ONLY NOISE: Laughing at the Apocalypse with R.E.M.

ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, Erin Rose O’Brien pays tribute to a silly song about the end of the world that helped her conquer apocalyptic anxiety and post-9/11 panic.

Exactly zero karaoke places have the correct lyrics to R.E.M.’s “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” You can trust me, because I check all of them. At least two karaoke places (private room, I’m not a monster) have the same video, with the same font: a skinny, sans serif caps lock with perfectly round Os. It’s my backup song, the one I do if the room is getting tired, if my voice is shot. It’s a guarantee the room will shout “LEONARD BERNSTEIN” while doing a fist-pump. I make someone else sing the Michael Stipe vocals toward the end so I can sing to the Mike Mills part that goes, “Time I had some time alone.”

Plenty of my friends rightfully hate karaoke, and the other group of my friends are INTO IT. I mean, like, hours and hours. They flex music knowledge via song choice, regardless of your singing abilities, and no matter how well you do, it’s a celebration. “It’s The End of the World As We Know It” is a cop-out choice. You don’t need a lot of talent to pull it off, but I can’t be Stevie Nicks 24/7, so here we are.

Reading about music on Wikipedia as a teenager (a hobby), I found the 2001 Clear Channel Memorandum, a list of songs that were “banned” for Clear Channel radio stations to play. This started in corporate but moved down to zealous station managers. Clear Channel announced later that it was not an outright ban, but a suggestion of songs too sensitive to be played post-9/11.

The list is devastatingly on-the-nose. “Burning Down The House” from Talking Heads’ Speaking In Tongues. U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me.” Some are just paranoid choices: all songs by Rage Against The Machine. And behold, there she is, “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”

Knowing which songs are banned would be my party trick, if people still had those. Last time I was at karaoke I pointed out that the room had picked three of these songs so far. Morbid, yes, but I was young when I came across this list, trying to make sense of the tense, paranoid world my adolescence was set in. I was fascinated.

Long Island was intense post-9/11. Everybody knew somebody, or knew somebody who knew somebody who died, and everybody was angry. Here is what I knew for sure: we should not have invaded Iraq. I cried about it at my 13th birthday party.

Concurrently, I feared the world ending. I waited for it. I was sure of it. I lost sleep in worry. Staring into space didn’t fill me with wonder, but dread. Every unusual star in the sky could be the beginning of the end–I didn’t care how many people told me it would be okay.

“It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” is incredibly literal. A manic pace, a false-quiet bridge like a reckoning, and it goes on for over four minutes, relentless. The world is crashing down and you’re experiencing it in first person. Then the song fades–it doesn’t ever truly end. It’s not R.E.M.’s finest song (that’s “Find The River,” don’t @ me), but it’s at home on Document. “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” is the lightest of the bunch; even the album’s lead single, “The One I Love,” is morose, darkened by bass.

I’ve been listening to Document a lot lately. Time is elliptical, things come back in style, war is forever. Document is the first R.E.M. album where you can hear Michael Stipe clearly–the vocals and lyrics are no longer obscured. Lyrics jump out as terribly relevant still–“hang your freedom higher,” in “Welcome to the Occupation” is about American intervention in Central America according to Michael Stipe, but there are a thousand sneering applications for it. “Exhuming McCarthy” is anti-capitalist singsong (“You’re sharpening stones / walking on coals / to improve your business acumen.”) Peter Buck told Melody Maker in 1987: “Reagan is a moron and that’s all there is to it. I get upset when I think about him.” There is no doubt that Document is a political record, but it’s one that doesn’t make any grand proclamations about the state of America. It’s as confused and scattered as one might feel flipping through channels.

Comparatively speaking, the lyrics to “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” are nonsensical, but it’s easy to draw comparisons between them and the 24-hour news cycle. For Michael Stipe, the song did mimic the televised spectacle he was repulsed by; he called it “bombastic, vomiting sensory overload” in a 1987 Rolling Stone cover story on R.E.M. For me, the song mimicked the constant loops of fear in my brain, running down every end of the world scenario. In that same interview, Stipe identified the song’s opening-line earthquake as his biggest doomsday fear: “I usually get headaches when an earthquake happens – when Mexico City went down, I was on my back for three days, really bad.”

“King of Birds” is also based on Stipe’s earthquake sensitivity, specifically, about the idea that animals can also sense when an earthquake is coming. The song treats this power like a burden (“Standing on the shoulders of giants / leaves me cold”). The drums march on, a sober delivery of the inevitable.

The video for the song is of a distressingly messy home (perhaps not even a home). Sixteen seconds in there’s an R.E.M. poster, and nothing else of the band. It has the vibe of a looter going through the destruction for anything he can find; a personal camera to make sure all the details are there. Some toys, a football. A teenage boy poses with a portrait of some forgotten man. Hold on boy and portrait, turn to camera. The boy plays with the found objects, as if to mimic the events leading him to this place. It’s shockingly present-tense–like a post-apocalyptic haul video. And for a song so frantic and searching, so much of it is steady. The camera pulls away from the destroyed home. The boy dances. He does skateboard tricks. He’s gonna be okay.

