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‘Shiny Happy People’ as postmodern placebo

In “The Precession of Simulacra,” sociologist Jean Baudrillard argues for the “murderous capacity of images” (1560). In our postmodern culture, images have killed and replaced reality, he proposes. Just as the symptoms of the hypochondriac are neither real nor unreal, the therapies used to treat our cultural lack of reality also “float on either side” (1558). Postmodernity is a world in which the only cure is a placebo: Happiness must now be constructed in a Disney-like, “hyperreal” realm of “illusions and phantasms” (1564).

The 2009 music video “Shiny Happy People” by R.E.M. comments on the illusory two-dimensionality of postmodern joy. People dance, clap and sing about happiness on a stage while a crudely painted backdrop with scenes of people in in life rolls behind them. The tune is upbeat and everyone is smiling. The viewer can be swept up in the illusion and enjoy three and a half minutes of bliss.

As Baudrillard suggests, when images detach completely from reality it results in a Godless era where yearning for the real is so strong that society is compelled to manufacture it.

However, unlike Disneyland, which displays its “Happiest Place on Earth” slogan in all earnestness, “Shiny Happy People” gives an artistic wink to the absurdity of produced happiness through it’s self-conscious simulation: the moves are a little too choreographed, the costumes cartoonish and the smiles a bit too wide. Yet, even more revealing of its self-imposed hyperreality, is the way it depicts itself as a production.

Baudrillard criticizes science for placing reality in a museum. “We have all become living specimens under the spectral light of ethnology,” he writes (1562). This idea is reflected in R.E.M.’s video through the staging and construction of the scenes. The video opens with a shot of two mechanical monkeys with symbols on a shelf. The viewer sees an old man’s hand put a coffee cup on a saucer and mount a stationary bicycle. The bicycle cranks the rolling backdrop, and the camera follows it to the other side of the stage where the band performs. The viewer sees that the performance is produced by the man backstage who dwells among his nostalgic furnishings: He has created his own “museum” of shiny, happy people.

Baudrillard suggests that our simulations serve to “save the reality principle” by concealing the fact that society has made all of reality into an amusement park (1565). There are a few moments when R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People” would seem to imply that the image can be an effective placebo—the unreal can become real if one claps along with the band. At the end of the video the stage fills with a crowd of real young people, as if they were conjured from the backdrop, and they all dance in unison. As they jump around the stage, the camera turns to the old man’s face. He has stepped around the corner to watch the spectacle, and it’s impossible to judge whether he approves or disdains it from the look on his face as he bites down on his pipe. He is the grandfather of the illusion created for generations to come. If there is no greater good, the character seems to suggest, then let them simulate it—give them the two-dimensional cure because it’s the only “happiness” they have left.

The problem with his conclusion is that the absurdity of the song lyrics, the dance moves, the costumes, and props suggest that the young people know the score. The production within a production serves to emphasize that it’s all just a show. It’s the same problem with the placebo—once the patient knows what it is, it doesn’t work. As Baudrillard suggests, when images detach completely from reality it results in a Godless era where yearning for the real is so strong that society is compelled to manufacture it (1561). R.E.M.’s video reveals that a production of joy is nothing more than a sugar pill.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 1556-1566. Print.

R.E.M. “Shiny Happy People.” Warner Bros. Records. YouTube. 2005. Web. November 17, 2013.