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…