March 8, 2011
March Music Madness: The Time to Rise Has Been Engaged
Today is important. It's the convergence of three significant events: International Women's Day, commemorating the working women of the world; Mardi Gras, a celebration of indulgence of all stripes, from paczkis to parades; and the release of Collapse into Now, the fifteenth studio album from R.E.M.
I've been a fan of R.E.M. for, literally, decades. They were my first foray into alternative music (not much made it onto the airwaves in Des Moines, Iowa, circa 1985); my friend Patrick and I intentionally misinterpreted the lyrics to their song "Catapult" (off their first full-length studio album, Murmur) as "Cat Food." That song is ridiculously catchy, so if you're looking to mine their discography, "Catapult" is a good place to start.
That's not my song of the day, however. My song of the day is off the album Document, which came out in 1987 and was to be the band's last album with minor label IRS Records. The opening track, "The Finest Worksong," was also the third single (after their wildly popular "The One I Love" and "It's the End of the World As We Know It [and I Feel Fine]"); it kicks off the album's eleven-track flirtation with populist uprisings, including the labor movement (hence the connection to International Women's Day). Document is a fiery album, and "The Finest Worksong" will get your blood pumping.
But it's not simply a work song, just as Mardi Gras is not just a celebration of self-indulgence. Today is also the last day of Ordinary Time, the eve of the circumspective season of Lent. And "The Finest Worksong" invites a certain amount of circumspection, even as it compels its listeners to raise fists to the air. "What we want, and what we need," Michael Stipe sings painfully, "have been confused."
In some ways that's the story of the labor movement, which has evolved from its origins as a collective epiphany that there's power in a union, power among groups of people, that wealth and privilege can't overwhelm, to an institution that never doesn't have a place at the table and must now figure out how to wield its own established power and privilege.
But in a more profound way, the notion that "whate we want and what we need have been confused" is also the story of the human condition--women and men alike, who too often think that their desires are needs, and the things (and people) that inhibit their desires are evils or enemies.
In "The Finest Worksong" R.E.M. advises us to "take [our] instincts by the reins"; that's a pretty good practice to guide us through the forty days leading up to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It's also pretty good advice for Ordinary Time, and particularly for Mardi Gras, when our instincts can often run rampant. It's also good advice for when the time to rise has been engaged; let us speak truth to power, but let us not hoard it or lust after it.