Bertis Downs, lawyer and everything-man for Athens-based group R.E.M., asked on social media what Automatic for the People song is most under-appreciated.
As this album approaches its 25-year anniversary—and in the weakening wake of the band calling it a day—we may be hard pressed to argue that any song on that collection is more relevant than “Ignoreland.”
The career of R.E.M. has some relatively clear eras—the independent phase spanning the 1980s, the popular phase associated with the Warner Brothers contract and the 1990s, and then the post-Bill Berry R.E.M.
It seems fair to argue that Automatic represents what makes R.E.M. an elite example of how a group can achieve significant popularity while maintaining artistic independence and credibility. In short, this is a beautiful album that may in fact have a collection of songs that are all under-appreciated.
Throughout their independent years as playing so-called college alternative rock, R.E.M. developed a reputation as a political band; Michael Stipe’s lyrics unpacked as such, even when they remained elliptical and more evocative than declarative, and then band mates themselves politically vocal and active beyond their music.
R.E.M. fandom seems to fall along the three eras above, with some clinging to the independent 1980s band but balking at popular R.E.M. and then abandoning post-Berry R.E.M. However, “Ignoreland” in many ways is a powerful link between the independent and popular phases.
From 1987, Document lays the groundwork for “Ignoreland” with “Exhuming McCarthy,” pop-song catchy and politically scathing. A compact distant cousin to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, “Exhuming McCarthy” takes aim at the Reagan administration as a manifestation of all-that-is-wrong with U.S. corporate-capitalism as well as the need to keep the public afraid of creeping threats such as the 1950s Red Scare echoed in Reagan’s “Tear down this wall.”
It is damned hard to find better pop-culture political literature than “Look who bought the myth/ By Jingo, buy America.”
The U.S. did just that for twelve years—eight of Reagan and then four more with George W. Bush, who appears in “Ignoreland” with equally incisive lyrics: “How to walk in dignity with throw-up on your shoes.”
A great bittersweet reality of my life is that I no longer can anticipate a new R.E.M. album, no longer feel that rush of the first listen to unpack what I knew would be something that would make me a different person, a happier person.
I recall that first listen to Automatic and how I marveled at “Ignoreland”—what felt to me as a writer, a teacher, and a part of the political Left to be a perfect metaphor for the U.S.
The politics of ignoring reality—tremendous and grinding inequity—in the glare of rhetoric about the American Dream captured in e.e. cummings’s “‘next to of course american i.”
As in “Exhuming McCarthy,” cummings confronts U.S. jingoism—”by jingo by gee by gosh by gum”—linking the paradox of extremely inward-gazing nationalism and the simultaneous failure of the American character unmasked by James Baldwin: “This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us.”
“Ignoreland” begins causticly and rings as if written in recent months: “These bastards stole their power from the victims of the Us v. Them years.”
The rise of Reagan/Bush is detailed twenty-five years ago by exposing divisive politics, sword rattling, and hollow promises of trickle-down economics. But “Ignoreland” also warns about the failure of media, predating significantly the recent hand wringing about fake news: “The information nation took their clues from all the sound-bite gluttons/ Nineteen eighty, eighty-four, eighty-eight, ninety-two too, too.”
The U.S. as a media-centric people who are paradoxically, again, un-/misinformed—Stipe’s catalogue also triggers George Orwell’s 1984, a work recently regaining popularity along with other works of dystopian science fiction because Orwell focused on how often those who control language control everything:
TV tells a million lies
The paper’s terrified to report
Anything that isn’t handed on a presidential spoon
If we truly want to know how we have arrived here, what I have christened Trumplandia, the bread crumbs of that decline can be followed through “Exhuming McCarthy” and “Ignoreland” to finding ourselves in the witch’s cauldron.
Trumplandia is a people willingly filing into what was sold as a Jacuzzi, only to find ourselves the meat of a meal to feed the 1%.
To ignore—this must not be ignored now. It is an act of will, a decision.
I argued during the presidential election of 2016 that voters had to compromise their morals to vote for Hillary Clinton, but to vote Trump was a complete abandoning of any moral grounding.
To vote Trump is the ultimate act of ignoring found in the majority of white women voting for a misogynist, in the religious Right voting for a serial adulterer, and in the media happily skipping along hand-in-hand with a pathological liar.
Twenty-five years ago, “Ignoreland” captured the toxic mix of political anger and political resignation:
If they weren’t there we would have created them
Maybe, it’s true
But I’m resentful all the same
Someone’s got to take the blame
Trump ascending and fabricating an administration of billionaires, “Ignoreland” realized because we chose the road of least resistance—we created them.