In HateSong, we ask our favorite musicians, writers, comedians, actors, and so forth to expound on the one song they hate most in the world.
The hater: If the average human has any sort of filter between the brain and the mouth, Brendan Kelly doesn’t. As the outspoken lyricist for the long-running punk band The Lawrence Arms, Kelly boasts that he can expound on things he hates for hours without ever repeating himself. His full-frontal honesty once earned him a lifetime ban from the Warped Tour after he famously badmouthed the music festival on stage. With The Lawrence Arms preparing to release its long-awaited new album on January 28, The A.V. Club asked Kelly about his least favorite song.
The hated: R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People”
The A.V. Club: So why this song?
Brendan Kelly: There are a lot of criteria that goes into deciding what makes a song bad, especially what makes a song epically bad. But when push comes to shove, the main reason I hate this fucking song is that it’s so annoying on every single possible level. The lyrics irritate me, that fucking jangly riff in the beginning of it makes me insane, and the sad French circus breakdown is fucking pompous. I think there’s an intellectual reason to hate this song and there’s a visceral reason to hate this song, and I firmly hate it for both reasons.
AVC: This is the type of song that when you hear it once, you feel like you’ve heard it 100 times and never want to hear it again. How often do you hear the song?
BK: The other day, I was driving my car and R.E.M. came on the radio. It wasn’t even “Shiny Happy People.” It was “Losing My Religion.” I looked at my stereo and was like, “Fuck! You!” That was when “Shiny Happy People” popped into my head and I was like, “Oh my God, I never realized how much I hate this fucking band.” It’s just that riff. You’re like, “Oh, well it can’t get any worse from here,” and then he starts singing.
AVC: So you’re not a R.E.M. fan?
BK: R.E.M. is one of those bands that, in my opinion, is really grating and irritating. Hearing Michael Stipe’s voice is like nails on a blackboard to me. But every once in a while, they pull it out of their ass and they do something really great. I think “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” is an undeniable song. I think the song “Pop Song 89” is an undeniable song. But I think the song “Stand” sucks a dog off. There are a lot of songs that fucking suck a dog off, but none of them are quite as shrill as “Shiny Happy People.” If I had to describe R.E.M., sum them up in one word, that one word would be “shrill.”
AVC: Kate Pierson of The B-52s probably doesn’t do the song’s shrillness any favors.
BK: Yeah, and that’s another thing. It’s just such a shameless cash grab, friendship crossover. It’s the fucking wimpiest, most pussified version of Anthrax and Public Enemy’s cash-in song. If you take the meathead-bro spectrum, and you go all the way to the other side, you’d have Michael Stipe and fucking Kate Pierson singing “Shiny Happy People.”
AVC: Even if it was a cash grab, do you think Stipe regrets making this?
BK: You know, writing a song is kind of like when you start poking someone. It always seems like a good idea when no one’s around. You’re like, “Oh this feels pretty good. This is awesome.” Then you go out on the town with this person and everyone’s like, “What the fuck are you doing?” And you’re like, “Oh yeah, this is a bad idea, I guess.” That could’ve been what happened for Michael Stipe.
AVC: Your own songs tend to have a sarcastic bite to them. How much of “Shiny Happy People” do you think is meant to be ironic?
BK: I think that the irony is so obvious in the song. It’s one of the most grating facets of the song. By the end of the ’90s, when the grunge movement pretty much said all it had to say, and the alternative scene got to this point where The B-52s and R.E.M. were partnering together to make these pop hits, the idea of, “Oh, let’s get all these bastard happy people walking around, they don’t realize how bad the world is.” Really? You’re still saying that? Weren’t you saying that in 1985? To call it flogging a dead horse is an insult to dead horses.
AVC: Have you ever seen the video?
BK: Oh my God, with that fucking scrolling scene of the field and it scrolls behind them, ugh. It’s all playing into that sad circus thing. It’s so lame. The video makes me angry. And Michael Stipe is wearing that fucking hat. And he’s just shaking his hands, ugh.
AVC: This song was the last top 10 hit the band ever had.
BK: Yeah, the irony machine kind of exploded after that. Every single aspect of this song is so tired and so overwrought and overdone. And whether it was them who sobered up and realized they had their dick out at the party, or the rest of the world turned on them… either way, good enough for me.