How R.E.M. Changed American Rock Forever

They weren’t necessarily the best selling or the most loved, but they altered music immensely.

May 29, 2018 5:00 am
THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Episode 1507 -- Pictured: Musical guest R.E.M. on December 10, 1998  (Photo by Margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Episode 1507 -- Pictured: Musical guest R.E.M. on December 10, 1998 (Photo by Margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NBC via Getty Images

R.E.M. was the American Sex Pistols.

Um. Okay.

Part I: Do Not Trust Nostalgia, Vinyl Nor Hot Topic

Nostalgia and wishful thinking has caused us to forget that the Sex Pistols were, essentially, a failure in the United States at the time of their initial album release in October of 1977. Likewise, the American punk movement in the mid/late 1970s, although it had many adherents and produced some extraordinary music, remained a cult. In the shadow of punk, the American music industry did not press re-set; it hit the snooze button.

It was a different story in Great Britain. In 1976 and ’77, the Sex Pistols and their compatriots assembled many of the extant elements of outsider music and fashion under a single flag, changing the public face of music and style in one giant leap forward (or backward, or sideways – in any event, it was a leap). We still feel the reverberations of this seismic event: Every day, I see a haircut or jacket or pair of pants that has some root in the ’77 shock, or hear music touched by the strum and roar of era.

But there was a delay in the United States. Well into the 1980s, the United States remained, essentially, on the same Farrah/Stevie/Blow-dry Patchouli Hayride it had been on since roughly 1970.

Ask anyone who was there: The early 1980s looked a great deal like the 1970s.

Prior to 1985 (a date I am assigning as the time when R.E.M.’s ubiquity as a Champion Outsider Band had reached critical mass, prior to mainstreaming), alternative music culture in the United States was a diverse assortment of tribes and subcultures lacking any real or consistent visibility or power in the mainstream music industry. That is to say, despite flares of style and quirk, we were still in Henley land.

Part II: The Basics and the Universal Draw of the Kingdom of Outsiders

First, let’s go back to basics:

To understand rock and pop, you have to understand that it is the sound of America’s disenfranchised, made mainstream. But there is a powerful secondary element that defines our experience as listeners, consumers, and lovers of rock and pop:

Pop and rock enables outsiders to find their tribe.

It also provides a way for people – especially adolescents — to feel different, to feel some frisson of a separate identity, while still having a pack to travel in.

Now, take that idea and apply it to your own life as a listener, lover, and consumer of rock and pop:

Consider David Bowie. You discovered him, perhaps, when you were in 9th or 10th grade. Like many adolescents, you felt alone, unloved, never to be kissed; you considered your own body, this rage of pimples and continuous trash-fire of desires, a stranger, an enemy. All around you, people were saying that these were the best years of your life, but you knew this was a fetid lie. It frequently occurred to you that things would never get any better.

But then, scotch-taped to a locker or on the front of a t-shirt, you saw his Schiele-face and stick-figure sexbody. Who was this rooster, aflame, with an impossible jaw and alien eyes?

Something stirred inside of you. Before long, you realized that there was a secret kingdom of outsiders, an army of anti-jock heretics, and it was beckoning you.

For you, maybe it wasn’t Bowie. Maybe it was Laura Nyro, or Robert Smith, or Frank-N-Furter, or Dave Gahan, or even Jerry Garcia; but all of these people said the same thing: “Here, friend, is the key to the Kingdom of Outsiders. Welcome home.”

Part III: Teenage Vulnerabilities Stretching Into Adulthood

Teenage vulnerabilities stretching into adulthood: This is who we were in our twenties, and it is precisely this feeling that R.E.M. translated into sound in the 1980s. R.E.M. not only consolidated the college rock revolution that had been bubbling since the late 1970s, they became its town crier, its totem, its flag and its flag carrier. They spoke for this giant and influential constituency who said, “We are different but user friendly; we are charismatic but full of the quirks of the bullied; we are the bullied, triumphant; we are the army of the charmed disenfranchised; we have taken every insult that has been shouted at us – Hey, Faggot! Hey, Devo! Hey, Punk Rock! Hey, Blondie! – and turned it into pride.”

Only the most rare band achieves this: Only the most rare band achieves us.

Many artists become gods, but how many artists make us into gods, empower our flaws, encourage us to wear our vulnerabilities on the outside?

R.E.M.’s sense of charismatic quirk, their distillation of virtually all extant elements of college rock into one charmed package, set the template for much of guitar-based pop for the next thirty years, from Nirvana to Arcade Fire. If you were a guitar-based act who combined charisma with vulnerability, sex appeal with the downcast eyes of the once-bullied, you can trace the lineage back to R.E.M.

True, MTV shifted the industry and the marketing format of pop fundamentally, but it was R.E.M. that reset guitar pop’s emotional core, something that MTV took no interest in. It was R.E.M. that hung up a sign saying, “Sensitive Souls, Freaks and Geeks, welcome here.” They recognized that there was an outsider army, the heart of the college rock movement, who could be empowered.

Of course, in subsequent years, guitar-based bands emerged (and prospered) that had little to no link The Vulnerable Revolution — for instance, the Sunset Strip Hair Metal movement almost intentionally contradicted it. However, the more metal-ish side of the grunge movement – namely Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice in Chains, Collective Soul – was absolutely defined by their affection for and adoption of R.E.M.-esque traits. It is also arguable that contemporary country music very much takes off where R.E.M.’s arpeggiated mid-Atlantic/mid-South guitar pop ends, though credit for this branch in the musical tree probably ought to go Hootie & the Blowfish and Garth Brooks, both of whom took R.E.M.-isms into the country mainstream.

R.E.M. was the rock band of our time. They weren’t necessarily the best band, or the one we loved most or longest, or even the best selling, but they altered the landscape immensely. R.E.M. dragged the college rock era into the mass consciousness (where it would stay), they moved us out of the patchouli era and into a future where even the most helium-filled and stadium-filling, sky-reaching rock was sensitive and bookish.

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