This is one of those odd songs that you can listen to and enjoy several times before you start listening to the lyrics and are startled into realising that it isn’t your typical pop or rock song. Unlike REM’s ‘It’s the End of the World as we Know it’, ‘Belong’ isn’t gleefully belting it’s end apocalyptic credentials. It’s a quiet song with a soothing tone, offering us a mother’s mantra to her child:
[She] Stood and whispered to her child: belong
She held the child and whispered
With calm, calm, belong
The spoken lyrics are said in the same calming mode that we imagine the mother must be using with her child, and it’s easy to be soothed by them into not listening. But when one does, the words are striking indeed:
Her world collapsed early Sunday morning
She got up from the kitchen table
Folded the newspaper and silenced the radio
Those creatures jumped the barricades
And have headed for the sea, sea
There’s clearly a metaphorical mode to this. The video ties the song to a political message – the creatures jumping the barricades perhaps representing protestors fighting for freedom. But the song resists a direct, simplistic meaning. Such a broad, political meaning is contrasted with the deeply personal opening line. It is her world that has collapsed, and the little mundane details speak to a smaller, more personal event, the sort of thing that could go utterly unnoticed by the rest of the world. It is ‘early Sunday morning’ – a time evocative of peace and solitude: it’s early, before other people are up and moving about; it’s a spiritual time, in the Christian religion, and an empty time, in that (for Christians) work is forbidden – it’s evocative of the stillness and echoing quiet of churches. She gets up from the table, folds her newspaper, turns off the radio – the sort of details one would only put in a story – much less a song – unless they has some significance, and yet, there is nothing momentous in the actions themselves. Three lines are devoted to these very ordinary notes in a song that opens dramatically about the world (or her world) collapsing, yet fails to say why. What the barricades are. What the creatures are.
And we must note the oddity that it is not people who are describes jumping the barricades, but ‘creatures’. Even in metaphor, it is a startling phrase. If these are protestors fighting for freedom, it is strange that they should be cast in such an alienating light. But equally, if the creatures jumping the barricades is the cause of the world collapsing, it seems odd that they are headed to the sea, presumably away from the mother and child at home. And, moreover, the mother is inspired by them:
She began to breathe
To breathe at the thought of such freedom
It sounds as though she has been inspired to rebel, possibly against her own domesticity, the smallness of the details of her life. But then, one has to wonder, why does she tell the child to ‘belong’, which has such connotations of conformity, or repressing individuality?
I don’t think this song is meant to be open to an easy reading. I think it is meant to sooth us and wake us up at the same time. The calming voice of the spoken lyrics is contrasted with the hopeful (yet also somewhat melancholy?) wordless singing that rises up above the monotone, like a bird soaring to freedom. I suspect it is in part meant to express the unavoidable tension between our need to belong and our need to be free to express ourselves and control our own destiny. Which, of course, is central to the appeal of apocalyptic fiction. We imagine the apocalypse in part to scare ourselves – we depict it as hard and wild and dangerous – but also because we long for a peace and solitude that is unattainable in the press of rules and restrictions, and even the bodies of our fellow humans… the barricades can only hold for so long before we long to burst free.
I think this song shows the real genius of poetry in REM’s music, and I think, when the barricades break and the world collapses, this would be a very good song to listen to, contemplating the uncertain future. And I can’t help but not that it is particularly appropriate for the girls of the apocalypse, some of whom may be mothers with babes in their arms to care for.
– Apocalypse Womble out