Like “Ignoreland” (an often under-appreciated, if not ignored, track from R.E.M.’s 1992 album, Automatic for the People), “New Test Leper” offers a powerful and disturbing commentary on the state of the U.S. in 2021, a country still trying to stay afloat in the wake of the Republican Party revealing its true self under the leadership of Donald Trump.
The 25th anniversary release of New Adventures in Hi-Fi provides fans new and old an opportunity to reconsider one of the band’s finest albums (I am leaning toward anointing NAIHF as its finest album).
When the album was first released, I was drawn to several songs—”New Test Leper,” “Undertow,” “Leave,” “Be Mine,” and “Electrolite.” In fact, I have long included “Electrolite” among my favorite songs by R.E.M., lyrically as well as the performance of the song.
After the anniversary edition was announced, songs were slowly released in remastered and alternative version, including two of my favorites, “Leave” and “Be Mine.”
But what has struck me deepest is returning to “New Test Leper,” a narrative song that sits firmly in the talk-show era of the 1990s while also serving as not just a warning about but a prediction of the country the U.S. was becoming and now has become.
Michael Stipe, as the primary lyricist, has written a number of songs about gender and sexuality, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s, his own sexuality was often the focus of rumor and public debate (situations Stipe brushed off as not so provocative by noting he often performed in make up and skirts).
“New Test Leper” certainly represents Stipe’s deep awareness of Otherness, but the song also focuses on the consequences of being othered in the context of American religiosity and the lurid nature of sensationalistic talk shows of the late twentieth century (which morphed into equally lurid so-called reality TV).
The opening stanza establishes the narrative situation, the talk show, and the tension between religiosity (the false and often hypocritical realities of Christians) and the non-religious speaker who, ironically, quotes Jesus (a recurring move by notable humanist author Kurt Vonnegut):
I can’t say that I love Jesus“New Test Leper”
That would be a hollow claim
He did make some observations
And I’m quoting them today
“Judge not, lest ye be judged”
What a beautiful refrain
The studio audience disagrees
Have his lambs all gone astray?
The reason the speaker is othered and on display remains ambiguous, a powerful decision by Stipe that allows the song to speak to the larger horrors of being judged by social norms, such as the superficial Christianity of the U.S. The speaker could be gay, trans, a racial minority, etc.
Two images of the song reinforce the negative consequences of being outside cultural norms: first, the allusion to David Lynch’s Elephant Man, “‘I am not an animal,'” and second, the haunting refrain as allusion to Biblical Jesus as the defender of outcasts, “Call me a leper.”
This public confrontation between the speaker and audience, made more tense by the Biblical and pop culture allusions, leaves the speaker deflated and questioning their efforts to be heard against the din of public opinion:
“You are lost and disillusioned”“New Test Leper”
What an awful thing to say
I know this show doesn’t flatter
It means nothing to me
I thought I might help them understand
What an ugly thing to see
It is, however, the final verse that speaks to where the U.S. has found itself culturally and politically. While the song was released during the Clinton era, the U.S. was still under the weight of the Reagan/Bush years, a political movement that cemented the marriage of Christian conservatives to the Republican Party (see Buccola’s brilliant analysis of the debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, which outlines how that marriage developed decades before the Reagan revolution and the rise of the Moral Majority).
The final verse answers the question from the first verse, “Have his lambs all gone astray?”:
When I tried to tell my story“New Test Leper”
They cut me off to take a break
I sat silent five commercials
I had nothing left to say
The talk show host was index-carded
All organized and blank
The other guests were scared and hardened
What a sad parade
What a sad parade
Yes, we must admit, Christian conservatives have strayed so far from Jesus as to be nearly unrecognizable as the ambassadors of kindness the words ascribed to Jesus implore over and over, and those of us who recognize that are left shaking our heads and concluding, “What a sad parade.”
In 2021, we are faced with a disturbing 30-40% of Americans just like the imagined studio audience of this song, and Fox News along with several podcasts attracting millions of listeners are driven by “talk show host[s]…index carded/All organized and blank” (from Tucker Carlson to Joe Rogan).
Imagine the speaker as a teacher accused of teaching Critical Race Theory and the audience filled with conservatives shouting faux outrage over something they know nothing about—except we do not have to imagine.
Art often has the capacity to step back and criticize the Now of the creation; exceptional art also serves as warnings, even predictions—although by the time we realize that, we failed to heed the warning and may be too late.
I feel resigned and deflated, like the speaker in “New Test Leper,” and it has become harder and harder to cling to Vonnegut’s belief if humans would just listen to Jesus (and not Christianity or the church) we could save humanity:
For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.
“Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break!“Cold Turkey”
What a sad parade.