When R.E.M. first recorded “Radio Free Europe” it was hard to even comprehend what Michael Stipe was actually singing. Just listen to the “Hib-Tone” recording that opens the Eponymous album.
According to Cary O’Dell’s essay that accompanies the song’s entrance into the Library of Congress,
“Lead singer Michael Stipe later admitted that, for the Hib-Tone recording, he purposefully mumbled most of his singing since he had not yet finalized the song’s words. In either form, “Radio Free Europe” is as opaque in meaning as most other alternative rock lyrics of the era. Even Stipe has called the words to the song “complete babbling” (https://www.loc.gov/programs/static/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/RadioFreeEurope.pdf).
Actually as time passes, there seems to be a method and genius to this “babbling.” It certainly wasn’t as “complete” as originally thought.
However, if one wants “complete babbling,” then simply listen to President Trump speak without a script. That’s complete babbling. In fact, it seems that straightforward and concise ways of using language to describe truth and reality are so threatening to the Trump administration that this past week it issued some rather Orwellian dictates to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. As reported in the Washington Post:
The Trump administration is prohibiting officials at the nation’s top public health agency from using a list of seven words or phrases — including “fetus” and “transgender” — in official documents being prepared for next year’s budget.
Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden terms at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden terms are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based ” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/cdc-gets-list-of-forbidden-words-fetus-transgender-diversity/2017/12/15/f503837a-e1cf-11e7-89e8-edec16379010_story.html?utm_term=.3c060e17c7de).
When Trump first took office, many government workers started their own “rogue” Twitter accounts as a way of communicating the truth of what was happening in their departments despite the propaganda veneer applied by Trump and his appointees. It simply is using the very medium that Trump loves so much, Twitter, to combat the very messages that Trump and his cronies “tweet” out.
It should be no surprise that when Trump was elected, George Orwell’s book 1984 (along with other novels about dystopia) became a best-seller. With the obsessive need to control the conversation in America and the need to discredit any news outlet that reported something beyond the limited illusion of the White House, Trump has spent a majority of his time in office crying about “fake news” and distorting facts.
From Orwell’s 1984:
“And so it was with every class of recorded fact, great or small. Everything faded away into a shadow-world in which, finally, even the date of the year had become uncertain.” (Book 1).
It is almost as if he is trying to create his own version of the controlled language of Newspeak.
Whether someone interprets R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe” as what Rolling Stone called “a vague riff on U.S. cultural imperialism” (again referencing O’Dell) or homage to keeping airways clean of political pollution, it cannot be overstated that there must be free press in a democracy, especially now when there is an administration that so wants to keep certain words that express truth and fact from being heard.
Looking at the lyrics of “Radio Free Europe” in today’s context makes what seemed like “babbling” rather germane to today’s America.
There’s that line “Straight off the boat, where to go” and the first thing that comes to mind is the xenophobic policies of the immigration bans Trump has been pushing.
“Put that, put that, put that up your wall” uses one of Trump’s favorite images.
And that shrinking disapproval rating is showing that “this isn’t fortunate at all.”
Sure, a little fandom mixed with some self-fulfilled prophecy and coincidence can bend an explanation of a great, somewhat vague, song into almost anything, but why does this R.E.M. song come to mind when reading about how Trump’s administration is trying to control the language of a free society?
Because the need to have a free press matters more now than ever.