My (in retrospect, very short) love for R.E.M.
(Un)relaxed Dad wrote a post a couple of days ago about his early love for U2 & R.E.M., and a very scary-sounding concert that had both of them playing together in 1985. As a gross generalization, English folk, to me, seem to be a weird contrast of the absolutely reserved and the absolutely manic/insane. Anyways, the whole post got me thinking about R.E.M., and the music I liked when I was in high school (and beyond). It made for some great recollections, as I folded laundry last night.
I don’t really like R.E.M. now. I mean, I can stand them, and I’ll always find their music compelling on some level, but rather like (u)rd mentioned about U2 becoming self-important and pompous, well, the same thing happened, in my mind, with R.E.M., in the early 1990’s, and that ended the love affair for me. Well, that’s not quite true. It was their becoming mainstream that turned me off, then everything that followed was a confirmation to me that R.E.M. wasn’t, anymore, quite what they were, quite what had drawn me to them in the first place.
I can’t claim to be one of their earliest fans; my acquaintance with R.E.M. started with the album Eponymous. It was 1988 and I was 15. For the life of me, I can’t remember how I came by it. I had it on tape… I think I might have picked it up at Zia, which was a new/used music shop that I got most of my music from. Thinking hard about this time in my life, I think maybe my cousin Heather introduced me to R.E.M. (along with Ten Thousand Maniacs, Sinead O’Connor, and other little-known musicians of the time). This would have been on one of the family trips to Illinois, where Heather, two years older than me, lived with her parents… I must have been 13 or 14.
Anyhow, some way or another, and for some reason or another, I procured Eponymous, and fell hard in love. Every song was fantastic. It seemed to me to be “music for music’s sake,” and not like the band was trying to say anything profound. It was like they caught a snippet of a lyric and built a song around it, and whether or not the lyric made sense to anyone other than themselves seemed an afterthought. For some reason, I really liked that. Really liked it. Maybe that’s because so many people around me at the time were absolutely obsessing over the Deeper Meaning of songs, and R.E.M. was totally antithetical to that. To me, their songs were nearly all meaningless, just a collection of beat and melody and harmony and poetry, and that was perfect. Maybe they were trying to say something, but it was too deep and/or obscure, or I was to immature to pick up on it, or something… But almost all of their lyrics just seemed random to me, and I was completely OK with that.
Later that year, in 1988, Green came out. My favorite song from that album remains Orange Crush, which I still think is one of the best pop/rock songs of all time. Stand became a huge hit for them from that disc, but I didn’t like it nearly as much.
Then, I started going backwards through their repertoire, buying Lifes Rich Pageant and Fables of the Reconstruction. Fables is probably my favorite complete disc of R.E.M.’s… well, favorite of the ones with which I am familiar; admittedly, I haven’t heard all of them.
In 1991, I graduated from high school, the spring of which R.E.M. released Out of Time. Weeks after graduation, I attended a Christian leadership/worldview camp in Manitou Springs, Colorado, which was a great experience. Something happened there, though, that burst my R.E.M. bubble. There were all sorts of people at the camp, which wasn’t really a camp at all; it was held in a historic hotel that had been converted to house and educate a couple hundred teens at a time. Still is held there, in fact. I hadn’t yet purchased Out of Time. But, for some reason (or maybe the particular reasons of the hits Losing my Religion and Shiny, Happy People) that disc was THE music that everyone was listening to. After my whole teenhood of being virtually alone in “my” music — it just wasn’t shared by any of my friends… I didn’t like any of my music JUST to be original, but I liked the fact that what appealed to me only appealed to a very small subset of people my age. I liked to be unique. So, I found it very disconcerting to me to have… well, tens of people going around singing R.E.M. songs, including sorority types — the sort of popular, painted, blonde girls who, a year previous, would have ridiculed me for liking R.E.M…. and now, here they were, singing it with gusto.
Of course, that wasn’t purely the band’s fault; I don’t know if they crafted Out of Time to be more accessible, trying to garner a wider audience. But, after those couple of weeks at The Summit, the band lost its sheen for me.
And, afterwards, it seemed like Michael Stipe and co. were doing their best to be “responsible” with their world stage, becoming extremely political and outspoken and inflatedly self-important. I couldn’t hang with that.
Looking over the track list from Out of Time, I know all the songs. I don’t think I ever owned it, though. I probably borrowed it, and probably from John.
I haven’t bought an R.E.M. disc since.