Most of this song was written by R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry. He quit the band in 1997 shortly before recording their album Up. After that album, the band almost broke up, but decided to continue as a trio. Berry became a farmer.
This is an anti-suicide song. Berry wanted to reach out to people who felt they had no hope.
On many R.E.M. songs, Michael Stipe purposefully sings indecipherably. He sang very clearly on this, however, because he didn't want his message getting lost. "I don't remember singing it," he noted in Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011, "but I still kind of can't believe my voice is on this recording. It's very pure. This song instantly belonged to everyone except us, and that honestly means the world to me."
While Berry wrote this, he did not actually play on it. A Univox drum machine took care of that for him. R.E.M. bass player Mike Mills claims he bought the drum machine for $20, but it was perfect for the song's "metronome-ish feel." He told Pulse magazine in 1992: "Mike (Stipe) and I cut it live with this dumb drum machine which is just as wooden as you can get. We wanted to get this flow around that: human and non-human at the same time."
The string arrangement was done by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones.
The Nevada legislature commended R.E.M. for "encouraging the prevention of teen suicides," noting this song as an example (Nevada has a high rate of teen suicide).
Michael Stipe is proud that R.E.M. created a song that actually saved lives. He told Mojo: "It saved a few. People have told me. And I love hearing that. That's for me, that's my Oscar, that's my gold on a shelf right there... that something we did impacted someone's life in such a profound way. That's a beautiful thing."
The music video was directed by Jake Scott, son of movie director Ridley Scott, famous for movies like Blade Runner (1982) and Gladiator (2000). Filmed on Interstate 10 in San Antonio, Texas, the clip is set during a traffic jam where people's thoughts are revealed through subtitles.
The album title was inspired by Weaver D's soul food diner in Athens, Georgia. When you ordered food there, they answered by saying "automatic." They had a sign that said "Delicious Fine Foods - Automatic For The People."
A very moving mix of this song was made using sound bites from the 9-11 disaster.
This was used on an episode of The Simpsons
when Marge is walking in a thunderstorm and thinks she has no friends.
Peter Buck wrote in the liner notes of the album In Time - The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003 that "the reason the lyrics are so atypically straightforward is because it was aimed at teenagers."
In February 2010 a charity cover was recorded by a collection of artists, Helping Haiti
, to raise money for the victims of the earthquake that devastated the country. It sold over 200,000 copies in its first two days making it one of the quickest selling singles of the 21st century in the United Kingdom. Joseph Kahn directed a music video for the cover that features cameos from the performers and footage from the earthquake's aftermath. Kahn is known for directing clips for the likes of Eminem, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, and Taylor Swift.
This topped a poll compiled by PRS For Music, which collects and pays royalties to musicians in the UK, of the songs most likely to make a grown man cry. Second in the list came Eric Clapton's "Tears In Heaven
" followed by Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah
." PRS chairman Ellis Rich said: "From this chart, it is clear that a well-written tear-jerker is one that people can relate to and empathise with. It is this lyrical connection that can reach deep down emotionally and move even the strongest of men."
In a rare authorized comedic use of this song, Mayim Bialik's character on The Big Bang Theory plays this on the harp when she is upset over being left behind by her two girlfriends, who are shopping for bridesmaids dresses. Her "boyfriend," played by Jim Parsons, comes by to cheer her up, resulting in an awkward cuddle scene.
Peter Buck likens the vibe of this song to Otis Redding's "Pain in My Heart." He wrote in the liner notes for Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011: "I'm not sure if Michael would have copped that reference, but to a lot of our fans it was a Staxxy-type thing."
This was used in the 1992 film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, starring Kristy Swanson, Luke Perry and Rutger Hauer. Speaking of the subsequent TV series, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Peter Buck said: "I've never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but the idea that high school is a portal to hell seems pretty realistic to me."