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The "I'm not scared / I'm outta here" Award

By Maura McAndrew | 13 December 2011

R.E.M. Breaks Up

When R.E.M. announced their break up in September after a thirty-year career, I had mixed feelings. In these past few years, I’d been holding out some vain hope they’d blow my mind again with a new record, though my suspicions said otherwise. They’re not the Rolling Stones, content to tour endlessly and grind out mediocre material; R.E.M. has always been about moving forward, about reinvention. So as sorry as I am see them go, I take comfort in the knowledge that R.E.M. is not the kind of band that could ever become irrelevant, particularly for those of us who have felt for most of our lives that this was the be-all and end-all of rock bands.

I remember my first exposure to them as a seven or eight year-old—one look at the cassingle for a song called “Shiny Happy People,” on display (surprisingly) in Wal-Mart, sent my brother and I into fits of laughter. That was back when we called them “Rem.” Then, a little older, I really got into MTV, where R.E.M. was in heavy rotation. Not only did I learn the correct way to pronounce their name, but I saw them for the first time in the decidedly strange form of the video for “Losing My Religion,” Tarsem’s Caravaggio-esque tableau featuring a serious band in shirts and vests, led by a captivating Michael Stipe, skinny and flailing (like David Byrne, he openly thought, but really in a way all his own). From there, in the space of a few years, to love R.E.M. was to constantly be thrown into different worlds: from the shadowy Americana of “Man on the Moon,” to the lyrically opaque glam rock of “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”, to the sinister “E-Bow the Letter.” Not many bands could inspire a couple of middle-schoolers to parse out lyrics like “Aluminum tastes like fear” and “You said that irony was the shackles of youth,” right?

But that’s R.E.M.: at once so accessible yet so mysterious and cerebral. And one listen to their big breakthrough records, Out of Time (1991) and Automatic for the People (1992), conveys just how unlikely they were to succeed. Out of Time plays like a collection of odds and ends from the underground, combining their Green (1988)-era college rock with something darker, richer, and more adventurous. Automatic for the People would seem to be an even greater anomaly, its sound darkly southern gothic, equal parts optimistic and funereal, like a long-playing eulogy for some nebulous American dream. Unlikely as it was, R.E.M. became the weirdest, shyest stadium band ever.

My personal favorite R.E.M. albums are perhaps somewhat predictable: Murmur (1983) and Automatic for the People; the former coinciding with my introduction into the world (it was recorded during my birth month of January 1983) and the latter with my introduction into the realm of serious music fandom. Though I was just a kid when Automatic was conquering the world, I was old enough to recognize in myself a connection with it, something that went deeper than my passing interest in Green Day and Mariah Carey singles. And that connection deepened, waned, and changed throughout my adolescence. R.E.M. seemed to always be with me—lurking in the pages on my overwrought high school poetry, in the pictures on my college dorm desk, and in my connections with other people. Even my first short-lived (and crushingly awkward) relationship with a boy was based on a mutual love of R.E.M. (though it seems fitting in retrospect that “Star Me Kitten” was his favorite song).

R.E.M.’s legacy is so rich that even when they started to sink, after the departure of Bill Berry, from the heights to which we had all grown accustomed, there was always something in them to return to. As disappointed as I was by the records they released during my college years (Reveal [2001], Around the Sun [2004]), they gave me space to delve back into the IRS catalog with vigor, devouring everything I hadn’t originally been present for. And because R.E.M. has always been so ahead of their time, they’re one of the few bands that offer that distinct joy of discovering how a record from years earlier can seem suddenly relevant.

So they’ve decided to call it quits, but it’s not really the end. I believe the chances are good that someday in the future, when I blow the dust off some early bootleg or un-listened-to later record (perhaps even this years’ Collapse Into Now), I’ll surprise myself by feeling, as I have so often, that I’ve found what I’ve been looking for, and it was there all along.