoot

  58. Kirsten Says:

    Paul, I bet I’ve got those UKJ and Green Jelly songs on an old tape somewhere! Will go searching tonight.
    As for UKJ’s version of Cats in the Cradle, while musically they did a good job of it, they missed the VITAL part which takes the song complete circle – the changing of “When you comming home, Dad” to Son. They had it as Son throughout the whole song – completely ruined it. Still really liked their version, but it doesn’t have that cleaver and necessary word change to really make the song work.

    3. Michael Stipe

  59. Daniel Limburg Says:

    I’m sorry but calling this a song full of fluff is very rude and wrong. It’s a great song, and it’s not about what everyone has written about. It’s a very deep song, it has meaning, and what most people think it’s about couldn’t be more off base.

    Please go read the lyrics again, and think of a funeral, think of the viewing, think of the celebration of life. Now do the lyrics make sense?

  60. Patrick Says:

    I just pulled up the Furry Happy Monsters clip on YouTube for a re-cap. How good is Peter Buck’s sad face in that video?

    4. The Cookie Monster

  61. Dave Greenlizard Says:

    Ok – I can finally reveal my shame for the world to see. I really liked Losing My Religion when it came out. But it was this song that made me get off my ass and buy my first REM album. I know own everything they’ve done, and my life has been enriched immeasurably – so job pretty much done. Thanks Shiny Happy People!!

  62. It is indeed a great song: a great studio creation. One of the best hooks in any R.E.M. song. I never understood the backlash. SHP is a much better song than a similar radio-friendly hit like “Stand,” yet it receives a disproportionate amount of scorn. It was ridiculous not to include it on In Time. Animal, All the Right Friends, All the Way to Reno but no Shiny Happy People? Insulting.

    Bang and Blame and Shiny Happy People were, by the numbers, two of the biggest U.S. radio singles the band has ever released.

  63. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I am way late here, a lot has happened quickly, but let me give my two cents worth: SHP people is a good song, a great song when compared to other songs like it, but for REM merely a good song. That said, it would be merely a silly and somewhat unimportant song if not for the presence of Kate Pierson on the song and in the video. As someone way above mentioned Kate is the Queen of Camp, and her very presence takes what appears to be a straitforwardly cheery and sacharine song and adds an element of irony and campiness to it. Thus, the band can play it strait, and still claim it was all a joke or a stab at irony. Therefore, it works for me. I’d still remove it from OOT of time though and replace it with “Free World, Baby” if I could – maybe save SHP as a “new” track for a compilation or a soundtrack as it is too good to bury.

  64. I’ll probably do the Accelerate songs, but at some undetermined point in the future, maybe in early 2009. I definitely want to get through them, but it’ll take a while. I’ll certainly be writing about at least a few of the Accelerate songs on Fluxblog in the near future. I’ve been dying to get to “Living Well” and “I’m Gonna DJ.”

  65. Kirsten Says:

    Happy to wait – roll on 2009! 🙂

  66. Dark Bob Says:

    This is the point where Michael Stipe became an extrovert. I mean previous to OUT OF TIME, Stipe was more of a mysterious, introverted person who let the other members of the band do most of the talking. When I first heard this song and saw the video I was somewhat shocked. It took me some time to get used to.

  67. maclure Says:

    MP, thanks for the reply. Ditto Kirsten.

  68. DC Says:

    gold and silver shine.

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