R.E.M.'s end-times anthem is back on the charts — here's why

'What can you do when you have no control? Just throw up your hands and say, 'I feel fine,'' says Switched on Pop co-host Nate Sloan.

'It’s the End of the World as we Know It (And I Feel Fine)' but do you?

On March 13, R.E.M.'s 1987 single, 'It's the End of the World as we Know It (And I Feel Fine),' returned to the charts. (Keith Carter, graphic by CBC)

On March 11, a pandemic was declared. On March 13, R.E.M.'s 1987 single, "It's the End of the World as we Know It (And I Feel Fine)," returned to the charts. As the outbreak spreads, so does the song's renewed ubiquity. It re-entered the iTunes Top 100 chart at No. 65 and as of March 17 at 4 p.m. PT, it had climbed all the way to No. 26

Nate Sloan, co-host of the podcast Switched on Pop, and co-author of the book Switched on Pop: How Popular Music Works, and Why it Matters, calls the song's return to the charts "unprecedented." 

"The only other time when music from past decades re-enters the charts is Christmas," Sloan explains. "That's when all of a sudden Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and a 1994 Mariah Carey song pop up on the charts. Otherwise, the entire ethos of popular music is newness. This is the driving commercial engine of popular music since the late 1800s. It's sort of against the very nature of the pop machine to revive past hits, so the fact that that's happening right now absolutely shows that this is a really unique and unprecedented moment." 

On March 17, R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe posted a video of himself singing the chorus from the hit song, turning the video into a coronavirus PSA — with a caveat: "I'm a former pop star," Stipe jokes. "But don't trust social media. Go to the CDC website. Go to trusted news services for your information."

The song actually entered the iTunes Top 100 four spots above its peak 1987 position on the Billboard Hot 100, a fact that Sloan finds "fascinating" but not surprising. Sloan admits that he personally didn't care much about music charts before Switched on Pop. Co-hosting a podcast for five years about Top 40 pop has been "instructive" and he's come to appreciate the broader cultural story a chart can tell. 

"I missed out on what so many people were listening to," Sloan says. "Now what I realize is that you don't have to necessarily love or hate the most popular music at any given moment. But I think we should all recognize that it can be very instructive in terms of telling us what people are feeling and thinking, and concerned and anxious and joyous about in subtle ways. Charts are always taking the temperature of people's collective consciousness."

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Sloan is also not surprised that this is the retro theme song people are playing on repeat right now. 

"Music is something we immediately turn to in trying times," Sloan says. "Music is something that gives us comfort and brings us together and helps us understand the world. So it makes sense to me that that's one of the first places people turn when the world is going haywire. This song provides, sort of, a mantra for people to recite in this moment when everything seems very uncertain and up in the air. What can you do when you have no control? Just throw up your hands and say, 'I feel fine.'" 

Sloan loves songs that feature dark lyrics juxtaposed with a happy melody. "That is kind of its own subcategory in some ways, where the music tells you one thing and the lyrics tell you something else. I always think that kind of tension is incredibly productive and engaging," he says, laughing. 

As sub-genres of rock go, "cheery nihilism" has its place in the world, and Sloan has spent some time thinking about this song, which he admits is his favourite of R.E.M.'s long discography. 

"When you get that lyric ['I feel fine'], you get this really catchy melodic hook as well, something that you can sort of sing along to, something that cuts through the noise and stream-of-consciousness lyrics of the rest of the song and provides this anchoring point, a moment of simplicity and collectivity against the backdrop of the chaos of the rest of the song," Sloan says. "That maybe mirrors the overall purpose that the song can serve for people right now, the way it sort of comes together and this crystalline moment of clarity every time the titular phrase hits."

Please note: Andrea Warner appeared as a guest on Switched on Pop in 2019. 

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner