We pick R.E.M.'s top five political songs. From ''Cuyahoga'' to ''Bad Day,'' here's how the Athens band speaks out

By Brian Hiatt
October 11, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
R.E.M.: Claudio Bresciani / SCANPIX / Retna Ltd

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We pick R.E.M.’s top five political songs

Listening to Michael Stipe mumble his way through R.E.M.’s brilliant but aptly titled debut, Murmur (1983), it’s hard to imagine the band ever getting a clear message across. But Stipe’s deliberately dicey diction improved, and the then-quartet (reduced to just Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills since drummer Bill Berry split in ’97) went on to become ’80s alt-rock’s political conscience, speaking out artfully while most mainstream rockers were busy teasing their hair. As R.E.M. conclude their most overtly partisan period yet — touring with Bruce Springsteen on the Vote for Change tour — and release a new album, Around the Sun, check out their greatest political hits (well, mostly non-hits):

”Cuyahoga” (Life’s Rich Pageant, 1986) ”Let’s put our heads together/And start a new country up,” Stipe croons in this rich, steady-rolling ballad, which uses Ohio’s blighted Cuyahoga River to suggest a vanishing natural world. ”Cuyahoga, gone,” Stipe sings, blanketed by Mills’ high vocal harmonies and Buck’s tinkling minor chords. And when he adds ”we burned the river down,” that’s no metaphor: The Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969.

”Exhuming McCarthy” (Document, 1987) Bilious anti-Reagan rants were a staple of ’80s underground rock. Predictably, R.E.M. took a less direct approach. With its throwback garage-rock chords and elliptical lyrics (”Look who bought the myth, by jingo, buy America”), ”Exhuming” equates the Reagan era with Senator Joe McCarthy’s ’50s Communist witch hunts. It even uses a sample of lawyer Joseph Welch’s famous broadside at the late senator: ”Have you at long last, sir, no sense of decency?”

”Orange Crush” (Green, 1988) Contrary to what some ’80s kids may have thought, R.E.M.’s early radio hit ”Orange Crush” is not about citrus soda. Instead, the uncharacteristically aggressive tune, complete with a pre-”Smells Like Teen Spirit” stuttering power riff, is an impressionistic, elliptical condemnation of the Vietnam War (Stipe’s dad served). The chorus refers to the chemical weapon Agent Orange, while an interlude laced with sound of helicopters and military chants helps telegraph the song’s intent. While never linear, the tune does somehow evoke the dread of war.

”World Leader Pretend” (Green, 1988) Despite its title and military imagery, this quintessential R.E.M. slow jam — again resting on Buck’s delicately picked minor chords — is more personal than directly political, discussing internal, not external, battles. ”It’s high time I’ve razed the walls that I’ve constructed,” Stipe sings, laying out with unusual clarity the tale of a man ready to change his life. But the theme of change can be applied neatly to the larger world — as exhibited by the Vote for Change cheers Stipe got for the lines ”This is my life and this is my time.”

”Bad Day” (The Best of R.E.M., 2003) It seems that being cryptic only goes so far. The rapid-paced lyrical blast of ”Bad Day” sounds nearly identical to 1987’s ”It’s the End of the World As We Know (And I Feel Fine),” but while that tune was nearly incomprehensible, ”Bad Day” is R.E.M.’s most direct and unmistakable assault. An incensed Stipe rants about a ”Teflon whitewashed presidency” before concluding: ”We’re sick of being jerked around.”

What are your favorite R.E.M. songs?

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