The Dreamy Meaning Behind ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’ by R.E.M.

More than just a sulky college-rock quartet, R.E.M. were post-punk pagan priests enchanting a generation stuck somewhere between the dissolution of gritty punk and the emergence of pop-y new wave. Instrumental in the creation of the alternative rock scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s, R.E.M. blazed the trail. They helped disenfranchised punks everywhere escape into music, inspiring once fledgling bands like Nirvana, Radiohead, Coldplay, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, and Collective Soul to pursue a sound that betrayed all things mainstream.

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While they made the mold, they broke it also—cashing in but never selling out. R.E.M.’s dark mystical jangle pop sound paired with their abstract, often times nonsensical, lyricism set them apart from the increasingly saturated alt market they helped create.

Their music will endure, but only one song will soundtrack the end times: “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”

Dreamy Origins

The 1987 apocalypse-tinged tune, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” is a rapid-firing, quick flying, slapdash stream of consciousness about, you guessed it, the end of the world.

The song is a flurry of words probably about as chaotic as any rapture will be. Mentions of earthquakes, hurricanes, and continental drifts are sung alongside images of birthday parties, cheesecake, and jelly beans in a paradox of sounds.

“The words come from everywhere,” frontman Michael Stipe told Q Magazine in a 1992 interview. “I’m extremely aware of everything around me, whether I am in a sleeping state, awake, dream-state, or just in day-to-day life.”

The song came from said dream state. The singer continued: “There’s a part in ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It’ that came from a dream where I was at Lester Bangs’ birthday party and I was the only person there whose initials weren’t L.B. So there was Lenny Bruce, Leonid Brezhnev, Leonard Bernstein… So that ended up in the song along with a lot of stuff I’d seen when I was flipping TV channels.”

Behind the Lyrics

The song moves the same way a dream would—shotgun quick and abstractly nonlinear. The stream-of-consciousness style blasts off with the opening drumroll and doesn’t slow down for anything as the tune progresses.

That’s great! It starts with an earthquake
Birds and snakes, an aeroplane
and Lenny Bruce is not afraid

The lead singer claimed to have had a lot of dreams about the world’s end. Natural disasters, buildings crumbling, the whole shebang. Harrowing lyrics detailing the end of time pair oddly with the energetic, barreling instrumentation.

Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn
World serves its own needs, don’t mis-serve your own needs
Speed it up a notch, speed, grunt, no strength
The ladder starts to clatter with fear of height, down height
Wire in a fire, representing seven games
In a government for hire and a combat site
Left of west and coming in a hurry
With the furies breathing down your neck

Team by team reporters baffled, trump, tethered crop
Look at that low plane! Fine, then
Uh oh, overflow, population, Common Food
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

When performed live early on, the meaning of the song never quite permeated deep within audiences. The song’s high energy and fast pace made crowds want to party and let go. To the band, the subject matter was meant to be more sobering. To their fans, it was a dance-worthy tune. With such a catchy chorus, who can blame them?

It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine

The LB’s

Lenny Bruce, Leonid Brezhnev, Leonard Bernstein, and Lester Bangs (the LB’s) come in at the end of the song. Stipe spoke of Bangs’ birthday party in his dream, but the band had actually gone to a party for the music journalist almost a decade before the song was ever written. The band’s lead guitarist Peter Buck said of the experience “all they had was birthday cake and jelly beans, and we were starving and ate that.”

The other night I tripped a nice
Continental drift divide
Mountains sit in a line
Leonard Bernstein, Leonid Brezhnev
Lenny Bruce, and Lester Bangs
Birthday party, cheesecake, jelly beans, boom!
You symbiotic, patriotic, slam, but neck, right? (Right!)

It’s the end of the world as we know it
(It’s time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it
(It’s time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine
(It’s time I had some time alone)

Revisit the eerily fun, delightfully delirious “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” and try not to get motion sickness from the music video.

(Photo by Chris Walter/WireImage)

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