Sunday, September 25, 2011


Taking a break from grading for a moment--why do I always leave myself with the majority of papers to finish grading the day before I've said I'd give them back?--I thought I'd offer this short comment on R.E.M.'s breakup. I was at one point, from grade six through grade nine, a more intense fan of R.E.M. than of any other cultural force/object. I still have a poster of Michael Stipe in my bedroom back home. The "Daysleeper" single was the first CD I ever bought--I still think the version of "Sad Professor" on there trumps the version on Up.* Obviously, given the past tense above, I am no longer such a fan. I can trace the decline in my fanhood to two things, basically.

1. The internet: we got the internet at my house in grade eight. While this was initially a boon to my obsession--I could find out more information about the band, albeit on a painfully slow dial-up connection--it also made it possible for me to find out about all sorts of new and exciting music (although again, thanks to said dial-up connection, I could often only read about this music, not hear it). In grade nine, I had Napster, and I started listening to all sorts of stuff that made R.E.M. seem kind of tame and pedestrian.

2.  Reveal: I've often found that discovering a band in the midst of the down time between albums can be trying--especially if it's a long wait until the next album. If it's an established band, by the time I've gone through the back catalogue, I have pretty set opinions about the band's sound. The new album can often be something of a let down, and this was especially devastating when I was young and had an astonishing amount of libidinal energy invested in bands. R.E.M. is the prototypical example. As Up was the second album I bought on CD (after Weezer's Blue Album, which, shockingly, was cheaper than the "Daysleeper" single), and as I considered it my favourite album and R.E.M.'s best, I was stunned to discover that I didn't particularly like Reveal. In the wake of some of the music I'd started listening to thanks to the internet (especially sites like Pitchfork and Allmusic), Reveal was boring. Its electronics were nowhere near as exciting as Kid A's, for example (say what you will about that album, but it was genuinely revolutionary for a kid in the suburbs whose only experience of electronic music was "Firestarter," Fatboy Slim's You've Come A Long Way, Baby, and the Chemical Brothers' Dig Your Own Hole).

It's been years since I've actually paid attention to R.E.M.--basically since the release of Reveal--and even the kind of "return to form" reviews that surrounded Accelerate and Collapse Into Now couldn't lure me back into the fold. For one thing, R.E.M.'s form, in my eyes, was shaped by the manner in which I experienced them. Reckoning and New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Murmur and Monster, everything they'd done existed simultaneously for me. No single album they released could possibly recapture my sense of their sound and scope.

I'm not horrifically upset by the band's breakup. I'm not even really upset. I am a little wistful, though, as I sit here and think back to the hours I spent flipping through the CD booklets and listening to the music, trying to piece together what the songs were about. The early albums especially, Murmur through Fables of the Reconstruction, were as culturally alien to me as anything I'd ever heard--I knew nothing of the lore of the South, and I shared no cultural common ground with what Stipe mumbled about. I have no grand conclusion to draw from R.E.M.'s breakup, but it has given me a chance to go back and re-listen to some fantastic music. So, here are some of my favourites.


"Country Feedback"


*Another source for my fascination with representations of academics? Perhaps. I didn't think of that until right this minute.

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