July 19, 2008
If R.E.M. has a credo, it is most certainly “I Believe.” Though the song has its share of self-deprecating jokes and baffling Michael Stipe-isms, it is essentially a litany of virtues and aphorisms that inform the band’s outlook on politics and life in general. It’s earnest, but it’s also rather playful. One of the best tricks in the song is the way Stipe strings together aphorisms until they collapse into nonsense, which has the curious effect of making the listener reflect on the actual meaning of cliches that normally go in one ear and out the other. Some may take Stipe’s humor and obscure language as a sign of immaturity and a need to cling to inscrutability like a security blanket, but it’s actually essential to the piece, not simply because it keeps the lyrics from getting too Pollyanna-ish and preachy, but in that Stipe values levity and mystery just as much as change, honor, and “time as an abstract.”
Stipe sings about his adult convictions in the context of his experiences as a little kid. He recalls childhood illnesses, outdoor adventures, and the moral codes encouraged by scouting, and rather obviously wishes to reconnect with his former innocence and curiosity about the world. At its core, “I Believe” is a song that expresses a desire to regain the idealism of childhood, and to cast off the ethical compromises that mark adulthood. The sentiment of “I Believe” is ultimately rather poignant because both the audience and the singer know the truth: Though you can draw on youthful idealism and do great things, you can’t turn back the clock and become naive again.
A baffling Michael Stipe-ism note: The line “example is the checker to the key” makes very little sense in or out of context, but according to Marcus Gray’s It Crawled From The South, it is a reference to Michael’s car at the time — a checkered cab.