Rich Wilhelm

Shiny Happy People, Revisited

In love, marriage, R.E.M., Uncategorized on March 12, 2016 at 4:02 pm

IMG_1027It was 25 years ago — March 12, 1991 — that R.E.M. released Out of Time, their seventh full-length studio album. It proved to be a career-changing release for the band. Not only that, Out of Time became the soundtrack to a pivotal time in my own life. This was true of R.E.M. albums before and after Out of Time but probably never more so than it was with Out of Time.

I don’t always remember where or when I bought some of the albums that have grown to be my favorites, but I remember very well the late afternoon — or maybe it was lunchtime? — that I acquired Out of Time.

No, it was definitely late afternoon. In any event, I know exactly who I was with when I bought Out of Time. I was with my girlfriend, Donna.

This was new to me. The whole girlfriend concept, that is; I had bought R.E.M. albums before. Donna and I had been on our first date just a few weeks earlier and everything was new to us when we walked into Sounds of Market that afternoon. New, but already promising.

We walked deep into Sounds of Market, a Philadelphia institution kitty-corner from the monolithic John Wanamaker building, and quickly found Out of Time, which was the object of our quest. The album was available on both CD and vinyl and I pondered which format in which to buy it. I briefly considered buying one of each, but oh, how indulgent and ridiculous that seemed! I opted for the CD, which was, after all, the audio wave of the future.

Regrets, I’ve had about three dozen. Not buying Out of Time on vinyl that day is one of the minor regrets worth mentioning.

Early reviews indicated the Out of Time was R.E.M.’s “love” album, and in their 25th anniversary retrospectives, musical pundits are still calling Out of Time R.E.M’s love album. But, in typical R.E.M. fashion, Out of Time presents few straightforward looks at the subject matter du jour. You’ve got your obsessive love (the massive hit, “Losing My Religion”), your dark love (“Low” and maybe “Country Feedback”), your uncertain love (“Me In Honey”). Out of Time is a gentle album, a retreat from the rockier tracks on their previous album, Green, but it’s not necessarily an easy album. Love is, after all, awesome but complex.

Out of Time is deceptively complex.

One song does seem to be fairly on-the-nose when it comes to expressing the basic concept that love can bring happiness. That song is called “Shiny Happy People.”

Many serious R.E.M. fans loathe “Shiny Happy People.”

I do not hate “Shiny Happy People,” but consider the context. It was purely coincidental but, the more I was listening to Out of Time as 1991 progressed, the deeper Donna and I were falling in love. As far as I was concerned, Donna and I were the shiny happy people Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and special guest Kate Pierson were chirping about. And I was totally OK with that.

I’ve often pondered the hatred that people have toward “Shiny Happy People.” I think some fans just dislike because it is quite atypical of the R.E.M. sound that they grew to love as 1980s college kids. This simply wasn’t what R.E.M. was supposed to sound like. I believe that even today, there are fans of R.E.M.’s ’80s work who have never recovered from the betrayal of “Shiny Happy People.”

Of course, there are people who might not have cared as much about  R.E.M. as serious fans, but still hated “Shiny Happy People.” I think, for those people, it wasn’t the “happy” that annoyed them so much as it was the “shiny.” Most people are generally in favor of the happiness of others, but nobody really enjoys watching other people flaunt their happiness. You know, being all shiny about being happy.

But that’s what we are at the beginning of a good relationship, don’t you think? Shiny and happy. We want other people to know that we’ve found love, and occasionally, most of us can be kind of obnoxious about it.

Donna and I are still together, 25 years to the day that we entered Sounds of Market for me to buy Out of Time. To be honest, the “shiny” that we were feeling that year has faded a bit. A quarter-century of life and love and all that entails will do that to two people. We’re slightly tarnished but we can still see and feel the happiness.

“Slightly Tarnished Happy People” never would have been the hit that “Shiny Happy People” was. But it demonstrates nicely the complexity of love hinted at by Out of Time.








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Patrick F. O'Donnell

writer, editor, general wordsmith and scribe

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