When I started assembling my COVID-19 Spotify mix (at Boston’s Logan airport, 13 March 2020), R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” led the playlist. It still does.
At that time, I didn’t think I would actually try to learn it. The music isn’t difficult, but what is Michael Stipe singing? And could I learn these stream-of-consciousness lyrics? As it turns out, an even bigger challenge was figuring out when to breathe.
I first heard this record in the fall of 1987, in Matt James’ dorm room at Georgetown University. (I was not a student there; I was visiting my girlfriend.) And when I say “record,” I mean L.P. — or what people today call vinyl. My memory is that Matt had just bought the album, and we were both listening to it for the first time. Of the songs on side A of R.E.M.’s Document, I remember being struck most by “Exhuming McCarthy” and this one — the final song on the side. (The first song on side B would be the album’s big hit: “The One I Love.”)
Today, “representatives have engaged in a government for hire in a combat site” still distantly recalls President Reagan using the profits from secret arms sales to Iran in order to illegally fund the Contras, a terrorist militia working to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. But the lyric now more strongly brings to mind the treason committed by “President” Trump and the Republican Party, who conspire with Russia to “win” elections, and sell out their country to whomever flatters or pays them the most. “A tournament of lies,” indeed.
Its refrain also speaks to our current corona-era lives, as democracies erode, plague spreads, the climate unravels, and we feel… fine? Sort of? I find hope in Stipe’s absurdist juxtapositions and insistence that “I feel fine.” The song finds comedy in catastrophe. “Birthday party, cheesecake, jellybean, boom!”
I hope my rendition delivers a little mirth to your day.
Here’s the official video, in which the band does not appear.
Here’s a live performance from 1995, in which the band does appear.
And 1999 at Glastonbury.
Live music! Crowds! Another era…
Wouldn’t you like to perform a #PlagueSong? Of course you would. Well, you’re in luck: I continue to compile this ever-expanding playlist. And should you have a song in mind that I don’t know, that would be welcome!
- Plague Songs
- Sing. Sing a Song. #PlagueSongs, no. 1 (17 Mar. 2020)
- Do Not Touch Your Face. #PlagueSongs, no. 2 (24 Mar. 2020)
- The Bright Side. #PlagueSongs, no. 3 (31 Mar. 2020)
- It’s later than you think. #PlagueSongs, no. 4 (7 Apr. 2020)
- There doesn’t seem to be anyone around. #PlagueSongs, no. 5 (14 Apr. 2020)
- Be an optimist instead. #PlagueSongs, no. 6 (21 Apr. 2020)
- Kick at the darkness. #PlagueSongs, no. 7 (28 Apr. 2020)
- So far away, but still so near. #PlagueSongs, no. 8 (5 May 2020)
- If you just call me. #PlagueSongs, no. 9 (12 May 2020)
- In the end, they’ll be the only ones there. #PlagueSongs, no. 10 (19 May 2020)
- No matter how I struggle and strive. #PlagueSongs, no. 11 (25 May 2020)
- Love. #PlagueSongs, no. 12 (1 June 2020)
- This is the time. #PlagueSongs, no. 13 (9 June 2020)
- My neighbor and my friend. #PlagueSongs, no. 14 (16 June 2020)
- If you’re lost, I’m right behind. #PlagueSongs, no. 15 (23 June 2020)
- Live to see another day. #PlagueSongs, no. 16 (30 June 2020)
- What Is Your COVID-19 Routine?