Music Article

Reteaching the World to Sing

On the set of ''Shiny Happy People'' -- R.E.M. makes America's happiest hometown video

Is R.E.M.'s ''Shiny Happy People'' a cynical commentary on the complacent '90s or a sincere call to love your neighbor? With more than a hint of Manhattan snideness, I remarked to R.E.M.'s lead singer, Michael Stipe, ''Well, when you make a video for that one, it better have some irony in it.'' To which he replied, with Southern politesse, ''No, that's the point. It's not meant to be ironic at all.''

Shortly thereafter, R.E.M. asked me to direct the ''Shiny Happy People'' video. Michael and I agreed to concoct a contemporary equivalent of the famed 1970s Coca-Cola ad, ''I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing,'' in which people of all races hold hands and sing ''in perfect harmony'' on a verdant hilltop. But how to promote interracial bliss without making a UNICEF card?

I decided to try something I'd wanted to do in a music video for some time. There's a scene in Max Ophuls' 1948 movie Letter From an Unknown Woman in which a couple goes to a carnival with a railroad car attraction. Rotating landscape backdrops roll past their ''window,'' and eventually we learn they're propelled by an old man pedaling a stationary bicycle behind the scenes. I wanted to re-create this situation, but using a large children's painting for the moving mural. Michael suggested I contact a mutual friend of ours, April Chapman, a schoolteacher in R.E.M.'s hometown, Athens, Ga., and have her fifth-grade class create the backdrop.

So a slew of New Yorkers — producer, cameraperson, art director, choreographer, crew — descended on Athens and got to work. We spread thick sheets of seamless paper in the cafeteria of Chapman's school, instructing students to paint a city, a suburb, a forest, and portraits of themselves at the beach. Then we cruised Athens seeking dancers for the big group scene at the end, inviting both friends and strangers. The elderly man who rides the bike is a retired architectural historian; weeks after the shoot, we discovered that he had agreed to appear without having any clear idea of what a music video was.

We filmed each band member's close-up first, an instantly giggly activity because each musician held an instrument he doesn't actually play in the song: a mandolin for guitarist Peter Buck, for instance, and a stand-up bass (rented from a marching band) for bass guitarist Mike Mills. Then we scattered the dancers around the band, with Michael and guest vocalist Kate Pierson of the B-52's positioned up front. We must have gone through the end of the song 15 times, with everyone shimmying and laughing, following the steps from a gigantic cue card. The energy was so infectious that Peter Buck, known to refuse to smile on cue, can be spied toward the back doing the twist and grinning, mandolin in hand.

The gulf war was in full swing at the time, and it's no accident that the little boy dancing in a red suit with a peace button on his lapel is Syrian. It seemed important to put forth a positive image of a Middle Eastern child at a time when hatred for that part of the world was so pervasive. Ideally, the video provides a lighthearted way of encouraging people to accept the idea of a diverse, tolerant community — which is, I think, what Stipe meant when he said he didn't mean this pop song to be ironic at all.

Originally posted Aug 23, 1991 Published in issue #80 Aug 23, 1991 Order article reprints
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