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R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe Talks to Jacobin

Michael Stipe

Jacobin chatted with former R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe about why he backed Bernie Sanders, his longtime support for progressive causes including South African anti-apartheid organizing, and why the B-52s are “fucking amazing.”

Michael Stipe of R.E.M. during the Georgia Music Hall of Fame Awards in Atlanta, Georgia, 2006. (Rick Diamond / WireImage for Georgia Department of Economic Development)

Interview by
Garrison Lovely

Michael Stipe is the former frontman of R.E.M., an American rock band that pioneered the alternative rock genre and influenced bands like Nirvana and Radiohead. Despite R.E.M.’s ​​retirement, Stipe is still active as a singer-songwriter. His next single will be out within the next month.

Stipe is also a committed progressive activist who has championed progressive causes such as gun control and voting rights, and once introduced Bernie Sanders at a Coney Island campaign rally. He recently joined Jacobin’s Garrison Lovely to discuss his career, upbringing, politics, and much more.


GL

I saw this incredible video of a 2001 performance of “Losing My Religion” at Trafalgar Square. The crowd goes absolutely nuts when the song starts. And you have this big grin on your face when you look at the rest of the band.

My favorite thing about live music is seeing the artists happy to be there. What’s your favorite set that you’ve ever performed and why?

MS

That performance was for the ten-year anniversary of the end of apartheid. It was the day I met Nelson Mandela. And I cried. But I held it together while I was with him. Mandela was such a fucking hero.

I was there with a friend, Sue Wildish, who grew up under apartheid. She later moved to London and got a job in the music industry. That’s how we ended up meeting and working together.

To be present when Sue shook Mandela’s hand was one of the great moments of my life. She had tears in her eyes. Like I said, I held it together until after Mandela left the room. Once he left, I went upstairs, locked myself in the bathroom, and burst into tears. It was so heavy.

In normal life, you don’t get to meet a lot of people who have spent time in prison for their beliefs. And those people inevitably carry that weight with them. On the surface, Mandela was a very sweet and cheerful man. But the underneath was profoundly upsetting.

By the time we made it to the stage, however, I was really happy to be there.

GL

Mandela, like Martin Luther King Jr, was controversial in his time. Then history was rewritten and people pretended as though they’ve always liked him.

MS

Yes, I know. While touring South Africa, I learned that Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu grew up on the same block. They were teenagers living just a few houses apart. How crazy is that?

GL

You see a lot of that with music too. The B-52’s, like R.E.M., are also from Athens, Georgia.

MS

They’re so fucking amazing! That’s a band that has not gotten their due for the way they radically changed music. The B-52’s were fun at a time when we needed fun. They were totally ahead of the curve. The B-52’s seized what was a dying moment in fringe music and injected life into it.

A lot of the music coming out of punk at that time was purposely nihilistic. That’s when the B-52’s started performing in New York at the CBGB. They were just a freight train.

And, like us, they were from Athens! But they moved to New York the second they signed a record contract. Good for them.

My parents moved to Georgia from the Midwest to be close to their parents. They picked Athens specifically because it’s a college town and they had three teenage kids, myself included. Athens is where my uncle went to school in the 1960s. He was a big part of the local civil rights movement.

Athens has always had a community of hippies, queers, academic thinkers, and political activists. Within that, there’s a space for people to explore their creative urges before a supportive audience. That’s what Athens provided me. As did New York.

Things are always happening in New York, even in the darkest of times. From my perspective, we’re in a pretty dark time. But I think the city is pulling through and will reemerge triumphantly.

GL

I’m with you on New York.

MS

What we need is a mayor who will have a real conversation about rent control (and other changes around things like zoning) so that there’s affordable housing for people who aren’t zillionaires.

GL

We’ll have to look to the state level for that. Eric Adams is pretty cozy with developers and is a landlord himself.

MS

Yes.

GL

You’ve obviously dealt with the good and bad of stardom. Do you think it’s worth it?

MS

I suppose it depends on what you’re trying to get out of it. The life is much more complex than a teenage fantasy. Unless you’re Elvis or Frank Sinatra, you must be able to write your own music. It took me a few records to get that right. But, eventually, I did.

As a creative person, I developed in public. That process was how I became the person I am today. Looking back, I’m pleased with the journey. I have as many problems as anyone, but I’ve most certainly had a very charmed life.

GL

What are the best and worst things about being a rock star?

MS

One of the best things about it is that you’re forced to grapple with your ego. It helps you figure out who you’re going to be. Some people turn into raging dickwads. I think I managed to avoid that.

I think I did a good job of owning both my failures and triumphs. And I made sure to balance the egomaniacal aspects of being a public figure with a basic humanity. If you let go of that humanity, you won’t become a good artist. You’ll instead become something quite tedious.

GL

Even in science, there’s a certain level of arrogance it takes to challenge the status quo and move it forward. Kanye West is the prototypical example of the brilliant musician who’s a total egomaniac. So I sometimes think there’s a positive relationship between making great art and having enough of an ego to challenge how things are done. But a big ego can clearly get in the way of producing things sustainably.

MS

And it can get in the way of your own life. That’s a real pity. If you get to the end of your life and realize that you were a complete shithead and didn’t learn a fucking a thing. Where does that leave you?

