Michael Stipe | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Michael Stipe

New Adventures in Activism

Jun 02, 2008 Michael Stipe Photography by Steven Dewall Bookmark and Share

For the better part of the last three decades, Michael Stipe has passionately melded his rock and roll with his activism. From R.E.M.’s early days as Athens, GA indie-rockers through their big ’90s hits and the subtler explorations of their later work, Stipe and company have always had their hands in politics, whether teaming with Rock the Vote in the early ’90s, playing the Vote for Change tour in 2004, or supporting causes from hunger relief to women’s rights and Greenpeace.

“I distinctly remember the first benefit that the band ever did,” says Stipe, calling from his L.A. hotel shortly after the start of R.E.M.’s Accelerate tour. “It was for a friend of ours who’s an environmental lawyer, and she had started this organization. It was really, really shoestring but had really grand ideas, and went on to be something really kind of major in a local way.…That was in 1981 or ’82. We played a concert and raised a thousand or twelve hundred dollars, something like that, to help her keep her office staffed.”

Admittedly, Stipe’s activism has moved toward a larger scale since then. In 2004, R.E.M. shared a bill with Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty, and Bright Eyes, on the MoveOn-sponsored Vote for Change tour, playing six concerts in 11 days across six different key states to the 2004 election.

Stipe was disappointed when the Democratic candidate they were supporting, John Kerry, was not elected president. “In retrospect, I see the degree to which, basically it was a beauty contest at that point, and [Kerry] didn’t present himself in that way to the American public to the point that they were able to completely, 100% stand behind him as a candidate. I do think that, with all the participants—and I include the people who supported it, who volunteered for it, not just the people’s names you saw on stage—it was a really important and significant thing that happened. Sadly, Kerry wasn’t elected.”

This election year, Stipe has made a concerted effort to remain, as he puts it, more “hands off.” Still, he considers himself a Barack Obama supporter, appreciative of the degree to which Obama seems less beholden to special interest groups and lobbyists. While he is careful not to date his remarks, asking when his interview will run and saying, “I hope I can just nod my head in agreement when this Under the Radar issue hits the stands,” Stipe remains hopeful about the prospect for change in America in 2009.

“Quite a bit is an idealism and a naïveté that I tend to carry into my adult life and that I’m not embarrassed of,” says Stipe. “I see it as an eyes wide open but still desirable—and in my case, I think necessary—kind of curiosity about the world, and a desire to keep not a childish naïveté, but a sense of optimism or idealism, even in the darkest of circumstances, or the most grave of situations. To try to see beyond that, toward something else.”

R.E.M.’s latest album, the widely acclaimed Accelerate, not only returns to a more rocking guitar sound for the band, but it also attaches politically-minded sentiment to that exuberance, specifically in songs that comment on Hurricane Katrina (“Houston”), the state of America (“Until the Day Is Done”), and political news journalists (“Living Well’s the Best Revenge”).

“‘Living Well’s the Best Revenge’ is not political so much,” says Stipe, who asserts that he has never intentionally set out to write a political song. “It’s about the puff adder, paid-to-be-obnoxious journalists, mostly on 24-hour news stations, who are just basically entertainers. You can see that they’re just talking out of their asses because they get a fat paycheck out of it, or it strokes their ego to do so—possibly even, as devil’s advocate, supporting a position that they themselves don’t even hold, and perhaps not even recognizing the degree to which that is altering the way people look at an argument or a debate.”

These days, the causes Stipe promotes range from Environment America, a federation of state-based environmental advocacy organizations, which will join R.E.M. on tour, to The Food Bank for New York City, which recently recognized him with honorary chairmanship. Even if he doesn’t actively support a candidate for president in 2008, Stipe always recognizes the benefits of his advocacy.

“In the 28 years that my band has been together and the 27 or 26 years that we’ve been very publicly activist and very overt about our politics, I’ve had so many people come up to me and say, ‘Thank you so much for your music, but also I’m an environmental lawyer, and it’s really because of your band,’” says Stipe.

Still, more than anything, Stipe considers himself a narrator of his times, using his talents to reflect the world around him and, as a result, hopefully spurring people into action.

“I feel that as a public figure and as someone who writes music, my job is to help with music or with whatever medium I’m working in—if it’s bronze, which is a current passion of mine right now, if it’s producing film, which I’ve been doing for 21 years, or if it’s through music, which I’ve been doing for almost 30 years now,” says Stipe. “My job is to help comment and interpret the times that we’re moving through right now and to help provide signifiers or little road maps to place into the context of the times that we’re in, and hopefully look forward in a progressive way. And from there, it’s up to the interpretation of everyone else.”


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