“It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” Michael Stipe Proclaims Again, and He Still Feels Fine

It has tak­en a viral pan­dem­ic, and a moun­tain of trag­ic fol­ly and more to come, but the inter­net has final­ly deliv­ered the qual­i­ty con­tent we deserve, at least when it comes to celebri­ties stuck at home. Night­ly bed­time sto­ries read by Dol­ly Par­ton? Inti­mate streamed per­for­mances from Neil Young, Ben Gib­bard, and many, many oth­ers, includ­ing stars of Broad­way and opera house stages? It can feel a lit­tle over­whelm­ing, espe­cial­ly for peo­ple work­ing, edu­cat­ing, and doing a hun­dred oth­er things in quar­an­tine. But if there’s some­one I real­ly want to hear from, it’s the guy who told us, thir­ty-some years ago, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”

If you remem­ber the Rea­gan years, you remem­ber liv­ing under the threat of mass extinc­tion by nuclear win­ter and radi­a­tion poi­son­ing. The end of the world seemed immi­nent at the end of the Cold War. And Michael Stipe, in a man­i­cal­ly dance­able tune (depend­ing on your lev­el of sta­mi­na), pro­claimed a need for soli­tude after issu­ing his many griev­ances.

It is still the end of the world, he says in a recent video address about coro­n­avirus on his web­site (and a short­er ver­sion released on social media), and “I do feel fine. I feel okay. The impor­tant part of that lyric, that song title, is ‘As We Know It.’ We’re about to go through—we are going through some­thing that none of us have ever encoun­tered before….”

The moment is unique, of world­wide his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance as was the bel­liger­ent arms race of the late eight­ies, the ter­ri­ble A.I.D.S. epi­dem­ic, and oth­er cat­a­stroph­ic events occur­ring when R.E.M.  released Doc­u­ment, the 1987 album that intro­duced mil­lions of young fans to art-punk genius­es Wire—whose “Strange” Stipe and com­pa­ny cov­er; to blues­man Light­nin’ Hop­kins and red-bait­ing sen­a­tor Joseph McCarthy, who lent their names to two songs; and to Lenny Bruce, pio­neer­ing 60s com­ic, who, like Stipe in the album’s Side One clos­er, is “not afraid” of earth­quakes, birds and snakes, aero­planes, and oth­er signs of the apoc­a­lypse. Things will change irrev­o­ca­bly, and life will prob­a­bly go on. In the mean­time, he says, “don’t mis-serve your own needs.”

You may not be sur­prised to learn the song re-entered the charts on March 13, 2020, as Poly­phon­ic informs us in their video at the top. “It’s easy to see why.” These days nuclear holo­caust seems low on the list of prob­a­ble caus­es for the world’s end, what with poten­tial eco­nom­ic col­lapse and more mas­sive cli­mate events fol­low­ing on COVID-19’s heels. Grim times indeed, as we know them, but they’re hard­ly the first we’ve faced in liv­ing mem­o­ry. Behind Stipe’s “glib irony” in “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” lies a fierce cri­tique of U.S. greed and vio­lence and, as always, an alter­na­tive ethos, one whose call we might espe­cial­ly heed in our days of iso­la­tion.

We’re eager to recon­nect in myr­i­ad ways, but time alone might not be such a bad idea. “Return, lis­ten to your­self churn,” Stipe sings, “lis­ten to your heart beat.” We can hear the final call for soli­tude as a dig at rugged indi­vid­u­al­ism, or a call to healthy intro­spec­tion. As the orig­i­nal video sug­gests, wad­ing through the clut­ter might help us reclaim the stuff that makes us our best selves. Along with issu­ing his PSA, Stipe has also released a video, above, of a new demo track, “No Time for Love Like Now.” Here, he ditch­es the arch­ness and anger of his fiery younger self for a plain­tive state­ment about what the world needs. You guessed it…

Relat­ed Con­tent:

R.E.M. Reveals the Secrets Behind Their Emo­tion­al­ly-Charged Songs: “Los­ing My Reli­gion” and “Try Not to Breathe”

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

R.E.M.’s “Los­ing My Reli­gion” Reworked from Minor to Major Scale

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

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