“Out of Time” in Post-Truth Trumplandia

We’ve been through fake-a-breakdown
Self-hurt, plastics, collections
Self-help, self-pain
EST, psychics, fuck all

“Country Feedback,” R.E.M.

Maybe this is the stuff of Legend, or false memory—or that the Russians can hack even that—but it seems R.E.M. kept a running list of possible album titles as they recorded, a practice often including daring titles left to linger with the specter of a very unlike-R.E.M. outcome.

For the now 25-year-old Out of Time, that title, I recall, came from a final statement on that board—the band was out of time for submitting the recordings and title.

That the album most associated with R.E.M. and their delayed rise to pop culture fame, fueled as well by their becoming MTV darlings, has turned 25 in the year of electing Trump seems cruelly painful, and whether or not my recollection about how the album was named is factual has become irrelevant in post-truth Trumplandia.

Throughout the 1980s, R.E.M. was immediately loved by Rolling Stone and the so-called college radio crowd, and they were a touring alternative rock success—a reality that had much to do with fans and music critics recognizing that within the realm of popular music, R.E.M. took their craft seriously and were uniquely adept at that craft.

By the time the band angered those 1980s alternative fans by signing a huge record contract with Warner Brothers, and then (gasp) achieved fame with “Losing My Religion,” R.E.M. had become known as both a highly ethical band (making money but not selling out their artistic autonomy) and a political band; neither seemed to hurt the band in ways that other performers could not avoid (think many years later the fate of the Dixie Chicks).

Still now after the band has called it a day, after their fame dwindled into petty sniping at the albums produced after Bill Berry retired (Up, Reveal and Around the Sun unfairly slighted by critics and fans), after the inevitable rush to reconsider the enduring excellence once R.E.M. no longer was a practicing band—it is the politics of R.E.M. that fascinates me, from the more overtly political “Orange Crush” and “Ignoreland” to the ambiguously political “Fall on Me” or intimacy politics of “Tongue.”

Yes, Out of Time soared into the wider national and international consciousness with “Losing My Religion” as the least likely of hits (dare we say radio hit in the context of the album’s first song and the fact that this world is now a distant memory?) and an iconic tour-de-force in music videos.

But appreciating an album also requires taking the album as a whole:

Out of Time
01. Radio Song
02. Losing My Religion
03. Low
04. Near Wild Heaven
05. Endgame
06. Shiny Happy People
07. Belong
08. Half A World Away
09. Texarkana
10. Country Feedback
11. Me In Honey

The paradox of R.E.M., for me, is that the popularity of the band includes “Losing My Religion” and the odd controversy over the so-called too-poppy “Shiny Happy People”—and maybe that the album has guest vocals from KRS-One and Kate Pierson of the B-52s—but that many among those wider, late-to-the-party fans don’t understand: “I’m not sure all these people understand,” Stipe sings in the haunting and magnificent “Nightswimming.”

Maybe, just maybe, R.E.M. is about the politics of understanding, a call to the politics of intimacy.

Theirs is the art of the politics of the beautiful, of raising voices and instruments against all the unnecessary shit.

I fall in love hard with musical performers/groups and writers. And then I consume everything they create.

There is a direct line from my love affair with R.E.M. to The National, and especially with R.E.M. disbanding, my time and energy have been disproportionately committed to The National and CAKE.

So I have recently revisited Out of Time, and it has been lovely and tearful.

R.E.M. as the politics of the beautiful.

But the beautiful of Out of Time for me is “Low,” “Belong,” “Half a World Away,” and “Country Feedback.”

“I’ve had too much to drink/ I didn’t think, I didn’t think of you,” echoes into my bones—and then:

Oh, this lonely world is wasted
Pathetic eyes, high-alive
Blind eye that turns to see
The storm it came up strong
It shook the trees and blew away our fear

The politics of the beautiful, the politics of understanding, the politics of intimacy.

“That’s me in the corner,” I suppose, “Like a hurt lost and blinded fool, fool.”

And I miss R.E.M.


Where Is Our “Sense of Decency”?

Before teaching The Crucible in my American literature courses during my two decades as a high school English teacher in rural Upstate South Carolina, I played the students R.E.M.s “Exhuming McCarthy,” which “makes an explicit parallel between the red-baiting of Joe McCarthy‘s time and the strengthening of the sense of American exceptionalism during the Reagan era, especially the Iran-Contra affair” (Wikipedia).

The song includes an audio from the McCarthy hearings, including this soundbite of Joseph Welch confronting Joe McCarthy:  “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator….You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Part of The Crucible unit asked students to examine how societies continue to repeat the basic flaws of abusing power and oppressing powerless groups of people. Despite the lessons of the Witch Trials and the Red Scare/McCarthy Era (with the Japanese Internment in between), Americans seem hell-bent on doubling down on policies and practices that are authoritarian, hypocritical, and simply mean—especially if those policies can be implemented by people with power onto the powerless.

Current education reform needs a McCarthy hearing, and we need to confront those driving those reforms with “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

For example, consider the following:

History is replete with evidence that the ends do not justify the means.

While there remains great political and public support for grade retention, for example, a huge body of evidence shows that retention negatively impacts students retained, taxpayers, and peers not retained—all for mixed results of short-term test scores.

The only justification for grade retention is giving the appearance of being tough (raising a key question about how tough any adult is for lording him/herself over a child).

Americans’ puritanical roots are some of our worst qualities, and especially where children and other marginalized groups are concerned, Americans need to regain our sense of decency.

We would be well advised to begin with how we reform our schools.