Life and how to live it

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Life and how to live it metaphor and meaning in the lyrics of R.E.M.
Thorpe, Scott P
Place of Publication:
Denver, CO
University of Colorado Denver
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x, 221 leaves : ; 29 cm


Subjects / Keywords:
Songs -- Texts ( lcsh )
Metaphor -- History ( lcsh )
Metaphor ( fast )
Songs ( fast )
History. ( fast )
Texts. ( fast )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )
History ( fast )
Texts ( fast )


Includes bibliographical references (leaves 215-221).
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree, Master of Arts, Communication and Theatre
Statement of Responsibility:
by Scott P. Thorpe.

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Source Institution:
|University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
|Auraria Library
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All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
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LD1190.L48 1997m .T46 ( lcc )

Full Text
Scott P. Thorpe
B.S., Kermesaw State College, 1989
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements
for the degree of
Master of Arts
Communication and Theatre

This thesis for the Master of Arts
degree by
Scott P. Thorpe
has been approved
Michael W. Monsour
it-to -n

Thorpe, Scott P. (M.A., Communication and Theatre)
Life and How to Live It: Metaphor and Meaning in the Lyrics of R.E.M.
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Benita J. Dilley
The following study is an analysis of the lyrics contained on R.E.M.'s Murmur and Green. This study
traces the rise of R.E.M. from their days touring the backwoods of Georgia to their current status as
one of America's premier rock and roll bands. Included in this study is an examination of the lyrical
dimensions of R.E.M., a chronological review of each album, and a song by song description of the
two albums targeted for this study. Running parallel to this interest is a study that traces the
philosophical evolution of the metaphor in rhetoric from the days of Aristotle to the present. This
discussion concludes with a perspective on metaphor that allows for a rhetorical analysis of R.E.M.'s
lyrics. Application of the methods of metaphorical criticism to the lyrics of R.E.M.'s Murmur and
Green yields greater insight into the function of metaphor in their lyrics, as well as a greater
understanding of the rhetorical power of rock lyrics. Specifically, this study uncovers the generic and
specific metaphors at work on both albums. The generic metaphors tend to be ambiguous, inviting the
listener to participate in the meaning making process. The specific metaphors allow the listener to
create personalized meanings for each metaphor. These various metaphors offer examples of how
metaphor occurs 'accidentally' and how meaning becomes situated within the listener. This
opportunity for interpretation is key to R.E.M.s success because of the inherent ambiguity of
metaphor. The process triggered by the introduction of R.E.M.'s metaphorical lyrics allows for both
identification and differentiation and enables the listener to establish shared perspectives without

sacrificing identity. In short, the inherent nature of metaphor allows R.E.M. to craft lyrics that are at
once universal and highly individualistic. This study concludes that metaphor is the vehicle that will
deliver our society safely into the postmodern and that R.E.M. is one of the more active proponents of
this movement.

This one goes out to the one I love.

"Without getting too Zen about it, I think the words I write are there
and the songs are there, and its just a matter of
waiting for the right ones to come together rightJohn Michael Stipe.
(Thats what I was going to say.)
I would like to acknowledge and thank the following people:
Mona Sweetheart-for giving me the weekends off.
Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe-for providing the soundtrack.
Benita, Mike and Barbfor inspiration, patience and deadlines.
Rob-for the books.
I would also like to acknowledge:
Aluminum--for tasting like fear;
Orangethough it could be darker;
Dogs-I just like dogs;
Rivers of Suggestion-for driving me away;
I-my favorite pronoun, Ive missed you;
Swingset hands-the sound and the smell;
EntropyI like to watch things fall apart;
Nightswimmingbecause it deserves a quiet night;
Wendell GeeWhistle as the wind blows. Goodbye.

