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Pop Music Analysis:
"It's The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)"
by R.E.M.

 

Copyright (c) 2003 by Paul Nelson, all rights reserved.

Introduction

At the turn of the millennium my family held a big "Millennium Party" in Hawaii (my Mom's home) to celebrate. It was a huge week-long bash with over 45 friends and family from all over the world. As part of the festivities, we invited everyone to submit their favorite music to create an "end of the millennium mix CD". The resulting discs (there were 6 of them) contained music from Handel to Ravel, Cyndi Lauper to U2, and George Gershwin to Andrew Lloyd Weber.

But easily the most popular song was "It's the End of the of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" by R.E.M. Somehow it just fit the mood of the party perfectly, and it became something of the theme song for the entire event. And now I can't help but smile whenever I listen to the song, remembering that great party.

Background on R.E.M. and Document

R.E.M. was formed in the early 1980's by four guys in their 20's:Peter Buck, Micheal Stipe, Mike Mills and Bill Berry. Early on they were influenced by the New York Punk Rock scene of the late 1970's, especially Patti Smith and the Velvet Underground. The band was one of many "Alternative Rock" bands (similar to the trend of "Independent Films" today) which were formed as an alternative to the perceived shallow commercialization of Rock Music by the big recording labels. A similar band in this genre is U2.

Initially, R.E.M. was a typical college band, playing college campuses giving interviews to college DJs, and producing a new CD every other year or so. Their breakthrough came with Document in 1987. A top 10 album, it was their first album to go platinum and they had their first hit single:"The One I Love." After Document R.E.M. transitioned smoothly into the mainstream, signing a record deal with Warner Brothers (1988), and moving their concerts to larger venues.1

At the time of its release, R.E.M. hailed Document as a major departure, being more aggressive (previously releases had depended more on setting a mood) and "modern sounding," with clearer vocals. The intention of Document was to produce a "snapshot of what we see is going on around usÖ a picture of a chaotic time." The band was particularly affected by Ronald Reagan's turbulent second term and especially U.S. interference in central America (as is evidenced in the song "Welcome to the Occupation").2

Lyrics

One could write a PhD dissertation on the lyrics for "It's the End of the World As We Know It". The words are spit out quickly and rhythmically, with no narrative connection between phrases. The result is a chaotic sequence of images and ideas that demonstrate in sound and content the chaos of the times, a "brilliant Gatling-gun litany of cheap clichťs and TV newspeak". 3

As such, any detailed analysis of the lyrics is probably doomed to fail, and certainly beyond the scope of this paper. But there are some recognizable themes which seem to run through the song:

The End of the World-Images from the end of the world:earthquakes, birds, snakes, hurricanes, fires, population overflow, burning automobiles, geographical motion (continental drift, mountain ranges lining up)

Rampant Nationalism-vitriolic, patriotic, lock him in a uniform, book burning, blood letting, symbiotic, patriotic

Governments run amuck-government for hire, combat site, don't get caught in a foreign tower, slash and burn

News Media-Teams of reporters, six o'clock TV hour, a tournament of lies

Personal Selfishness-world serves its own needs, save yourself, serve yourself

Cultural Icons-Lenny Bruce, Lester Bangs, Leonard Bernstein, Leonid Breshnev (according to an anecdote on the internet, these names come from a dream of Michael Stipe, in which he attended a party where everyone had the initials 'L.B.') 4

The Vocals

The chaotic images in the lyrics are emphasized by the delivery of the words, which in the Verse is done in a sharp declamatory style, staying on pitch but sounding more like speech than song; very like an excited newscaster delivery. This contrasts dramatically with the Chorus which is tunefully sung

A couple of other compositional techniques make the vocal lines especially interesting in the Chorus. First, the primary line ("It's the end of the world as we know it") is sung by two voices in counterpoint. This is barely distinguishable at first, but becomes clear at 3:00 during a softer acoustic section. Even more fun, these two voices enter in stretto, with the second voice entering two beats later, singing the same lyrics.

The chorus also contains a striking counter melody: "It's time I had some time alone" which is also sung in counterpoint with two independent lines. The higher, descending version of "It's time I had some time alone" recall a similar high, text-less background singing (almost wailing) that occurs at 0:42 and 1:23 during the second and third verses which, in each case, signal the approach of the cadence.

