R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe has always earned plaudits for his transcendent, expressive singing. This style of singing, however, frequently included the trait having the lyrics pronounced in such a way where their meaning became nearly impossible to decipher. This was especially true in the band’s early days.
REM’s legion of listeners could be made to sweat under oath that the lyrics they were hearing were in fact a collection of words chosen on the spot. Or, simply gibberish that seemed to fit the length of each line. While the truth was radically different, Michael Stipe may have taken this criticism to heart and attempted to make his words more intelligible and hard-hitting as the band’s career progressed. Plus, the lyrics never seemed to fail and keep REM off the college radio stations in the group’s earliest days.
This, however, doesn’t keep R.E.M. away from the dubious title of the alternative rock band with the most frequently misunderstood lyrics. When taking into consideration the grunts and groans of late 90’s grunge rock, is saying something.
R.E.M helping define alternative rock during the late 1980s
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 found a solution to the age-old question of whether an alternative band could maintain its integrity while also appealing to large audiences. In their case, the answer was a resounding Yes. Their earnest reputation help inspired groups like Nirvana in their bid to retain the same balance.
As for the band’s singer, Michael Stipe is perhaps one of the most well-known and liked frontmen in rock music. His lyrics are often cryptic and for the most part, fans of the group’s music are able to add their own interpretation to songs. But, the manner in which Stipe articulates the words can 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). The Sidewinder sleeps tonite‘s lyrics may have been sung in a cryptic manner on purpose, with its misheard lyrics owing a lot to Michael Stipe’s choice of vocal affection, but the jury is out on the intonation of the lyrics on their earlier material.
Mike Mills weighs in on REM’s lyrics
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.
The lyrics to Losing my religion as understood by many
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 aforementioned 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. To the endless credit of those listing their misheard lyrics, some of the suggestions might in fact be a good alternative to the actual words. In the ballad At my most beautiful (from the album Up) 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”.
It’s the end of the world as we know it reinterpreted and misinterpreted
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.