What Losing My Religion Taught Me
R.E.M.’s greatest hit was accidental and unintended; the song was actually meant to “destroy their careers”.
“The fact that it became what it became is still puzzling to all of us,” said Michael Stipe, lead singer of the rock and roll band R.E.M., in the documentary Song Exploder.
“Losing My Religion is kind of a mistake. It’s a song that should’ve never been a hit single…”
The band had been going on for about ten years, alternating between touring and recording.
They were exhausted — and somewhat sick of being typecast. Lead guitarist Peter Buck said that they wanted to “make a record that’s gonna destroy their career”.
They would then start all over again, reestablishing themselves with a new style.
Buck was gravitating towards acoustic instruments and had picked up a mandolin that was “lying around”.
The band decided to write a song based on a riff he had been messing around with. The riff had came easily to him, and so did the drum beats that drummer Bill Berry added to it.
But bassist Mike Mills found it “a very odd song”, and struggled for a bit to find the right bass lines.
Then Stipe wrote the lyrics. It flowed out of him so easily he doesn’t even remember writing it.
According to Buck’s memory, they did the recording for Losing My Religion in a day, and probably played it only once.
The lengths that I will go to…
It was quite literally a suicide mission from the get-go.
The band didn’t think that radio would want to play it, and neither did their record company Warner Brothers. But they fought for it to be the lead single on their next album nonetheless, determined to make a record that was intended to ‘fail’.
“…we’re not looking for a hit. We expect this record to not sell anything,” was what Buck remembered saying to their record company executives.
That defiance was how determined R.E.M. was to express themselves and be different — for once.
I thought that I heard you sing…
The fact that the song became a hit was a total surprise to them. The fact that listeners interpreted it on so many different spiritual and mystical levels was even more surprising to them.
There was nothing religious about the song — which was the popular belief.
The Southern American phrase “losing my religion” simply meant someone was extremely frustrated with something. Figure of speech, so to speak.
But I guess that’s what made certain songs, or art… or books for that matter… great. The fact that it not only resonated with a wide audience, but that it could also be interpreted on so many different levels — intended or not.
It was to become the song that R.E.M. would be known for — until today, 30 years later.
What if all these fantasies come…
Not bad for a band who originally thought they would give it a shot for one year; and then call it quits if things didn’t work out.
“As a band, we just wanted to see the world and do something that we loved. We never expected that our records would become as important to other people as they did.”
— Michael Stipe, lead singer of R.E.M.
So what is the song about really?
That was just a dream…
It’s about insecurity; that beautiful vulnerability, when you open up to someone — full of yearning but also terribly frightened, of not being accepted.
It all resonated very nicely with the band’s name, which stands for ‘rapid eye movement’ — a deep state of sleep in which your dream feels almost real.
But that too was unintentional. The name of the band had no special meaning. By their own admission, it was an acronym that was open to whatever their fans wanted it to be.
Regardless, it worked very well with the surreal feel of the song.
And I don’t know if I can do it…
There is a saying in Chinese, “The flowers you intentionally planted doesn’t bloom, but the willows you didn’t mean to grow gives shade.”
The story of R.E.M. and the hit song that “carried them for 30 years” serves to remind all of us that sometimes life will bring you its successes or failures based on its own unexpected timing and logic.
Our intentions don’t always correlate with the results. So just go with your heart and the flow.
Stay true to yourself, because ultimately…
Oh life, it’s bigger. It’s bigger than you…