By my account, I’ve survived several apocalypses. Folklore prophecies, scientific, geopolitical. There was a 2012 Family Radio Judgement Day sticker stuck to a telephone pole in my hometown for years–it withered after time. I’m still here, until climate change kills us all.

Everyone on Twitter jokes about wanting something to put us out of this misery. I am obsessed instead with survival. Not prepper-level, but emotional. No longer the child who stayed up in fear of a strange light in the sky, I seek out anything that laughs in the face of death. Hand me the microphone. I got this one.


Bill Callahan

There are certain voices that stab straight through you and assert their place in your life immediately. Bill Callahan wields such a voice. From the first second it struck me I knew it would be with me forever-like a well-won scar. Admittedly, this scar isn’t very old-I only heard of Callahan on my 26th birthday, which was not all that long ago. So wasn’t it just my luck when after months of pouring over his massive catalogue as both Bill Callahan and as Smog, I should find that the tall-drink-of-sorrow himself is playing six gigs over a three day residency at Baby’s All Right?


I had the pleasure of catching up with Bill over email to talk about joy, rap, and epitaphs.

AudioFemme: You’ve been doing this for quite some time now-at this point in your career, what aspect of your work brings you the most joy?

Bill Callahan: Probably starting a new song. It’s like morning full of promise. It’s like a guarantee of rich full days ahead of self-satisfaction, group interaction, performance, etc.

I understand you’re a big hip hop fan-any contemporary rappers lighting your fire these days?

I like some of the fucked up stuff like Young Thug, Future. Whoever does that song, “Baking Soda, I got Baking Soda.”

It seems that in the past, motion was very important to you; the idea of constantly moving forward and being on tour has surfaced lyrically as well as in interviews. How do you reconcile the contrast of perpetual motion and settling down now that you’ve found a home in Austin?

It’s more a state of mind and a perspective than necessarily physically moving great distances. There is a time of gathering experience, that was my youth — after that you can be a little more still and just live what you learned. It’s like Willie says, “Still is still moving to me.”

On the subject of home, what is something that makes you feel instantly at home, at peace?

My wife. My nylon string guitar if that’s all I got to hold on to. Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill.

We currently live in a culture where music is ubiquitous-people utilize it as background noise, to make people shop more, to pump themselves up at the gym, etc. In what setting, or at least, state of mind, do you hope people listen to your work?

Whenever they feel they need it, I guess. And I hope they feel they made the right choice. I recently re-recorded some songs from Apocalypse to be a 12” that goes along with the early copies of the Apocalypse Tour Film DVD that’s coming out on Factory 25. Listening to those mixes in my car, especially One Fine Morning just felt so, dare I say, perfect.

The two things seemed to need each other — the music and the scenery needed each other.

What have you been listening to lately, and in what setting do you like to listen?

I have a stereo set up and pointing at a particular chair at the kitchen table. I sit in that particular chair and listen to records. It’s kind of like a musical meal. Been listening to Carly Simon and the Bee Gee’s a lot lately.

Are you someone who feels at odds with your own era? Or in sync with it?

I believe I’m in sync with it. Because I am nothing special. I’m not an iconoclast or a freak. I’m a product of my era.

What moves you to write songs?

Knowing that humans need more good songs. I might as well try give some out.

I always like hearing established artists’ opinions on longevity. You’ve clearly withstood the test of time as a songwriter and performer, but do you feel that longevity is a viable goal for up-and-coming musicians? Is a steady career possible with such high turnover rates, saturated markets and the ease of piracy?

I can envision an awful future of corporate owned music production and distribution. Then maybe 70, 80 years down the line we’re going to break up into tribes again. And make great music again. And some of the tribes won’t make music at all. I’ve been oblivious to the music industry from day one. I always just do what makes sense to me. Mostly. Sometimes I’ll do something that doesn’t feel right if there’s someone I love and trust urging me to do it. I’ll do it for them as a concession. But I’m usually right in the end! I got into music to make a living, it’s the profession I chose or it chose me. These days I would say if you feel it’s not viable then you’re a fool to start up with it. If it doesn’t feel viable to you then do something else that feels viable. I’m not saying you should only do it if you’re immediately making money at it. Struggle is good. As long as there’s a light at the end. The longevity really comes from within. It’s not “the times” or “the state of things.” If you have the longevity in you then you’ll have longevity.

Words seem to hold high importance for you. At the risk of sounding too morbid, and assuming you would even bother with one, what words would grace your headstone?  If that’s too heavy for a weekday-how ‘bout a vanity plate instead?

Loving Husband, Father and Three Pump Chump.

Be sure to catch one of Bill’s sets with Sunwatchers in the next couple of days. I’ll be there somewhere, slow dancing alone.

6/26 @ Baby’s All Right, 6pm

6/26 @ Baby’s All Right, 9pm

6/27 @ Baby’s All Right, 6pm

6/27 @ Baby’s All Right, 9pm

6/28 @ Baby’s All Right, 6pm

6/28 @ Baby’s All Right, 9pm