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.