Why R.E.M. Avoided Performing 1991 Hit “Shiny Happy People” Live and Wanted the Song to Disappear Into “Outer Space”

“I don’t hate it, but I don’t want to sing it,” said Michael Stipe of R.E.M.‘ 1991 hit “Shiny Happy People.” Released on the band’s seventh album Out of Time, “Shiny Happy People” became an instant hit for the band coming off the success of Green hits “Stand” and “Orange Crush” in 1988. Despite its popularity and the inclusion of the B-52s‘ Kate Pierson on vocals, it was a song Stipe and the band wished they would wipe away.

“It’s a fruity pop song written for children,” Stipe said in 2016. “If there was one song that was sent into outer space to represent R.E.M. for the rest of time, I would not want it to be ‘Shiny Happy People.'”

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R.E.M.’s “Fruitloop Songs”

When asked what he wanted for the song, Stipe said “Exactly what it is, which is a really fruity, kind of bubblegum song.” He continued, “But to have it on the ‘Best Of’ is right because it shows a different side of us. Many people’s idea of R.E.M, and me in particular, is very serious, with me being a very serious kind of poet. But I’m also actually quite funny. Hey, my bandmates think so. My family thinks so. My boyfriend thinks so, so I must be, but that doesn’t always come through in the music.

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If the song did anything, it helped people see another side of Stipe. “People have this idea of who I am probably because when I talk on camera,” shared Stipe. “I’m working so hard to articulate my thoughts that I come across as very intense. But I’m in ‘Shiny Happy People,’ ‘Stand,’ ‘Pop Song 89,’ [and] ‘Get Up,’ too—our fruitloop songs.”

‘Throw Your Love Around’

“Shiny Happy People” was initially inspired by a propaganda poster created during the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. As protesters marched for political reform and less censorship, the Chinese government released a propaganda poster reading “shiny happy people holding hands” in an attempt to cover up the reason behind the protests.

Stipe initially wanted to write a peppier, cheerful song for the times. “The challenge for me was to find words to match [the] music,” said Stipe. “At this point in time, I think people need really positive music.”

Meet me in the crowd, people, people
Throw your love around, love me, love me
Take it into town, happy, happy
Put it in the ground where the flowers grow
Gold and silver shine

Shiny happy people holding hands
Shiny happy people holding hands
Shiny happy people laughing

Everyone around, love them, love them
Put it in your hands, take it, take it
There’s no time to cry, happy, happy
Put it in your heart where tomorrow shines
Gold and silver shine

When Stipe originally sang the words Shiny Happy People, Peter Buck and Mike Mills burst into laughter. “We came up with the music and were all laughing about it,” said Buck in a 2016 interview. “When we recorded it, we just thought, ‘Ah, whatever.’ And then Michael came up with the lyrics and we just thought, ‘You know, whatever.'”

At first, Mills wasn’t happy with the lyrics to “Shiny Happy People,” which wasn’t as upbeat as the recorded version. “It wasn’t quite so chirpy when we first did it, but it became chirpy, and that’s fine,” said Mills. “The upside and downside of being in a band is that by the time the song is finished, it may not be at all what you thought it would or should be. But I wasn’t unhappy with the lyrics.”

“Furry Happy Monsters” and the ‘Friends’ Theme Song

In one of the band’s rare live performances of “Shiny Happy People,” R.E.M. performed the song with Pierson on Saturday Night Live on April 13, 1991. They also performed it on an episode of Sesame Street but changed the title to “Furry Happy Monsters.”

That year, the song was also used as the theme song in an unaired pilot of the sitcom Friends before being replaced by The Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There for You.”

[RELATED: American Songwriter 2022 Interview with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Mike Mills]

Despite the band’s disconnect from the song, “Shiny Happy People” still reached No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and was the band’s last song to hit the top 10.

“I was always at peace with it,” said Stipe in 2011. “It’s just a little bit embarrassing that it became as big a hit as it did.”

Photo: Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images

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