The title and chorus are based on a Chinese propaganda poster. The slogan "Shiny happy people holding hands" is used ironically - the song was released in 1991, two years after the Tiananmen Square uprising when the Chinese government clamped down on student demonstrators, killing hundreds of them.
Kate Pierson from the B-52's sang backup. She was in demand for her distinctive vocals after the B-52's achieved mainstream success with "Love Shack
" in 1989. R.E.M. and The B-52's are both from Athens, Georgia.
This was the second single from the album. A very light, happy song, it was a stark contrast to the very profound "Losing My Religion
," which was released first.
Michael Stipe calls this "A really fruity, kind of bubblegum song." In an interview with The Quietus, he said that he was a bit embarrassed when it became a big hit, but it's an important song because it shows a different side of him. Said Stipe: "Many people's idea of R.E.M, and me in particular, is very serious, with me being a very serious kind of poet. But I'm also actually quite funny - hey, my bandmates think so, my family thinks so, my boyfriend thinks so, so I must be - but that doesn't always come through in the music! People have this idea of who I am probably because when I talk on camera, I'm working so hard to articulate my thoughts that I come across as very intense."
In 1999, R.E.M. performed this on Sesame Street as "Furry Happy Monsters." Kate Pierson's part was performed by a Muppet that looked like her, voiced by Stephanie D'Abruzzo, a Muppeteer who was also a huge fan of the band.
Guitarist Peter Buck has two daughters who were big fans of the show. "You just looked around," he recalled to Mojo in 2016, "going, Man this is a weird way to make a living."
This appears in Michael Moore's controversial documentary Fahrenheit 9/11
while archive footage of both George Bushes shaking hands and posing for photographs with Saudi Arabian oilmen plays.
Midway into this song, it switches to Waltz time - 3/4. R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck had the idea to do this. He explained why in a 1991 interview with Guitar School
: "The song is so relentlessly upbeat, there was nowhere you could really go with the bridge. We tried it a few ways and then I suggested 3/4. They said, 'That's kind of fruity, Peter.' But I thought it was cool. It makes you think, well, what would we not put here? It gives the song a 'Saturday In The Park
Drummer Bill Berry notes the song's unique elements in the liner notes for Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage and challenges anybody to prove him wrong (unless you're immortal - that wouldn't be fair): "Think what you will about this powerful, God-rock anthem of yore, but at least we managed to conceive a song that starts out as a waltz and closes with the lyric 'dit' more than 140 times in succession. I challenge any mortal to locate another tune that features both of these visionary elements."
The guys can't get away from this one. Peter Buck remembers vacationing in the Amazon years after the song's release and hearing it on the radio. He admits, "It sounded really, really good. If we did one of those per record, I could see how it could get a little embarrassing. But we only did it once."
Katherine Dieckmann, who also did "Stand
," directed the video. The backdrops were painted by third graders from a class taught by her friend, April Chapman.
This was featured on Beverly Hills, 90210 in the 1991 episode "Down and Out of District in Beverly Hills" and on Friends in the 1994 episode "The One with the Monkey." It was also used in the 2008 movie Marley & Me, starring Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson.
Looking back at this tune in 2016, Stipe told Mojo: "I don't regret that song. We made a lot of money off that song. That's not why we wrote it. We wrote it because we were challenging ourselves. I grew up a child of the '60s listening to The Monkees and the Archies and The Banana Splits. The guys threw me the stupidest song that sounded so buoyant and weird and I was like, OK, I accept the challenge. So it was bubblegum music made for kids. Don't hate it. But I don't want to sing it."