i have always thought REM used politics as material for a sort of abstract modern dance. they filled their songs with references to the world of politics and ideology: radio free europe, guatemala (a clear political reference in the eighties), leonid brezhnev. . um, i can't think of any more, but i am sure there are more. anyway, they made a kind of culturally aware ambience which, when one listened closer, made little sense. their songs were like abstract paintings in which elements were pastiched in without clear relationships to one another. i felt stipe was hiding away from clear meaning -- and maybe the draw of his music was in part this enigmatic quality. although there have been, especially in his later music, plenty of songs which did make a clear kind of sense, like "night swimming" or "losing my religion."
finally last night i heard him sing an openly political song. or two, actually. i saw them sing on tv. and i do not think their impact suffered from clarity. clarity does not have to mean a loss of poetic eloquence. if anything, the second song he sang seemed to clearly depict a yawning abyss of uncertainty which is, in itself, a political position for peace. in other words, he has not lost the power of the ambiguity that he wields so well: he has just positioned it more obviously within this concrete historical moment.
but then again, didn't he do the same thing with "its the end of the world as we know it" -- albeit in much cheerier vein?
the song ended with him crying out "why? why? why?" i will have to find out the title of the song. thank you, michael stipe, for not being afraid to step up and connect to our common crisis.