R.E.M. is alt-rock’s wise and sad elders, who took greater pleasure in being a siren call for everything we should be wary of in the world as opposed to, say, wanting us to throw our love around and take it into town. (Not including the song that Ben Wyatt used for his spectacular claymation video, that is.) This all changed, though, with the release of 1991’s chart-topping Out of Time: Nestled in the tracklist was a little ditty called “Shiny Happy People” that gave Michael Stipe his bubblegum Davy Jones moment as he crooned about the joys of growing flowers and holding hands. It was a weird moment of earnestness for a band who had previously preferred a more catalytic approach to their music (see: literally anything from 1983’s Murmur) and singing alongside them was B-52’s frontwoman Kate Pierson, who can probably best be described as the human embodiment of sunshine. Who couldn’t possibly be happy while listening to it?
A lot of people, apparently. “Shiny Happy People” is generally considered the most divisive song in R.E.M.’s catalogue, and Stipe has stated numerous times that he doesn’t consider it to be a fine moment for the band. (Most recently, he said that it was written for children, but who knows what to believe at this point.) However, the discourse over the last three decades has been noticeably devoid of Pierson, unfairly so — her vocals are tethered to “Shiny Happy People” just as much as the work of Stipe, Mike Mills, Peter Buck, and Bill Berry, and she also lent her magnetic presence to the accompanying music video. (Which you really need to watch, if not for Stipe’s choice in hats alone.) To celebrate its 30th anniversary, Vulture spoke to Pierson about how she wound up on Out of Time, her personal interpretation of “Shiny Happy People,” and the creative growth she experienced by working with R.E.M.
The B-52’s and R.E.M. are on such different ends of the rock spectrum, but you both actually share a kinship by originating in Athens, Georgia. What was your relationship with the band like before becoming involved with Out of Time?
When the B-52’s started, there was no scene in Athens. There were no places to play, so we just played at house parties. A good mutual friend told me that I should go see R.E.M. The guys were so cute, so that’s the reason to go see them. [Laughs.] I lived five miles outside of town in a little house — a little love shack — so I rode my bike to a party and saw them perform. I was captivated. Even though we don’t have the same aesthetic or groove, R.E.M. is such an Athens band to me. We have such a similar and entwined history. That’s the essence of Athens bands. Every band that has come out of Athens has been so unique. Think of Love Tractor, think of Pylon. Going to see R.E.M., I couldn’t understand Michael’s words at first. His lyrics were so good, but on their first record it was a little bit hard to understand. But they got clearer as they went on. By Out of Time the lyrics were very clear and beautiful.
So, we were doing a tour for [1989’s] Cosmic Thing, and we were playing Radio City Music Hall. I was walking downstairs to the ladies room, and I saw Michael coming up the stairs. He just said to me, Hey Kate, do you want to sing on our album? I was like, Yes! We talked more after the show, but the meeting point was in the middle of the stairs.
I genuinely love “Shiny Happy People,” but following its narrative over the past 30 years has been confusing as a fan: Michael has said everything from it being born from a challenge to create a ‘60s-era pop ditty to being embarrassed that it became such a big hit, but he also seems earnest about it being a great song. How was the song described to you when you got to the studio?
I’ll start by saying that I love that song. It makes me so happy when I hear it. The lyrics are so uplifting and beautiful. I don’t know for sure, and I should’ve asked Michael, but it seemed to me like they were doing a little homage to the B-52’s, and that’s why they asked me to sing on the song. It’s very much in that direction. And then it became a hit, so they were a little bit miffed that it made it seem like that was their musical direction.
They sent me a demo before I traveled to the studio to see them. I didn’t really have time to plan anything. They didn’t give me any plan or map with what they wanted with the direction. When I got to Paisley Park [Prince’s famous Minnesota studio and home] they played the record — they already laid down Michael’s vocals and had pretty much everything recorded. They said, Do whatever you want. Everything I did was as it is. And it was so refreshing to be able to be used that way. Just do your thing! They loved it. It was great to be able to add my own creativity into it. Just like Cindy [Wilson] and I would hit these vocal harmonies, I was locked into Michael’s vocals. I love his voice and I think ours go really well together; they both have an edge that compliments each other well. I was inspired to sing the harmonies, but there was no discussion about the vibe of the song, or if it should go in a darker direction. It’s funny because I’ve heard the interpretation that Michael said it was about the Chinese revolution. Have you heard that one?
Oh yeah, about the Tiananmen Square massacre.
It’s interesting because our mutual friend, April Chapman, is a schoolteacher in Athens and her students created the backdrop to the music video. The video was really fun and joyful. All of these friends and Athens people were there dancing and having a joyous time. Not stressful like most music videos tend to be. It was a shiny, happy kind of video. So I can’t imagine that R.E.M. was thinking at the time, Oh, we want this song to be about Chinese government propaganda. It was supposed to be shiny and happy. It was a positive thing all-around. Maybe the band was astonished that this positivity became sort of a signature for them. [Laughs.]
What’s your own interpretation of the song?