MEANING IN THE LYRICS OF R.E.M............................................1
The Purpose Of This Study..................................................2
Plato And Music......................................................3
Rock Music And Popular Culture.......................................4
R.E.M. And Popular Culture...........................................5
Primary Purpose Of This Study........................................7
Secondary Purpose Of This Study......................................9
Justification Of This Study.........................................12
Scope Of The Study........................................................15
Arrangement Of This Thesis................................................17
Chapter Two.........................................................18
Chapter Three.......................................................19
Chapter Four........................................................20
Chapter Five........................................................20
Chapter Six.........................................................21
2. AN INTRODUCTION TO THE MUSIC OF R.E.M........................................26

The History Of Alternative Music
The History Of R.E.M........................................................30
The Lyrical Dimensions Of R.E.M.............................................48
The Selection Of Text.......................................................53
Talk About The Passion--An Introduction To R.E.M.S Murmur.................55
Under The Honor Roll--An Examination Of Accolades And Awards.........56
A Description Of The Album............................................58
Rivers Of SuggestionThe Songs On Murmur.............................62
Talk About The Weather--An Introduction To R.E.M.S Green..................75
Under The Honor Roll-An Examination Of Accolades And Awards...........76
A Description Of The Album............................................77
Rivers Of Suggestion-The Songs On Green...............................85
Philosophical Perspectives On Metaphor.....................................100
Plato And Metaphor...................................................101
Aristotle And Metaphor...............................................104
Metaphor Through The Middle Ages.....................................107
Twentieth Century Perspectives On Metaphor...........................110
The Metaphor In The Postmodern World.................................118
4. THE METHODOLOGY OF METAPHORIC CRITICISM......................................123

The Methods Of Metaphoric Criticism :.......................................125
Developing A General Sense Of The Artifact...........................126
Isolating The Metaphors..............................................127
Sorting The Metaphors................................................129
Analyzing The Metaphors..............................................130
Step One: An Introduction To The Artifact...................................136
Isolation And Identification Of The Metaphors............................. 137
The Search For Metaphors.............................................138
Imaginative Metaphoric Criticism.....................................141
Identifying Generic Metaphors........................................143
Identifying Specific Metaphors.......................................157
Analysis Of The Metaphors...................................................169
Socialization And Rock Music.........................................179
The Postmodern Metaphor..............................................181
Implications For Rhetorical Criticism................................183
AND CONCLUSION.................................................................186
Limitations Of This Study...................................................190

APPENDIX A.....................................................194

Michael Stipe, lead singer of the rock music group R.E.M., offers a fitting introduction to this
study. He questions, How serious can you be about a pop band? (DeCurtis R.E.M.s Brave New
World 103). Stipe answers, And then on the other hand, I see how music completely and totally affects
people and affects their lives (DeCurtis R.E.M.s Brave New World 103). Music historians Dave
Bowler and Brian Dray add, For better or worse, people are affected by popular entertainment and by
the music they listen to, whether they are aware of it or not (7). This duo concludes, In recent years
few have affected people so strongly as Michael Stipe and his colleagues in R.E.M. (Bowler and Dray
7). That is what this study is all about.
The following study is a criticism of the rhetoric of R.E.M., and an analysis of how this Athens,
Georgia rock band has affected society and the music world over the last fifteen years. Primary to this
study is an interest in exploring the lyrics of R.E.M. to uncover how meaning evolves from words that
often do not seem to make sense. Running tangent to this interest in R.E.M. is an interest in metaphor and
how this trope functions for a rhetor to perpetuate a postmodern society. Accordingly, this study will
feature the methods of metaphoric criticism to produce an in depth investigation of the metaphors and
meaning in the lyrics of R.E.M. By applying the methods of metaphoric criticism to the lyrics contained
on R.E.M.s Murmur and Green, this thesis will: demonstrate how this Georgia band uses ambiguity in
generic and specific metaphors to lure their listeners into the meaning making process; illustrate the