Harmonies

The song is rooted in 'G' and does not modulate. The harmonic progression in the Verse is:

GCG†† CGCB@ A. 5

The harmonic progression in the chorus is:GDGDAm.

These harmonic progressions are simple but effective. The less-stable Verse alternates between the tonic and subdominant. The more-stable Chorus alternates between the tonic and dominant.

Both progressions move to distantly related chords to announce the end of a section. In the case of the Verse, the chord (B@) is strikingly different, which serves to break up the tonal center for a moment and provide some relief from the G tonic.

Instrumentation

For R.E.M., part of being an "Alternative" band was to eschew the flashy and shallow techniques of record companies, not only in performance and clothing, but also in their choice of instrumentation. For these reasons they avoid sequencers and synthesizers, preferring instead basic, performer-driven instruments.

The primary instruments used in "It's the End of the World As We Know It" are:electric guitar, electric bass, drum kit, and four voices. This is augmented with tambourine, piano and acoustic guitar.

The instrumentation is varied throughout, and often to great affect. The opening snare drum ruffs are a startling kick start to the work. The guitar chords generally become more present and assertive when approaching cadences. The tambourine is used for the Chorus.

At 2:56, just when a lesser song might start to fade away, R.E.M. inserts a striking guitar feedback effect which serves to clear the air and allows them to extend the song for another minute. This is followed by a short acoustic section for contrast, using the acoustic guitar, which then gradually builds up with the entrance of the electric instruments as the chorus is repeated to the end.

Form

The form of the work is a standard "Verse-Chorus" form, but with some modifications, short instrumental breaks, and additional repeats:

[snare drum] Verse Verse Chorus

Verse Chorus [instrumental]Chorus

Verse Chorus [instrumental] Chorus Chorus Chorus

Note that the last Verse is the shortest: 13 seconds instead of 25 seconds, and with the two side-by-side verses at the beginning, the overall effect is of Verses getting shorter and shorter as the song continues. This gives the work additional form and helps to propel the motion to the end.

There are several techniques used to signal the ends of sections (i.e. the approach of cadences) and which help move the listener into the next section. These include:

1.        Move to distantly related chords:the use of the B@ chord in the verse and the Am chord in the chorus clearly signal that something different is coming up.

2.        Descending guitar line, used to transition between sections at 1:08, 2:23, 2:56, and 3:37.

3.        Piano glissando (2:04) ends an instrumental bridge and moves us into the next repeat of the chorus.

4.        Wailing background singing at the end of the second and third verses (0:42 and 1:23) signal the end of those two Verses.

Conclusions

For all of the seriousness of the Document album, and for all of the cynical connotations in the lyrics of "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," the song is still upbeat and hopeful. Perhaps this is also why the song is used as the final encore for recent R.E.M. shows.6It does not feel like the world is doomed. Rather, it feels like the world is being reborn anew. The world, as we used to know it, is ending and a new one is rising out of the chaos.

And maybe that's why the song felt so perfect for the new millennium (and the end of the cold war) and why it speaks so powerfully to me today. Because despite 9-11 and the Iraq war, I can't help but feel optimistic about the world and our collective futures.

 



[Annotated Lyrics - annotations shown in square brackets]

Itís The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

[Lyrics source: One of Stipe's concert lyric sheets]

 

[0:00][Very short snare drum introduction]

 

[0:03][Drum kit (snare +high-hat), electric guitar, electric bass guitar]

[Verses are declamatory, halfway between spoken and sung, maintaining strict rhythm]

Thatís great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane -

Lenny Bruce is not afraid. Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn -

world serves its own needs, donít misserve your own needs. Feed it up a knock,

speed, grunt no, strength no. Ladder structure clatter with fear of height,

down height. Wire in a fire, represent the seven games in a government for

hire and a combat site.

 

[0:27] Left her, wasnít 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 group, but itíll do. Save yourself, serve yourself. World serves its

own needs, listen to your heart bleed. [0:42][wailing voice] Tell me with the rapture

and the reverent in the right - right. You vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight, bright

light, feeling pretty psyched.

 

[0:50][Add tambourine]

Itís the end of the world as we know it.[stretto entrances]

Itís the end of the world as we know it.

