REM was alternative rock’s shining beacon and best-kept secret, until, seemingly, the whole wide world got heed of them. While the group’s profile was sustained by frequent albums and tours, and while their legacy had long before been firmly established, the release of Losing my religion catapulted the Georgia group into super-stardom.
Michael Stipe and REM, reluctant faces of alternative rock
It’s interesting to remark that REM did, in fact, become the poster band of alternative rock, a genre that was largely faceless at the time and built around the support of loyal fans of live shows and American college radio. It was what had become of a big segment of punk-rock in the U.S.A.
But, it was not only REM’s sound, distinct from one second to the next, but also their recognized integrity that made them the alternative to the mainstream, to a very large bulk of the record-buying public.
Starting with their debut, Murmur, the quartet’s profile consistently increased. It did so with each new release, 1987’s Document marking a high point both creatively and in terms of record sales. The 1990s, however, would place REM into a bracket where their shared real-estate with only pop-music’s most famous artists.
Writing Losing my religion
The band members of REM are often asked to speak of their best-known song and always emphasize the fact that the song appeared naturally, quickly, and that no thought was given to it as a potential calling-card for the already highly experienced band.
Losing my religion is without a doubt a great song. But, it is also one of the most bizarre smash hits in pop music’s long and twisted history. The main motif of the tune was written by guitarist Peter Buck as a way to test out his new mandolin, an instrument he had never played prior. For REM loyalists, however, it’s another example of the band fearlessly stretching out beyond their comfort zone, and trademark style.
Losing my religion’s meaning
If R.E.M. had built their reputation on an exuberant, yet poetic sound, complemented by Michael Stipe’s cryptic lyrics, fittingly, the big step-up into the mainstream market used the same ingredients.
While they were not treading unfamiliar territory, Losing my religion integrates within the tradition of pop hits whose message seems to mean everything to everyone.
The phrase Losing my religion is an old Southern U.S. expression denoting the loss of faith or innocence. Stipe never commented directly on the meaning, and, truthfully, it’s unlikely that one clear defined one exists. But, from all we can gather, the song, found on the Out of Time album, deals with emotional distress, anger, and impatience with being taken out of the spotlight.
Perhaps, although this is merely speculation, the lyrics to R.E.M.‘s Losing my religion, detail the band’s own slow rise. Formed as an artsy punk rock outfit in Athens, Georgia, the group worked their way from the smallest clubs to the largest arenas with the patience and zeal of Buddhist monks. While their confidence in rock’s redeeming power was supreme, the musicians, Stipe especially, were naturally shy, introverted people, who struggled with fame once they achieved it.
Losing my religion’s accompanying music video music video
R.E.M. had filmed music videos before, many of them low-budget ones. But, the colorful and expressive mini-movie directed by Tarsem Singh as video accompaniment to Losing my religion came to define an MTV era.
Hinting at scenes from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s epic-novel 100 Years of Solitude, the allegorical displays, as well as Michael Stipe’s anxiety-ridden dancing struck a chord with many. The music video was played in heavy rotation on MTV. The effects were immediate.
The Out of time album
R.E.M. by 1991 was, along with the Replacements, the Pixies, and Nirvana, the most visible alternative rock bands in the U.S.A. However, their album Out of time, as far as much of the record-buying public was concerned, was treated as a debut.
Fearing the lack of commercial viability of a lead single based around a mandolin riff, Warner Bros. was reluctant to promote the song. Once the music video became a hit, it triggered a wave of mainstream enthusiasm for the group. Radio play followed, the illustrious back catalog began being discovered by a new audience, and R.E.M. sold a combined 30 million albums in the space of 12-18 months.
Out of time became indie rock’s guidepost. An album built largely on acoustic, melancholic numbers, it symbolized the fact that REM had found success on their own terms. Ironically, Out of time’s sole cheerful number, the children’s tune Shiny happy people, proved to be the album’s other big single.
R.E.M.’s albums and songs after Losing my religion
To their credit once in the big-leagues, R.E.M. never sold out, or at least, never cynically. Their reputation prior to 1991 was well-established, as a sort of American The Smiths, and they had already enjoyed platinum success with their record Document, albeit on the strength of sales facilitated by college radio.
Their follow-up to Out of time was 1994’s Automatic for the people. By now grunge had happened, and R.E.M. was palling around with the likes of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, admirers of the former indie darlings Automatic was even more stylistically eclectic, but, still managed to make even more famous.
Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi found R.E.M. looking to balance their sensitive and poetic leanings, with the knowledge that they now had to cater to stadium-sized audiences.
Drummer Bill Berry’s departure echoed a need for revisions within the band’s sound. They continued to make records, many of them critically praised, until their amicable split in 2011.
Losing my religion remains R.E.M.’s biggest hit, a song originally meant to serve as one of many great cuts within a lengthy and enviable body of work. Instead, this tune powered by mandolin chord-sequences and enigmatic statements ended up being one of several global triumphs registered by this modest and innovative Georgia quartet.