As They Knew It

It’s times like this when my fellow Americans and I find ourselves searching, forlorn and desperate, for a word that smoothly and succinctly describes the national condition of our country like England’s “Brexit”. The closest I’ve been able to come up with is “Amerikickinthetaint” or “United Stabinthetaint”. Placing emphasis on the country’s taint, as it were, is a nod to where we are at this point: the sweaty junction between anus and wrinkled seed satchel. Our volatile ineptitude and ability to bring the seemingly impossible to the forefront of reality has many questioning whether we’re long for this world. As the end has never seemed closer, some turn to cryptically clairvoyant messages from the past for their prophetic guidance. One such message that comes to mind is R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” perhaps the ultimate anthem to chaos, finality, futility, and resignation. R.E.M.’s 1987 banger has a lot to deconstruct, and since we at Graphite love to speculate wildly and indulge our opinions, I’m diving in.

Verse 1

That’s great, it starts with an earthquake
Birds and snakes, aeroplanes, Lenny Bruce is not afraid

Earthquakes aren’t super helpful in establishing the true timeline of the apocalypse, since they happen daily around the world at various magnitudes. However, despite the recent qualified victory at Standing Rock, North Dakota, environmental maladies and natural disasters in general are largely ignored past a day or two of social media coverage- a dangerous symptom of information oversaturation. As for birds and snakes, anybody check out the Mexican flag lately? Of course, Mexicans are (probably) not causing TEOTWAWKI, but maybe someone notorious for dragging them through the mud throughout his entire rectal polyp of a campaign is…

Lenny Bruce symbolizes unapologetic liberal resistance to the regressive status quo. His lack of fear could be an emboldening model for likeminded current equivalents, or it could just be because he’s dead and not around to see this mess.

Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn
World serves its own needs, don’t misserve your own needs
Feed it up a knock, speed, grunt, no, strength
The ladder starts to clatter with fear of height, down, height
Wire in a fire, represent the seven games
And a government to hire and a combat site
Left her, wasn’t coming in a hurry
With the Furies breathing down your neck

Being in the eye of the hurricane is an idea perhaps most relatable to those like me, whose privileged stability keeps them from being flung up into the storm. At the same time, the couplet resolves with an oft-needed reminder to listen to the tempest within and exercise self care first and foremost. The next few references are rapid-fire; the second couplet might stand for the frenzied debate over approaches to imminent problems and the crumbling of infrastructure taken for granted with little support or maintenance. Then comes an indictment of the “government for hire”, a phrase used in connection with the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan administration.
A Google search for “The Seven Games” returns a procedure for training a horse to cooperate with humans, contrary to its natural drive for freedom and independence. With the recent rise of anti-oppression movements, this line could serve to support and legitimize these movements’ criticisms of the dominant establishment, likening their treatment of marginalized groups to that of beasts of burden and sport. Plus, wire…fire…firewire…computer stuff…must be talking about Hillary’s emails!

Team by team, reporters baffled, trumped, tethered, cropped
Look at that low plane, fine, then
Uh oh, overflow, population, common group
But it’ll do, save yourself, serve yourself
World serves its own needs, listen to your heart bleed
Tell me with the Rapture and the reverent in the right, right
You vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight, bright light
Feeling pretty psyched

Baffled, tethered, cropped, and most significantly Trumped. This is how we feel, reporter or not. The second pair of lines in this group effectively describes the way in which Middle America fervently reclaimed its agency from the sinful, reptilian coastal elite by electing a grandfather carrot with baby carrot fingers who’s also a member of the coastal elite. Later, when lead singer Michael Stipe implores audiences to listen to something internal a second time, it comes off ambiguously sincere, since “bleeding heart” is a term often used to mock the overly sensitive and/or easily outraged. The uncertainty of the intended tone rings familiar in our current era wherein sarcasm, fake news, grandstanding, and hollow messages are at an all-time high, converging on a kind of mediated nihilism.
As the verse closes, the finger of confrontation is pointed squarely at hyper-religious zealots and self-proclaimed patriots, two camps that have prospered ideologically in the wake of the most recent U.S. election cycle.


Verse 2

Six o’clock, T.V. hour, don’t get caught in foreign tower
Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn
Lock him in uniform, book burning, bloodletting
Every motive escalate, automotive incinerate
Light a candle, light a motive, step down, step down
Watch your heel crush, crush, uh oh
This means no fear, cavalier, renegade and steering clear
A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies
Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I decline

Paradoxically, television is both a solace from panic and a source thereof, propagating mindlessly comforting programming to parallel a fear-filled reality. Naming the ritual of watching T.V. at a particular time evokes Normal Rockwell paintings of wholesome, idealistic American life, particularly at points of great unrest and transition, underscoring the solipsism of a connected existence. The third line is rich with image and metaphor, suggesting that we hold certain smug-ass, unqualified-ass individuals accountable for their actions and ideals, rightfully aligning them with the movements they incited and not allowing them to shed their shameful uniforms in favor of, I don’t know, a suit and red tie, for example. In case that wasn’t applicable enough, the mentions of book burning and bloodletting are not only examples of archaically ignorant, backward-minded, ineffectual practices, but also items on the Tuesday itinerary of the Ted Cruz household.

“Every motive escalate” concisely sums up the tense battle of interests that claims more casualties daily with extremism and violence, while “watch your heel crush, crush, uh oh” implies that the callousness of the status quo, combined with the delicacy of relations between the empowered and the disenfranchised, may lead to an unforeseen destruction or loss (hello? bees??). The last three lines of the verse could collectively and individually be used as subtitles for the election, between “cavalier, renegade, and steering clear (of facts)” capturing the Trump campaign strategy, “a tournament of lies” characterizing the entire rigmarole, and “offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I decline” narrating the actions of voters nationwide.

Glossing over the third verse, since its essentially a synopsis of a dream Michael Stipe had about guys with the initials “LB”, we move straight to the hook, which simply consists of the lines “It’s the end of the world as we know it” and “It’s time I had some time alone” layered over one another, concluding with the cop-out “and I feel fine.” Not optimistic, not defeated, not stoked about looting and finally getting to use our bomb shelters for something other than masturbation caves. Just “fine”, signaling the numbness that most of us are accepting in lieu of solace. Because, right now, feeling anything beyond “fine” (apart from the new Childish Gambino album, holy wow!) might constitute too much of a challenge for our exhausted psyches. I think it’s time we all had some time alone.