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.


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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