What Does the Song Orange Crush by R.E.M. Mean?

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Song: Orange Crush (1988)

Artist: R.E.M.

Writers: Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe

Label: Warner Bros

Orange Crush was the first released single off of R.E.M.’s sixth studio album, their first with Warner Bros. Although the album focused on the band’s political and environmental concerns, as well as its ambivalence with the record industry (this was their first major label release) Orange Crush was the only overtly political song on the album. Released in December of 1988, it went to no. 1 on the Billboard Mainstream and Modern Rock Tracks charts, and on the latter, it became, at the time, the longest-running number one, remaining at the peak position for 8 weeks and beating U2’s previous record. The song also did very well in the UK, reaching no. 28 on the UK singles chart and earning the band their debut performance on Top of the Pops

Meaning of Orange Crush

Orange Crush is a soft drink but was also the nickname for a chemical agent, ‘Agent Orange,’ that was used by the US Army during the Vietnam War. Agent Orange, aka ‘Orange Crush’ was supposedly a herbicide but was responsible for up to 3 million casualties and has caused lingering health effects on U.S. soldiers exposed to it in Vietnam, including cancers, despite the fact that they were assured the chemical would have no physical effects on them at all. One of the most horrific effects is the incidence of birth defects in children fathered by men exposed to the agent, which has been linked to spina bifida. It is this latter birth defect that Michael Stipe is referring to with the line “I’ve got my spine” and “collar me, don’t collar me.”

Singer Michael Stipe using a megaphone during live performance of Orange Crush
Singer Michael Stipe using a megaphone during live performance of Orange Crush

Although a fictional narrative and not based on any personal experiences of Michael Stipe, the song was a very angry anti-war song, complete with helicopter sounds, marching chants, and machine-gun drumming in the opening. But it sounds like a bright pop song with a catchy hook and since Orange Crush is a well-known soda, it caused some people to misinterpret the song as actually being about soda pop. According to Stipe:

[The song is] a composite and fictional narrative in the first person, drawn from different stories I heard growing up around Army bases. This song is about the Vietnam War and the impact on soldiers returning to a country that wrongly blamed them for the war.

Like most of the best songs, Michael Stipe never quite says what is on his mind in Orange Crush, despite how obvious the song’s reference is. It’s ambiguous enough that the song’s interpretation can change for the listener through repeated listening. Peter Buck, R.E.M.’s lead guitarist, mandolin, and banjo player, commented on this in the liner notes of In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988–2003:

I must have played this song onstage over three hundred times, and I still don’t know what the f*** it’s about. The funny thing is, every time I play it, it means something different to me, and I find myself moved emotionally. [Playwright/composer] Noel Coward made some remark about the potency of cheap music, and while I wouldn’t describe the song as cheap in any way, sometimes great songwriting isn’t the point. A couple of chords, a good melody and some words can mean more than a seven-hundred-page novel, mind you. Not a good seven-hundred-page novel mind you, but more say, a long Jacqueline Susann novel. Well alright, I really liked Valley of the Dolls.

Stipe sometimes introduced the song in concert by singing the U.S. Army jingle, Be all that you can be, in the Army. The drill sergeant heard in the middle of the song is actually Stipe himself imitating a drill sergeant, and the things he says are complete nonsense.

Orange Crush is certainly not the only time Agent Orange has been referenced in a rock song. Depeche Mode had a song called Agent Orange, for example.