I think it's safe to say that between the ages of about 11 and 22, I was wrong about somewhere in the neighborhood of 95 percent of everything. And for the most part, I'm okay with that: I'm older and wiser now, plus I hardly ever get inappropriate boners. Still, given the towering heights of my teenage dumbfuckery, it is sometimes vindicating to note that I was occasionally right.
Back in the day — though she now parties way harder than I do — my mom was pretty conservative, to the extent that I was strictly forbidden to watch MTV. She believed that pop music would pollute my mind with smut (to her credit, that did happen). So at a young age, I made it my life's goal to watch MTV at the earliest opportunity, an ambition I realized at my estranged dad's house at some point around 1992: I have a vivid memory of changing the channel to MTV with great anticipation of what I was about to witness, which I was certain would be a turgid avalanche of headbanging and exposed tits. Instead, what I saw was the video for R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion."
"Jesus," I thought. "This sucks."
Since those tender years, I've tried many a time to re-evaluate my original assessment of R.E.M. Arguably the original alt-rock band, R.E.M. had been making music almost universally adored by critics and bands I admired since before I was born. Surely there must be something to the acclaim, right? Take, for example, "Radio Free Europe," the band's first single. Listening to its sparse, classic arrangement and chiming guitars, it's startling to remember that it came out in 1980, a year when Kool and the Gang's "Celebrate" topped the charts. But then you remember that the Pretenders' "Brass in Pocket" also topped the charts, and it doesn't really sound all that different. So R.E.M. wasn't really revolutionary. Still, the band never sold out, right? Throughout the synthesizer '80s and the chugging nu-metal '90s, R.E.M. managed to stay true to what guitarist Peter Buck once described as its "minor key, mid-tempo, enigmatic, semi-folk-rock-balladish" sound. And it did that for 31 years.
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When you think about it, that's actually kind of boring.
And that's always been my main beef with R.E.M.: Since before I was alive, these musicians have been making background Muzak that's unremarkable in every way. Even its breakup last week was boring. "There's no disharmony here, no falling-outs, no lawyers squaring off," said bassist Mike Mills. "The time just feels right."
"The skill in attending a party is knowing when it's time to leave," added Michael Stipe.
But R.E.M. has never been so much a party guest as the gift somebody brought to the party, a trinket you set on your shelf and looked at occasionally and later put in a box in the back of your closet. And years later, when it got lost in a move, you hardly noticed it was gone.