By the time they announced their breakup, R.E.M. had become so taken for granted that it was easy to poke fun – “They were still together?” “This announcement is the first time I’ve thought about them in years.” Yet, as the effusive post-mortems everywhere suggest, they became an institution for a reason.
It’s easy – too easy – now to forget what a revelation they were at the start of the 1980s. It was an age of black pegleg pants and blazers, skinny ties and angles. It was an age of synthesizers and makeup, of beats and carefully crafted quirks. The angry rage of punk – itself swathed in having just the right appearance to ensure one’s disdain was immediately interpretable as of a very particular type – had given way to “new wave” with its love of bold colors, asymmetrical design, and elaborate hairstyles. Everything was packaged.
Into this came R.E.M, whose initial package – a set of promotional materials sent to radio stations and record labels – was intentionally obscure, featuring almost no information with a cassette tape in a brown paper wrapper. They – gasp – wore jeans! They didn’t tuck in their shirts! They didn’t seem to CARE how they looked! And the music – what was that guy even saying? Was it “take oasis” or “tape erase us”? And even if you figured it out, what was that supposed to mean? Was “R.E.M.” a reference to dreaming or not? Were you supposed to say the letters or was it one syllable? “I just think,” said Michael Stipe early on, “there’s a kind of virtue in subtlety.” Heresy!
If ever there were a band that should not have been successful, they were it. Not because they were bad, quite the contrary, because they were so very good, and so very confident in what they did that they refused to play the music business game the way everyone knew it had to be done. People love to bandy the term “authenticity” about, but they were the real deal. Whatever they were doing, and none of us – even those of us enthralled by it – was quite sure what exactly that was, it worked because it was so clearly not motivated by any of the shoulds, oughts, or musts that popular culture seemed to demand.
They were transformative because they showed that those shoulds, oughts and musts were artifice, not requirements. They showed that you could make it on your own terms, that you could demand complete creative control and get it, that you could dress like Sluggo (as Stipe did on one tour) or perform on stage with mustard in your hair (as he did on another) and be a star, that you could be nice to one another and eschew hierarchy. As they did this professionally, legions of fans – myself included – took that message to heart and did it in our daily lives, allowing ourselves to become more truly who we knew ourselves to be. To their end, they never – not once in their career – seemed to do a single thing because external forces seemed to think they should.
Of course, they were not alone, there were others, including those who had so inspired them, from Big Star to Patti Smith, who shared these qualities. R.E.M. were very much a product of their influences, their setting, and their time. They had compatriots in bands like the dBs, Let’s Active, and others with whom they shared their stages in those early years. But of all of them, it was R.E.M. who showed the world that there were virtues in simplicity, in following your muse, in insisting on being one’s self no matter which powerful forces seemed to demand otherwise. Every band that’s done that since, and every one of us who’s loved one of those bands, whether we loved R.E.M or not, owes them our gratitude. And those of us whose lives were shaped by their songs and performances, regardless of what we think of the latter half of their output, owe them a part of our very selves.
People keep asking if I am sad to see them split. I am not sad, I am thankful. They changed my life. They changed the world. That’s enough.