Day 6

R.E.M.'s Mike Mills on why It's the End of the World resonates during the COVID-19 pandemic

As people in isolation turn to music to soothe, distract and connect, R.E.M.’s classic 1987 hit It’s the End of the World As We Know It has re-emerged on the charts.

For the record, he still feels fine

Mike Mills, right, and Michael Stipe of R.E.M. pose for a portrait in New York on Oct. 28, 2019. (Matt Licari/Invision/Associated Press)

Originally published on March 20, 2020.

With millions around the world forced indoors because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the lonely and housebound are seeking comfort through music — and one song in particular has re-entered the cultural consciousness, providing a sense of both doom and optimism. 

When R.E.M.'s It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) first came out in 1987 it quickly became a satirical and defiant anthem of sorts, parsing the politically-charged climate of the era in a playful, lyrically-dense style that became part of the band's signature style.

Combining an apocalyptic refrain with a cheery sense of hope, the song has enjoyed more than one cultural resurgence when people turn to music in times of panic.

Bassist and co-founder of the band Mike Mills joined Day 6 host Brent Bambury to discuss the song's lasting legacy and what music he turns to when things get dire. 

Here's part of their conversation. 

Do you feel fine?

Well, there is a certain anxiety level I'm not happy with. But physically, I do feel fine.

Well, I'm glad to hear that. This is a well-loved song. It has a long legacy. Were you surprised to find that it charted again?

Of course. You know, I thought maybe a few people might play it for themselves. Just a bit of a laugh. But you find that it's actually reinserted itself into the general consciousness.

What was the atmosphere when R.E.M. was first creating the song and recording it?

Well, you know, there's just so few eras that you can say are not fraught with some sort of anxiety or terror or difficulty.

But I guess at this point we were coming out of Republican administrations that we were not real happy with. You know, so there was a certain level of anger and trepidation in the air. 

But it's got a funny side to it. There's a lot of humor in it. There is this foreboding, but there's kind of a surrealistic fun of it. Were you trying to temper some of the foreboding of the time?

Yes, of course. We always had a bigger sense of humour than people gave us credit for. And there was certainly a lot of, you know, the winking and nudging and joking within the lyrics of that song.

It's surrealist. It's a little bit silly in some ways, but it addresses a greater fear, you know — the angst that's out there in the world. And sometimes you just have to shrug it off if you can when you're recording it.

So 30 years later, it feels like it's a necessary time for the song. Do you agree with that?

You know, I think during times of difficulty, if you can find something to make you laugh a little bit or smile a little bit and bring people together with a knowing wink or just an agreement that we're all sharing some sort of difficult times, I think that's a good thing.

We certainly never saw that coming with this song. I didn't know it would be a song for the times. But, you know, you can't see these things coming. So you just never know how it's going to work out.

From left: Mike Mills, Michael Stipe and Peter Buck wave as their leave the stage at the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park in London on July 2, 2005. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)

Well, it's defiant, isn't it? I mean, because you're staring down the apocalypse, but you're declaring that you feel fine.

That's right. Yes. 

What's on your pandemic playlist? 

Oh, man. There there's some good ones. I've had some friends putting some stuff out on Spotify as pandemic playlists. Of course, I can't think of any of them right now, but it's amazing how many songs that are out there that are appropriate to this, because you wouldn't think about it unless something like this were actually happening.

Written and produced by Amil Niazi. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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