A mildly interesting footnote to the original grunge era is the fact that it in its midst came two universally-despised singles from a pair of the 1980s universally-adored modern rock ‘treasures’.
First came “Shiny Happy People” by R.E.M., a cloyingly-merry little ditty from a band that was occasionally sullen and almost always, obtuse. Months later, the Cure dropped their morning television anthem “Friday I’m in Love” and gave fans and non-fans a total WTF, especially coming on the heels on the delightful misery that was 1989’s Disintegration.
Ironically (or maybe not ironically), ‘real fans’ largely hated these songs and yet these bands were arguably both at the absolute height of their popularity (at least commercially speaking) during this time. The Cure toured massive stadiums in America. Dylan and Brenda listened to “Losing my Religion” over pregnancy scares. It was a great time!!!
The fact that these tunes broke large at a time when Nirvana and Alice in Chains were widely attempting to break spirits is pretty astonishing. However, it’s safe to estimate that 70-80 per cent of people who love/d these songs were not primarily fans of R.E.M. or the Cure in the first place. Much like “real” Radiohead fans would come to tolerate “Creep” in the years to follow, many fans chose to ignore these tunes as unfortunate blips and instead, chose to immerse themselves in back catalogues or needle drugs or whatever tickled their filthy.
It’s unfortunate there is/was so much malice levelled at these songs and I’ll earmark myself an outlier here since:
(A) I love R.E.M. and I strongly like the Cure
(B) I think both of these songs are quite fantastic
I’m going to attempt to defend both songs and since this is the Internet and it requires a requisite amount of negativity, I will attempt to deflect the ire to two other songs that I think are much more deserving (and terrible).
People hate: “Shiny Happy People”
Why this is…
The song is way too upbeat and this obviously made cynics sad and angry. Lame historians would suggest that America circa 1991 wasn’t READY for a song like “Shiny Happy People” in the wake of the Gulf War. However, note that the other notable modern rock smash of summer 1991 was EMF’s peppy fake rave effort “Unbelievable” so there’s a bit of a double standard here. Unrelated, it’s kind of amazing in hindsight how similar “Unbelievable” was to the Charlatans’ “The Only One I Know” in terms of sound, video styling and pants. Perhaps if Tim Burgess and friends had themselves made good use of an Andrew Dice Clay sample, the entire history of second wave Madchester would’ve been altered. Anyway, R.E.M. had toyed with playful singles before, most notably 1985’s “Can’t Get There From Here” and 1989’s trainwreck “Stand”. “Shiny Happy People” almost seemed like an attempt by the band to tempt fait and see how far they could push the precious envelope. In the end, I think Stipe’s clothes were the proverbial straw, camel’s back, etc.
Why this shouldn’t be…
Again, this song is not really THAT out of step with a lot of tracks from the band’s back catalogue and while yes, it was probably a bit jarring coming right after the angsty “Losing my Religion”, the R.E.M. discography is literally littered both with a ton of lite-hearted fun and a ton of cynicism and sorrow. “Shiny Happy People” is clearly an attempt at writing something exceedingly poppy while it doesn’t seem fairly Barenaked Ladies-esque in retrospect, personally, I think it’s pretty indicative of why R.E.M. was such a force for the first two decades. They could’ve chosen to be 100 per cent heavy handed and righteous like U2 (their closest parallel in terms of broad career arc, I guess) but they always kept fans and non-fans guessing with music that was often amazing and at very least, interesting. Also, the back-up vocals from the B-52’s’ Kate Pierson are (very) fantastic and paired with her support efforts on Iggy Pop’s underappreciated “Candy” the year prior, she was easily the… uh, top female modern rock guest vocalist of 1990-1991.
Try hating instead…
“Radio Song” is just weak in all regards. It doesn’t really rock. It’s not really cute or funny or insightful. The call-and-response stuff with KRS-One is just annoying and frankly, seemed a bit forced. The rapping is terrible and it comes off like R.E.M. are trying to leech off KRS’ cred in a “Hey, check out how open minded we are/We have a reformed ‘gangsta rapper’ guesting”-type of fashion. The move was especially uninteresting considering the similarity in nuance to Chuck D delivering some verses on Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing” the previous summer. In summary, the intro to “Radio Song” is shimmery and nice and the rest is a whole lotta garbage.
People hate: “Friday I’m in Love”
Why this is…
The song was REALLY overplayed at the time and continues to dovetail into eternity since it’s a song that is specifically associated with an emotion (“I love Fridays”) that is almost universal. Ok, Vitamin C‘s “Graduation (Friends Forever)” tried a similar trick with a different emotion (“I’m in high school and I love my friends”). However, the problem there is children age and this specific emotion wanes quickly since it is very specific to a time and place. Which is why other tracks have easily slid into this specific niche subsequently; most recently, “We are Young” by fun..
Why this shouldn’t be…
It’s a cop out but go read the R.E.M. paragraph and apply the similar defence to “Friday I’m in Love”. Although they were largely regarded as “goth” and remembered for Robert Smith’s hair, the Cure should instead be recalled for their ability to mix the dour with the delightful. They had a TON of really fun, upbeat singles prior to “Friday I’m in Love”. I mean, the video for “In Between Days” had a floating sock montage, goddamit!! Even moreso than R.E.M., the Cure could get really, really dark or really, really poppy and Talking Heads-ish. Again, heavyweight contemporaries such as U2, Depeche Mode and Midnight Oil only really had one speed (serious and earnest) whereas the Cure and R.E.M. mixed up both emotions and sounds with ease. A seriously underrated skill, musically-speaking IMHO.
Try hating instead…
My ire on this track is singularly directly at Robert Smith’s yelp at the 43 second mark. Seriously, “Mint Car” is a throwaway track at best but with this yelp, it’s a complete abomination. It is seriously the worst.