Everything you can read into. When it says “throw your love around,” to me the deeper meaning is share your love and grow your love with others. It’s not mindless at all. It’s a song about spreading love, which we could really use right now. To me, the song is shinier and happier more than ever.
There have been a few “Shiny Happy People” demos released over the years, and they sound rawer and folksier before you were brought in for vocal duty. Why do you think it was more effective as a duet?
There’s something about the type of harmony that uplifts the song. I’ve always loved and admired Mike Mills’s vocals, too. The song is happy and it lends itself to brightness. My voice is pretty bright. As Monica [Coleman, Pierson’s wife] says, it can cut through steel. The fact that our voices locked in so beautifully with the type of harmonies used is just uplifting. The song cries out for harmony, let’s just say that. When I did my solo record a few years ago, I did some live shows and included “Shiny Happy People” in the setlist. I sang the lead and my band members sang the backing parts. It was so much fun to sing the whole song. It’s the kind of song that other people can sing and is very universal.
Funny enough, I just uncovered a photo of me and Michael at Paisley Park during the recording sessions. It was snowing the entire time and we had a snowball fight. We were in the studio and the whole time we were thinking, Are we going to meet Prince? It was rumored that Prince and Apollonia [Kotero] were going to come into the studio. But they never showed. [Laughs.] That was a bummer. But it was still a very fun session. That’s the other thing, being in the studio was fun and easy. All the guys in R.E.M. are laid-back. Not lazy, but laid-back. The atmosphere they created was easy-going and not tense. It was very much like, Do your thing, and we’re cool with what you do.
What were you all trying to accomplish with the music video from a visual standpoint? I feel like if there was indeed a cynical side to the song, this would’ve been the place to showcase it. But it’s by all means an astoundedly cheerful video.
Michael involved his friends and envisioned exactly what we saw. The interesting part was the old guy in the bicycle representing, I don’t know, time or something. [Laughs.] That was very Athens to put in something like that. Here’s a random old guy on a steampunk bicycle. Michael had a dance and made everyone learn it. He was the choreographer. His friend, Katherine Dieckmann, directed the video. They collaborated and she also brought her own vision to it — very bright with children and friends. It embodied what the song was all about. Like you said, it could’ve taken a much different direction. The only counterpunch was the guy in the bike. He’s not sad, just thought-provoking.
Did Michael give those dance moves any names?
We worked on that dance the entire day, it was great fun. But he didn’t give it any names. He would refer to them as “the moves.” It was just “Michael’s dance.” Let’s call it “Michael’s happy dance.”
R.E.M. has generally refused to play “Shiny Happy People” live since its release, but you all did a Saturday Night Live appearance and seemed to have such a delightful time. What do you remember from that night?
To be honest, I don’t remember too much about that performance. I can’t even remember who the host was. Saturday Night Live can be really stressful because, surprise, it’s live! Holy mackerel, it’s live. Here we are and we can’t make a mistake. What I remember is the band had a very relaxed attitude. The atmosphere made it so that I wasn’t nervous. You would maybe think, because of some of their songs, that they’re a tense band to be around. Some of their songs are incredibly heavy, so they’re heavy to be around too. But they’re very spontaneous people. Michael is very spontaneous and eccentric and fun. The whole band are such artists and so epitomizes the Athens aesthetic: Do your thing, be your own individual, follow your own path, and try not to be like anyone else.
Do you still have that sparkly red dress?
I do! It’s like a unitard with a skirt, and then with a separate skirt attached. That was a fun outfit. It was created just for the music video, but it was so gorgeous that I had to also wear it on Saturday Night Live. For the B-52’s, Cindy and I always had the costumes custom-made for us. We would draw them and then collaborate with somebody who would create the outfit. That happened with this “Shiny Happy People” outfit. I’m going through my archives now and trying to declutter some things. The B-52’s are about to work on a documentary and a book, so that’s been a good reason for combing through things and gathering a collection.
Is it ever strange to think that “Shiny Happy People” could’ve been the theme song to Friends?
That would’ve been great. [Laughs.] Well, too bad. Missed opportunity! I think it would’ve been a great theme song for Friends.
You also backed the Out of Time tracks “Me in Honey” and “Near Wild Heaven.” Did working with R.E.M. represent any creative growth to you, however short the experience might’ve been?
It absolutely did. The B-52’s had been a pretty insular experience. We didn’t really write with anyone else or collaborate with anyone else. We would always write together, so we really had enough going on in our band with three singers. We hadn’t reached out to collaborate with other people, so to do this was really great for me to break out and get a more creative outlook. I felt like, Oh, I can collaborate now with other people. I love collaborations. When I did my solo record, it was better late than never but it took me so long to work up the courage to break out. The B-52’s were a really tight band. So working with R.E.M. was very good for me. We’ve all stayed friends and hung out through the years. Most bands don’t really get to hang that much. I remember one day the B-52’s asked our manager, Why didn’t we stay in Athens? We moved, but we could’ve stayed here! Our manager was like, No, you can’t be in a successful band and live in Athens. Well, look what R.E.M. did. I admire that they stayed there.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.