R.E.M. was one of the premier alternative rock bands of the 1980s, making waves with their very first single (“Radio Free Europe”). By the mid-to-late 1980s, they had taken off with songs such as “Superman” and “The One I Love.” They would also go on to achieve fame with songs such as “Orange Crush,” “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” “Shiny Happy People,” “Losing My Religion,” and “Everybody Hurts.” Even those who feel themselves to be relatively unfamiliar with the band have probably heard most, if not all, of these singles at one point or another.
“Superman” drew the attention of many music fans who had not previously gotten on board with alternative rock, but it is worth noting that the song did not appear until their fourth studio album, Lifes Rich Pageant. They released their fifth album, Document, the following year. This was the album that contained “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” which would achieve increased popularity due to the MTV video that followed its release. Two albums later, they would achieve more popularity from MTV due to the music video they recorded for the song “Losing My Religion” on their seventh album, Out of Time.
The band’s popularity can largely be attributed to the lyrics penned by Michael Stipe, which often played into common emotions yet presented something of a surrealist world view. As the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, their popularity only grew. Their so-called “alternative” style was becoming more mainstream, but they were still among the more notable bands to achieve pop status by giving their community of fans something that they could not get from most other rock bands. Stipe’s lyrics were able to simultaneously embody the feelings of their younger teenage fans while phrasing the message of each song in such a way that their listeners felt unique.
Aside from Michael Stipe’s deep and surreal lyricism, the band became known for their musical style. Most of their songs were mid-tempo, rarely achieving the generally fast pace associated with most rock music. They favored minor keys, and each member of the band worked together to perfect the melody and rhythm needed to make their particular instrument an integral part of the song. Guitarist Peter Buck preferred broken chords and arpeggios over traditional guitar chords, which made his guitar style especially unique. In fact, next to Stipe’s lyrics, a fair number of music journalists have stated that the guitar parts of most R.E.M. songs are their primary distinctive feature.
R.E.M.’s influence on the alternative rock scene could be felt in the success of numerous bands that became especially famous during the 1990s. Kurt Cobain was a noted fan of their music, and prior to his death he had vocalized his intent to work with Michael Stipe on a collaborative project. Aside from Nirvana, the band had a great influence on bands such as Pavement, the Replacements, and Sonic Youth.
The band also became known for its activism, supporting groups such as PETA and campaigning for causes such as voter registration. They even supported political figures such as Michael Dukakis in 1988 and John Kerry in 2004. While the band’s music is responsible for their legacy and impact on the music world, they can also be remembered as a band who used their clout to stand up for their ethical and political beliefs rather than simply to achieve personal gain.
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