R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe has always been known for his great, expressive singing. The singing with the band also did include the trait of the lyrics being usually hard to make out. Especially in the band’s early days many of the listeners could swear under oath that the lyrics were words made on the spot. Or simply gibberish that seemed to fit to length of each line. That wasn’t really the case and Stipe made his words more ineligible and hard hitting as their career progressed. This doesn’t stop R.E.M. from being possibly the alternative band with the most frequently misunderstood lyrics. Which taking into consideration the grunts and groans of late 90’s grunge rock, is saying something.
R.E.M. is in many ways the definitive American alternative rock band (much in the way you could say that about the Smiths in Britain). The band was the first to bring underground music to the mainstream starting with the large success of their records from the late 80’s onward. R.E.M. also solved the age old question of whether an alternative band can keep it’s integrity while appealing to large audiences. In their case the answer was Yes.
As for the band’s singer, Michael Stipe is perhaps one of the most well known frontmen in rock music. His lyrics are often cryptic and for the most part, fans of the band’s music are able to add their own interpretation to songs. The manner in which Stipe sings the lyrics can also add to the confusion over their meaning.
In fact in a poll from 2010 listing the songs with lyrics that are most often misheard, The Sidewinder sleeps tonite (off the classic Automatic for the people) was chosen as the most commonly misheard lyric. Listeners report being sure they are hearing “Calling Jamaica” sung in the chorus. When in fact, he is singing “Call me when you try to wake her” (allegedly). Bassist Mike Mills seemed just as puzzled by the meaning of the lyrics having this to say in a Melody Maker interview: “It’s about somebody that doesn’t have a place to stay. Part of it is also about what man can do that machines can’t. The rest of it – I don’t have any idea what it’s about.”
There is a web site dedicated exclusively to misheard lyrics. That’s www.kissthisguy.com and it naturally has quite the archive dedicated to R.E.M. Granted some of the suggestions may be pushing things a bit for comedic effect, but still the potential of misunderstanding Stipe’s lyrics is always quite high.
One of R.E.M. most successful singles was Losing my religion a song seemingly about obsession and lose of faith. Some have reported hearing the opening lines “That’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spotlight” as “”That’s me with the mower, that’s me with the frostbite” or the rather obvious “Let’s pee in the corner, let’s pee in the spotlight. Booze is my religion”.
R.E.M. made their national TV debut playing Radio Free Europe on our old pal David Letterman’s show. This was their first song to get national attention from a larger public. Throughout the 80’s R.E.M. were the darlings of the critics. In the video listed below you can tell how Michael Stipe is still visibly shy about his role as lead singer. The previously mentioned web site lists a couple of alternatives to the chorus of “Calling out in transit”. One reported hearing “Crawling out of trenches” and one that makes less sense is “Kali-Ma, neo-transit, Kali-Ma, neo-transit“. If anything one could say that the hard to make-out lyrics do let the public’s imagination go wild.
There are countless others and to the credit of the those listing their misheard lyrics, some of the of the suggestions might in fact be a good alternative to the actual words. In the ballad At my most beautiful the lyrics “I know the closed eye watching me” can become the more mysterious “I know the clothes die watching me” and the romantic “I count your eyelashes” can surely be heard as “I can’t wear eyelashes”.
When it comes to their breakthrough hit It’s the end of the world as we know it, with it’s breakneck speed sung lyrics, the possibilities for interpretation are simply endless. Some of the highlights include “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I can’t drive” instead of “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.“, “And turn ’em into, turn ’em into, turn ’em into flies.” instead of “A tournament of, tournament of, tournament of lies.” and, of course “I’m not a pot of tea” instead of “I’m not commodity“.
That’s pretty much the case with another of R.E.M. ‘s most famous songs, Man on the moon, a song dedicated to comedian Andy Kaufman. The lyrics are easy to get wrong here. “Egypt was troubled by the horrible asp” can become “Edith was troubled by a horrible ass”, instead of “Mott the Hoople and the Game of Life” you might hear “Martin the moon boy, we gave him a rid.” and instead of “They put a man on the moon” one should not be ashamed of initially thinking that “They put a man on the roof, man on the roooof”.
Really, this can be stretched to the entirety of R.E.M.’s brilliant discography. Fortunately a good many of their songs can be understood just by the feeling of the music and Michael Stipe’s passionate singing. Also, there are lyric sheets out there, released with the band’s approval, in case anyone is doubting the words sung on the original recordings.