Itís the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

 

[descending guitar line announces the transition from the chorus to the verse]

[1:08] Six oíclock - TV hour. Donít get caught in foreign tower. Slash and burn,

return, listen to yourself churn. Lock him in uniform and book burning,

blood letting. Every motive escalate. Automotive incinerate. Light a candle,

light a motive. Step down, step down. Watch a heel crush, crush. Uh oh,

this means no fear - cavalier. [1:23][High counter-line: vocal, but no words]

Renegade and steer clear! A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies. Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I decline.

 

[1:31] Itís the end of the world as we know it.[stretto entrances]

Itís the end of the world as we know it.

[First entrance of counter line:]†† (Itís time I had some time alone)

Itís the end of the world as we know it and I feel fineÖ [distant] I feel fine.

[Counter line louder - two voices in counterpoint:]†† (Itís time I had some time alone)

 

[1:55] [instrumental bridge - serves as cadential extension]

[Piano / keyboards become more present, playing chords in syncopated rhythms with sharp attacks]

[2:04][Piano glissando announces return of chorus]

Itís the end of the world as we know it.

†† [Counter melody more present:] (Itís time I had some time alone)

Itís the end of the world as we know it.

Itís the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

 

[Descending guitar line]

[2:23] The other night I tripped a nice continental drift divide. Mountains sit in a line.

-- [voices alone:]Leonard Bernstein -- [instruments return:] Leonid Breshnev, Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs. Birthday party, cheesecake, jelly bean, boom! You symbiotic, patriotic, slam, but neck, right? [spoken] Right.

 

[2:36] [Main melody in counterpoint, but not conspicuously]

Itís the end of the world as we know it.

[Counter melody in two part counterpoint:] (Itís time I had some time alone)

Itís the end of the world as we know it.

Itís the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine...

 

[Descending guitar line introduces next section]

[2:56] [instrumental break (instead of another verse), repeated guitar chords which seem to echo, guitar feedback overload]

 

[3:00] [Chorus elides with guitar feedback from instrumental break]

[just tambourine] Itís the end of the world as we know it.

††††††††††† [conspicuous use of harmonic counterpoint]

[add acoustic guitar] Itís the end of the world as we know it.

††††††††††† [counter melody comes in late](It's time I spent some time alone.)

Itís the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine...

[enter electric guitars - strong repeated chords - indicates end of softer section]

 

[add percussion, signal the push to the end]

Itís the end of the world as we know it.

††††††††††† [counter melody enters right away:](It's time I spent some time alone)

Itís the end of the world as we know it.

Itís the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine...

 

[Descending guitar line]

[3:37] Itís the end of the world as we know it.

††††††††††† (It's time I spent some time alone)

Itís the end of the world as we know it.

Itís the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine...fine...

[fadeout]

 



End Notes

 

1†††† Author Unknown, "R.E.M.", in http://www.rollingstone.com, accessed 4/22/2003, biography.

 

2†††† 1987 Rockline Interview with R.E.M., in http://www.remhq.com, accessed 4/13/2003.

 

3†††† David Fricke, "R.E.M.", in http://www.rollingstone.com, accessed 4/22/2003, "Document Album Review".

 

4†††† Chris Piuma, "R.E.M. Lyric Annotations FAQ", in http://www.flim.com, accessed on 4/22/2003, the "R.E.M. : Document : Its the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" section.

 

5†††† Scott A. Yanoff, "It's The End Of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" guitar tabulation, in http://www.guitaretab.com, accessed on 4/22/2003.

 

6†††† Jody Beth Rosen, "LeisureSuit.net Live: R.E.M.'s 'Up' Tour at Jones Beach", in http://www.leisuresuit.net, accessed on 4/22/2003. This article contains a fun comment on the song and how it was received in a 1999 concert tour:

 

[Was the audience] Immature and enthralled? Those came up during the final song of the encore, "It's The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine.)" Anyway, as Stipe pointed his microphone at the audience during the frenetic, hodgepodge historical/nonsensical laundry list that is "ITEOTWAWKI (AIFF)," and thousands of people simultaneously shouted out the punchline-cum-lyric "Leonard Bernstein!!!", I decided that there is no more subversive a mainstream rock band than R.E.M.