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Thursday, August 13, 2009 

I've said too much; I haven't said enough

I've said it before, here on this blog and elsewhere and to friends and in bars: R.E.M. were my favourite band before I was old enough to do any choosing. As such I don't actually spend that much of my listening time on them these days - I know the records I love by heart to the extent that actually putting them on a little redundant. But if you asked me why I loved R.E.M. so much, I'd normally be at a bit of a loss for words. It turns out that it takes a semi-inebriated detour to the convenience store to grab bagels for breakfast tomorrow to remind me.

"Losing My Religion" was released as a single when I was nine years old, although I might have been ten when I first heard it. These days I could give you ten, twenty, thirty R.E.M. songs I think are better, ones I enjoy and listen to more often. But when drunkenly mulling over varieties of bagel (plain? sesame seed? everything w/onion?), to suddenly realize that you're hearing that mandolin riff and those lyrics in the otherwise empty convenience store is a surprisingly powerful moment. Or it is if you're me.

Walking home I thought about "Losing My Religion" and had a sudden flash of insight about the song and my relation to it. It's fun as a music fan to talk about or banter with or mock (depending on your disposition and the company) Hornby's question in High Fidelity about whether being sad makes the songs or the songs make you sad, but when I have thought idly about it I've considered recent songs, ones I love now. I don't know if I'd say "Losing My Religion" is sad, exactly, but: the first song I ever loved, the first one I ever seized upon despite hearing dozens or hundreds before it, is a song about something that's unrequited. However you choose to interpret the lyrics, you can't in good faith move past the way Stipe is singing to someone that (rightly or wrongly) he feels owes him something, something he's not getting. It's not a stretch to say that most of the music I really love has an element of that feeling to it (anything from "If I Had a Heart" to "Rock and Roll Friend" to "Have to Explode"), and it's not as if I stop loving these songs when (say) I'm in a relationship. And for the first time, I feel and understand the real terror in Hornby's question: did this thing that I love fuck me up? or is this thing that I love an expression of something already gone wrong inside of me?*

And of course, one of the reasons the mind rebels at that kind of thinking is that you can't just stop loving the song. And you don't want to. Above and beyond (or below and within) the language used and the feeling expressed by the vocals in "Losing My Religion" there is plenty else that I love, as you do with any song you've heard so often that every second, every nuance and moment seems as inevitable as gravity. And after quelling the panic I felt at the initial thought connecting "Losing My Religion" to so much of what I seem to either love or gravitate to in art and life, after reassuring myself that the song I happened to start loving when I was ten hasn't warped my life out of what it would or could have been, the question still lingers a bit. Sure, it hasn't ruined anything, but what has it changed? What does it mean to be a person who seems to be mostly interested in songs about "the lengths that I will go to / the distance in your eyes"? Why can't I seem to get over my lifelong love affair with yearning? Do I even want to?

*(There are other options, of course, but that's not the point. Also, If there are any armchair psychologists who'd like to tease out a connection between my taste in music and my current unemployed, single, rather aimless state, I'd like to point out that a. I liked the same stuff when I had a good job and a stable, happy relationship and b. I'm already well aware, thanks.)

Nice piece.

I wouldn't worry about music changing you. In my experience, people don't change very much, and the things that change them tend to be large, unavoidable events (like childbirth, close relatives dying, personal achievements and failures) rather than songs they happen to like. Music just reinforces (and sometimes challenges) what you're feeling at the moment. You connect with it when it expresses something you can't.

My favorite REM song is "South Central Rain," BTW.


Ah, but the problem, or the issue, isn't so much music changing you as it is music shaping you; or, (worse?) it just reflecting something that was already going on.

Right this second my favourite R.E.M. song is "Gardening At Night" but in a minute it could be "Airportman" or "Low Desert" or "King of Comedy" or...

I really loved this. I think it's not so much about music changing you or shaping you- as it is about fitting you... and isn't it cool that your "non-chosen" band was R.E.M.?? Mine was Aerosmith... and Broadway musicals- the EUROPEAN types. Hahahah, it's tragic in many ways, how uncool I was.

Glad you liked it, Hans. As for my luck in loving R.E.M.... let's just say my dad was probably cooler than your dad was (no offense to him, my dad was/is cooler than most dads).

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Ian Mathers is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Stylus, the Village Voice, Resident Advisor, PopMatters, and elsewhere. He does stuff and it magically appears here.

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