June 11, 2008
The problem with writing about “Electrolite” is that Michael Stipe already did it, and he summed up the concept of the lyrics with such remarkable clarity and grace that I would find it very difficult to discuss the song without deferring to his explanation, or straight-up plagiarizing him. Back in 2006, he was asked to write about the song for an article in the Los Angeles Times about Mulholland Drive, which is the setting for the lyrics.
This is what he wrote:
- Mulholland represents to me the iconic ‘from on high’ vantage point looking down at L.A. and the valley at night when the lights are all sparkling and the city looks, like it does from a plane, like a blanket of fine lights all shimmering and solid. I really wanted to write a farewell song to the 20th century.
- 20th century go to sleep.
- Really deep.
- We won’t blink.
- And nowhere seemed more perfect than the city that came into its own throughout the 20th century, but always looking forward and driven by ideas of a greater future, at whatever cost.
- Los Angeles.
- I name check three of the great legends of that single industry ‘town,’ as it likes to refer to itself. In order: James Dean, Steve McQueen, Martin Sheen. All iconic, all representing different aspects of masculinity—a key feature of 20th century ideology. It is the push me-pull you of a culture drawing on mid-century ideas of society, butt up against and in a great tug-of-war with modernism/rebirth/epiphany/futurism, wiping out all that that came before to be replaced by something ‘better,’ more civilized, more tolerant, fair, open, and so on … [see ‘reagan,’ ‘soylent green,’ ‘bladerunner,’ current gubernatorial debates]
- The ‘really deep’ in the lyric is, of course, self-deprecating towards attempting at all, in a pop song, to communicate any level of depth or real insight.
It says a lot about the mindset of Michael Stipe that he decided to write a farewell song to the entire 20th Century about five years before it was even over. The song memorializes the past, but it’s really about wanting to move on to the future, and standing in awe of the possibilities offered by the blank slate of a new era. Stipe’s sentiment is extremely optimistic — he imagines that it is possible for us to move on into a future that is not fully poisoned by even the best bits of the past. Over twelve years after the song’s release, and with only two years left of the century’s first decade, its hope for the future seems at once depressingly quaint and idealistic, and inspiring because we still have so much time left to make this era — our era — a time of progress, and a source of pride.
The music for “Electrolite” is gorgeous, albeit in a very low-key sort of way. It seems very likely that the arrangement was settled on before Stipe wrote his lyrics, but either way, it has a sound of recent antiquity that complements its concept rather well. It’s nostalgic for the past, but is firmly rooted in the romance of its present tense. True to the era, the band give the decade a perfect Hollywood ending, literally and figuratively. It’s one last slow dance, and a long, slow kiss goodbye before heroically heading off into the sunset, ready and searching for new adventures.