GL

The classic sad story is the famous person who has alienated everyone who had a meaningful, authentic relationship with them from before they were famous and then is left with the people who just want to be part of their entourage.

MS

You need to have your head screwed on right to live through fame and emerge as a complete person.

GL

It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” is one of R.E.M.’s most popular songs. It’s one of my favorites as well. There’s some speculation online that the song is about policy debate.

MS

Those rumors are untrue. The important part of the title is “as we know it.” That’s where we find ourselves now. The current vice president described this political moment as an inflection point, which is not quite accurate. But we’re absolutely at a middle ground between two epochs that will forever be considered the before and after.

And I don’t know that we as a country are moving in the right direction. There are certainly things about who we are that are absolutely beautiful. But, these days, you have to really search to find them.

GL

It is Jacobin, so I have to ask about politics. You said that you became more politically conscious as a result of touring internationally. How would you characterize your political views?

MS

I lived abroad as a child because of my father’s job. He was a helicopter pilot in the army. We lived in Germany and all over the United States as well — mostly in the South and Midwest.

My mother is quite liberal in her beliefs. As was my father, who is deceased. He had a healthy disdain for politicians. In particular, he hated how they often treat policy decisions that impact people’s lives as chess moves.

As an active-duty military man, he certainly felt the consequences of that. My father served in Vietnam twice and Korea once, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] as a result. That harmed his health profoundly. And, of course, there was little support for victims of PTSD in those days. You were just expected to keep your chin up and move on.

I consider myself a democratic socialist. I’m certainly far more radical than the Democratic Party. But I’m a member of the Democratic Party simply so I can vote in primaries. That is the only reason my name is associated with them.

I feel strongly that it was the DNC [Democratic National Committee] who ultimately gave us Donald Trump in 2016. And we’ll feel the ripple effect of that for a long time. We New Yorkers knew who and what Trump was. The fact that he, as a reality TV star, somehow rose to that level is fucking pathetic. From an international perspective, it’s deeply embarrassing. Look at it from Berlin, which is one of my other homes, where people were wondering what the fuck is up with Americans. What are you doing?!

In 2016, I didn’t necessarily need to have a female president. I had one in Germany with Angela Merkel. And I didn’t agree with many of her policies. But I saw the positive aspects of her chancellery, at least as it related to the refugee crisis.

GL

One of the things that made me the most upset early in Trump’s tenure was his drastic reduction in the number of refugee admittances. Then Biden wanted to keep that cap in place until receiving blowback and raising it. I’m not a Biden fan, but Trump clearly wouldn’t have bowed to public pressure like that. And we should be doing a lot more. Canada, a country one-tenth of our size, is resettling many more refugees. It’s embarrassing but also horrifying.

MS

Look at American intervention in Central America during the 1980s. Then look at how Canada responded to refugee crises in that decade. I performed in Toronto as a young man and have watched that city become by far the most international city in North America. And a lot of that had to do with Canada’s refugee policies during the 1980s.

Meanwhile, we underwent the horror of the Reagan-Bush years. At the time, we thought that was the darkest place America could go. We had no idea what was coming.

In 2016, anyone with their head out of their ass could’ve taken the temperature of the country and realized that we were vulnerable to the appeal of someone like Trump — someone who was not a Beltway careerist. And the alternative, Hillary Clinton, was someone who represented insider politics more than anyone.

I supported Bernie Sanders. In fact, I still wear my campaign hat from time to time. The interviewer I just spoke to said he wore his to a coffee shop and got a 20 percent discount, which is awesome.

As a long-standing senator and DC politician, Bernie weirdly managed to represent an outsider. So much so that I do believe he would’ve won the 2016 election had the DNC not been so fucking cynical and corrupt.

That said, I do think that Hillary Clinton as a younger woman was absolutely brilliant and altruistic. But that fell away from her as she was pilloried on the world stage — not just as a woman but as a public figure. And that’s unfortunate.

I’m with Bernie on the political revolution stuff, I want massive change. But I also realize that a huge part of politics and policymaking — especially in a country the size of America — is compromise. You must be able to compromise. And a lot of people aren’t so good at that.

GL

Artists often get political. But it’s typically in a very generic way. Their calls to “save the planet” or “get involved” are rarely actionable.

A lot of musicians endorsed Bernie. When they play shows, it seems like there’s an opportunity for them to, for example, endorse local DSA candidates or some progressive ballot measure. Do you think there’s any possibility for musicians to start doing stuff like this? If so, how should they go about it?

MS

I don’t want to toot my own horn but, in the 1980s, R.E.M. and I played a benefit for a group of environmental lawyers from Atlanta. We often brought environmental groups on the road with us and would allow them to set up shop next to the t-shirt stands. In fact, R.E.M. brought together Greenpeace, Nature Conservancy, and the National Resources Defense Council for their first meeting. My band did a lot more than just shout generic slogans.

There’s definitely a place for overlap between the arts and politics. Having the bully pulpit of an audience, stage, and microphone doesn’t require that you get overly political. You can express yourself in subtle ways too.

Bruce Springsteen did a great job of that throughout his career. By the 2000s, though, he got really sick of it and decided to speak up. But, all along, he had been infusing his work with ideas and stories that spoke of where he stands politically.

I don’t go to music or the arts to be educated about politics or policy. However, sometimes it works. When it does, it’s kind of beautiful. When it doesn’t, though, it’s a miserable failure.