I recently wrote about the concept of most major recording artists having a single song that would be the dominant answer in a Family Feud style situation where 100 regular people are asked to name the first song that they think of when a bands name is mentioned. You can read the Pearl Jam edition of this here.
Sometimes there are bands that have a whole life outside of what you know or understand of them.
Pantera were a glam metal band before that became unpopular and they shifted to the next big thing in metal to find their popularity. The Goo Goo Dolls were initially a punk band opening for Bad Religion and Motorhead before switching lanes into mainstream success and telling us that they don’t want the world to see them (they didn’t think that we’d understand). In not as dramatic a fashion, R.E.M. have a history that I don’t really know about*.
They came to my attention as a band in 1992 when they achieved international success through their Out of Time album. It was at the same time as the Grunge saturation and there was something about R.E.M. that just felt like they didn’t really fit. They felt like a more straight rock band. They felt like the dorky uncle who still thinks he’s cool in the kids eyes, but in reality the kids are just humouring him.
What I didn’t know was that Out of Time was their 7th album! They had been toiling away in the trenches for over a decade at that point, helping create a scene for “Alternative Rock” bands to thrive in. The success they got from Out of Time was not only earned, but deserved. It was like finding out that dork uncle actually went to Woodstock or something (‘69, not ‘99 obviously).
It is rare for a band to breakthrough that far into their career, but it is even more rare (is rarer a word?) for that band to then continue to have success for a while beyond that, but that’s exactly what R.E.M. did.
So of course the question is – what is the R.E.M. song?
This concept that I have written these articles about is (fairly obviously) a thing that I regularly discuss with my friends and we go back and forth on the answers putting our cases forward etc. The biggest thing that this has taught me is that with any band that has had success over a prolonged period of time SO MUCH of what you answer comes down to how old you are. For a band like U2 it is a wide spread. If you were born before 1975, Sunday Bloody Sunday gets an advantage. From around 75 to 80 you are more likely to go with I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For or With or Without You. From 80 to 87 you tend more towards One. Anyone born after that is more likely to go with It’s a Beautiful Day. Nobody goes with The Sweetest Thing because it sucks.
With the Smashing Pumpkins, people who were older than me tended towards “Today” or other songs off Siamese Dream and people younger than me tended towards “1979” a more accessible song for their young ears when it came out and off the album after Siamese Dream. This was for a band whose peak only lasted around 4 years. The point is it generally depends on what songs you grew up with. Even if the band’s peak was short.
Here’s the thing though. I don’t really find that there is any distinction with R.E.M.
They are in some weird way broadly appealing enough to everyone but also ageless in a way that you actually don’t know when the songs came out, just that you know them. I don’t get it, and I like that.
Anyway, back to the point…
It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) (1987 and 1991) – Initially released in 87 and then re-released in 91, this song is the reason I can’t hear the phrase ‘end of the world as we know it’ without making a joke about feeling fine
Losing My Religion (1991) – The breakthrough song that found them international success and made people learn what a mandolin was
Shiny Happy People (1991) – A crossover episode starring Kate Pierson of the B-52’s which followed up on the success of Losing My Religion with some more wide spread appeal
Man on the Moon (1992) – The Andy Kaufman song that the Andy Kaufman movie was based on also gives me an earworm every time I hear the title phrase in general life
Everybody Hurts (1993) – The slow song that in 1993 was extremely relatable to a generation of depressed Gen X teenagers also had a memorable film clip to help its popularity
The cases –
For plenty of other bands, having a song that can give you an earworm just from the title would give you a runaway winner. For this band, they are the first 2 eliminated. They are both solid songs, but in a crowded field, they fall towards the back due to the sheer enormity of the other songs so we say goodbye to Man on the Moon and End of the World.
Close behind them is Shiny Happy People. Having fellow Georgia band the B-52’s involved in the song after their huge hit with Love Shack a couple of years earlier helped this song’s popularity along but it gets forgotten behind both of the bands’ bigger hits. I also try really hard not to let my personal opinion on the quality of a song dictate how well it does here, but this song is just really not good. Really not good.
Which means it is down to two.
In 1993 the film Falling Down** was released a couple of months before the single for Everybody Hurts was released. This is significant because the opening scene from the movie and the film clip for this song are identical. So much so that I seem to get them confused. If you had asked me before I wrote this article if the movie and the song were officially linked, I would have sworn on my child that they were. That the song was on the soundtrack, or that the film clip used footage from the movie. Something. I cannot find any evidence of this at all. This is some sort of Mandela Effect shit.
Regardless, this is a song that has had huge cultural crossover. It has been used in a hundred different films and TV shows. It was used in a UK press advertising campaign for an emotional support phone line, where they used only the lyrics to the song with their hotline number. It has been covered countless times, with very few able to match the heights of this original. The string arrangement was done by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin fame and the majority of the song was written by R.E.M. Drummer (Bill Berry) but he doesn’t even play on the song!
But when you say R.E.M. the slowly plucked guitar and metronomic drum machine are only the second things that come to mind for me. The first thing is that damn mandolin.***
4 hits on the strings of an instrument that will forever be associated with this band – if only because I’ve not heard it used anywhere else (that I am aware of) – are the defining sound of a band that released albums for several decades. The staccato way Stipe sings “I think I thought I” always stands out. This song also had a big cultural moment of its own, albeit one that is a bit more specific to people of a certain age – it was featured on the immensely popular (at the time) Beverly Hills 90210 in a pivotal scene at the beginning of the second season in 1991. Anyone that was into that show at the time will tell you that Losing My Religion was played when Brenda broke up with Dylan. The song has over 300 million plays on Spotify (compared to Everybody Hurts’ 103 million) and it is far more representative of the Jangle Pop sound that R.E.M. are known for. So that’s me in corner, telling you that Losing My Religion is THE song for R.E.M.
Disagree? Let me know!
*Unbelievably, before deciding on the name R.E.M. one of the names in the mix was “Negro Eyes”. Yes you read that right. That is a hell of a near miss.
**Re-watched it. More racist than I remembered
***The B-Side to the Everybody Hurts single is a song called Mandolin Strum. Seriously.