Why R.E.M.’s 1991 Out of Time May Be the “Most Politically Important Album” Ever

Raise your hand if you bought your first music on cassette tapes. No, not those detourned objects of nostalgia circa 2013, but the “this is the latest technology and that’s that” kinda thing. Okay, you in the back there, remember when the CD came to town? Yeah, and remember those boxes—all that ridiculous packaging, with the long cardboard box twice as long as the product? What was that all about? The rest of you, keep up: It was a different time. Okay, since we all still know what vinyl looks like when handsomely placed on store shelves (maybe you’ve seen this at your local Urban Outfitters), we know that record sleeves are big and square and CD cases are small and square. And the problem for those record stores when the CDs came to replace tapes—but not the precious vinyl—was that the main displays were for the big squares, and the stores didn’t wanna change ‘em. Thus the long CD box: two of them side by side equaled the area of one record.

Problem solved? Not for spoilsports like R.E.M. who (you in the back, remember?) released that album Green in ’88 and went on endlessly about “think global, act local” enviro—blah blah. Why they cared so much about the lives of shade-giving, wish-granting trees I’ll never know, but they did, and it bothered them, these wasteful boxes. So, enter Tipper Gore. Wait, what? Who? How? A short history: Some time ago, Al Gore’s wife Tipper and many others were upset by raunchy lyrics—especially by the 2 Live Crew fellows—and lobbied for those “Parental Advisory” stickers to get stuck on explicit CDs, and some music was censored, and Gore and her coalition of mostly right-wing friends found a convenient boogeyman in popular music. (Are you googling? It’s spelled “PMRC”). A lot of this agitation over explicit lyrics came from genuinely concerned parents. A lot of it came from political opportunists and people who like using legislation to enforce their religious morality.

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Where in Stipe’s name is this going? It ties together through one man, Jeff Gold, Warner Brother’s exec during the release of the band’s 1991 album Out of Time. Gold needed the long box for this CD, and he wanted the then-new Rock the Vote project to register millions of young music buyers, who would then, he reasoned, vote out the pols who did the censorship. Gold and Rock the Vote founder and Virgin records co-founder Jeff Ayeroff convinced the band to do the long box thing by making half the box a Rock the Vote petition for the Motor Voter Bill, which would allow voters to register through their local DMV. And that, according to radio show 99% Invisible, is how REM became the face of Rock the Vote and the Motor Voter Bill in 1993. Marketing! And environmentalism. See that sensitive activist at the top of the post? That’s Michael Stipe making a Rock the Vote pitch. See that picture above? (Click to embiggen.) That’s the dorsal side of Out of Time’s CD long box package. The card at the bottom addresses itself to the young record buyer’s Senator. It says,

Dear Senator:

I support the Motor Voter Bill. According to the U.S. Census, in the last presidential election 78% of 18-29 year olds who were registered to vote voted. We aren’t as apathetic as some people think. It’s just that the laws make it hard for many of us to register.

I hope I can say my Senator supports the Motor Voter Bill.

Your Constituent

In no small part because of R.E.M.’s lobbying, the Motor Voter Bill was passed. Many did not like it then and do not like it now. They say it encourages voter fraud, which you might think would be rampant and completely out of control by now, but is not in the least. In any case, the law remains unreasonably controversial, as do many, many laws that make it easier for all kinds of citizens to vote. But you probably know that story already.

For more on why Out of Time is possibly “the most politically important album of all time,” listen to the first episode of new podcast Pitch below, and visit their site for a transcript of their detailed interview with Jeffs Gold and Ayeroff. And for Stipe’s sake, get yourself registered and get to the polls this November.

via 99% Invisible

Related Content:

Filmmaker Errol Morris Gives Us “11 Excellent Reasons Not to Vote?”

Take The Near Impossible Literacy Test Louisiana Used to Suppress the Black Vote (1964)

Three Public Service Announcements by Frank Zappa: Vote, Brush Your Teeth, and Don’t Do Speed

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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  1. Fred says . . . | July 25, 2014 / 9:14 am

    I thought those long boxes were to deter thefts.

  2. Doron says . . . | July 25, 2014 / 1:16 pm

    Out of time was released on 1991. Automatic for the people is the one released on 1993.

  3. Ivano says . . . | July 26, 2014 / 6:51 am

    Doron is right with O.O.T in ’91, but Automatic for the People was released in ’92.

  4. karlyn says . . . | July 28, 2014 / 6:57 pm

    typo in first sentence of quoted text! “Mother Voter” instead of Motor.
    Great article!

  5. Josh Jones says . . . | July 28, 2014 / 9:06 pm

    Thanks, karlyn! Fixed it….

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