So let’s talk about something. I’m looking for an interruption. I’m about to start writing about what is, pretty undeniably, R.E.M.’s nadir. Their commercial low point, arguably their artistic low point, the zenith of their irrelevance. One of the leading causes behind the stigmatization of their post-Bill Berry period. One of the big reasons they’re currently considered uncool. What’s been bothering me is that I’m not certain when the slide into the uncool started.
When were R.E.M. last cool? I ask seriously. I know when they were big, but that’s hardly the same thing. Big I don’t quite remember, being then small, but I can track. I can look at charts and magazine covers and read books on rock history and know. Critical acclaim I can track, but it’s not really the same thing as cool. Old cool you can’t follow. So I ask those of you who were there: when were R.E.M. last cool?
I wasn’t there, whenever it was. I was too young. How many R.E.M. fans do you know under 30? There’s like twelve of us, tops. As far as I know it’s just me and six other guys. (Guys being a gender-neutral term of inclusiveness, here.) For years when I told people my favorite band was R.E.M. I did so with slight embarrassment. I’m not proud to admit that. I suppose part of that is generational, my coming from a generation after the one that loved them at their peak; I suppose part of that is that, for a big credible hot-shit rock band, R.E.M. tend to be pretty goofy, earnest guys. I love them for it, but I can see how everyone might not share my taste. Hence for people my age, those who even know who they were, R.E.M. are dad rock. They are bad dances and shiny happy people and Nudie suits and earnestly political bald dudes. Something to snark at. Irony was the shackles of youth, uh-huh.
Obviously they had to have been cool when they were young. The mumble and chime days. The I.R.S. Years. Skinny kids sweating their asses off in basement shows. Rickenbackers and Beatles boots. Baggy shirts and tight vests. Beautiful young Michael Stipe, faceful of curls, eyes averted always, a nervous sweater tug of a boy. Peter Buck doing windmills. Bill Berry keeping it steady. (Not Mike Mills. Mike Mills, bless him, never looked all that cool.) Four guys from some Southern college town who somehow made Chronic Town, Murmur, Reckoning, Fables. They were cool then, of course they were cool then. But that was so long ago, with so many millions of fans to come. Were they cool during their heyday? Their commercial peak? Embarrassingly I don’t know. Obviously the heroes of Alternative Nation called them heroes. Is cred the same as cool? But if Eddie hadn’t vetted them, if Kurt hadn’t loved them to death, what then? Were they cool after “Stand?” “Radio Song?” “Shiny, Happy People?” “Everybody Hurts?” Did Monster really sink the people’s hearts? Was it the Nudie suits what did it?
People say when “E-bow The Letter" bombed it sunk their career, but I don’t believe that. I think bombing was a symptom, not a cause. People say it’s because "E-bow" was moody and talky and low, but so was "Losing My Religion." So was "Drive." No, I think any R.E.M. single would’ve done as poorly. They’d been on top for nearly ten years, and were never the most likely pop stars in the first place. A bunch of Athens art misfits who loved The Velvet Underground and The Dbs? The only reasons R.E.M. made it big in the first place are 1) they were really unrelentingly hard-working, recording and touring constantly, 2) they were a really, undeniably good rock band who are extremely good at pop songs. Really, they were too good not to be big. But they were also too weird and too corny and too much themselves to be forever huge, to tailor their noise to arenas and the ever-younger fans filling those arenas, to Bono it up for another decade or four. Unless they’d somehow thought to collaborate with the Spice Girls, I think their days of chart dominance were plum gone.
So part of it was that they were earnest goofy fuckers, and part of it was that tastes were changing, and part of it was that their success was always kind of a fluke. And part of it was just that they were getting old.
But. But they are a great band, one of the great American bands—fuck it, this is my blog for the week (thanks, Hendrik), I’ll say it: the great American band. So we are about to start talking about Around the Sun. It’s pretty obvious that Around the Sun is not shall we say a beloved record. It is a fairly despised record. It is a reviled record. It is, what’s worse, a record toward which there is a lot of indifference. A lot of gratified indifference. A lot of people who feel smugness at Around the Sun's mediocrity, its mawkishness, its adult-contemporary-in-the-most-disappointing-sense-of-adult-ness. (Reminder to myself to title my thesis on today's porn market Adult Contemporary.) Who feel that it validates every negative stereotype they ever had about R.E.M. That it means Automatic for the People is soft rock for olds. (No.) No. We are going to talk about Around the Sun, and I am going to be honest about its flaws. But I don’t want to kick a three-legged dog when it’s down. I want to be clear about what my project is, which is to turn a critical but attentive ear to an under-heard and overlooked and much maligned period of a great band’s work, and hopefully to help clear the stigma around it, a stigma which has infected not just these five albums but everything the band did. So that hopefully others can hear them with open ears. So that, 30 years into the future, when your children and my children are asking who the best band was of the last 60 years, and they’re looking at you and me with expectant eyes, and all of us, we’re marching through Georgia, there stands R.E.M.
So. Another trip.