effects of R.E.M.s lyrics on the socialization processes of identification and differentiation; and, establish
the claim that the metaphor will be the vehicle that delivers society safely into the postmodern world.
Chapter One, entitled, Life and How to Live It: Metaphor and Meaning in the Lyrics of
R.E.M., will serve as an introduction to this study. This first chapter consists of three sections.
Section one will outline the inspirations that spawned this study. Included in this section is an
explanation of the ideas that structure this study, of discussion of this studys purpose, and a
justification of this study. The second section delineates the scope of this study. Included here is a
discussion of the parameters established to ensure a doable analysis. The final section will offer
glimpses of the five chapters that follow. In short* this chapter sets the stage for the analysis that
follows and forecasts the topics and issues to be covered in this thesis.
The Purpose Of This Study
This initial section identifies the main ideas that structure this study. These ideas come from
Plato, rock historian B. Lee Cooper, and Michael Stipe of R.E.M. Explanations of each idea will be
provided as they pertain to this study. These four ideas function as walls to contain this study. Front and
rear walls are formed from ideas presented by Plato and Cooper. Platos suspicion of music and his
warning of musics danger to society is matched by Coopers acknowledgment that music has an
inescapable influence on popular culture. Cooper accepts that, for better or worse, popular music
deserves attention from scholars. The side walls are built by R.E.M. Stipe asserts that a musicians
creative output is an appropriate object to study where cultural interests are concerned. Stipe adds that an
analysis of RJE.M.s songs is mot profitably accomplished by examining the metaphors at work in
R.E.M.s lyrics. Thus, this thesis is bounded by the ideas that rock music lyrics, whether dangerous or
not, are worthy of scholarly attention because they offer insight into the performers reality and how those
perspectives function metaphorically for their audience. In other words, the purpose of this study is to

respond to these four ideas though an analysis of the metaphors in the lyrics of R.E.M. At this point,
these walls remain unfinished and loosely fastened to one another. The following sections will finish
these walls with an explanation of each idea. In doing so, each idea will be securely fastened to one
However, this adventure begins with a summary of sorts. The thesis statement offered above
signals a final destination. The sections that follow in this chapter mark the starting line and the various
points of interest along the route. Along the way, the seventeen-year history of R.E.M. will be chronicled
and then woven into the two thousand year-old fabric of metaphor. The resultant design will be
scrutinized and analyzed through the lens of metaphorical criticism before an evaluation of R.E.M.s
songs is offered. However, the adventure that lies ahead has to start somewhere. The following section
represents ground zero.
Plato And Music
This thesis is shaped by four main ideas regarding music and society. The first idea comes from
a conversation between Socrates and Adeimantus in Platos Republic. This point provides a solid
platform from which this study shall leap. In this conversation Socrates and Adeimantus are discussing
the role of education as it concerns matters of the state when the conversation turns to music. Plato recalls
Socrates saying, He must beware of changing to a new kind of music, for the change always involves
far-reaching danger. Any alteration in the mode of music is always followed by an alteration in the
most fundamental laws of the state {Republic 134-5). To which Socrates adds, Then, here it would
seem, in music, the guardians must erect their guard-house" {Republic 135). Embedded in this
conversation is a warning against the inherent dangers of music. As a form of rhetoric, Plato undoubtedly
treated both with similar suspicion. Regarding rhetoric, Plato initially rejected rhetoric as a knack
comparable to cookery, and as a form of flattery designed to gratify the mob. Rhetoric, in short, was a

pseudo-art of appearances rather than a vehicle for conveying truth (Golden and Berquist 20). Not
surprisingly, this conversation with Adeimantus reveals of similar distrust of music.
However, a discussion of Platonic ideals far exceeds the scope of this study. Instead, the point to
be made here is that this Platonic suspicion of music is still prevalent in society today. For example, in a
study on the socializing functions of rock music in the lives of todays teenagers, Donna Rouner admits
that though research has been conducted in this area, much of this research is primarily concerned with
the deleterious effects of rock lyrics (97). This general suspicion of music is akin to the fear of the
unknown, and perhaps attributable to the fact that music is a difficult beast to get to know. French
anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss offers an appropriate description of music. He writes:
Since music is a language with some meaning at least for the immense majority of mankind,
although only a tiny minority of people are capable of formulating a meaning in it, and since
it is the only language with the contradictory attributes of being at once intelligible and
untranslatable, the musical creator is a being comparable to the gods, and music itself the
supreme mystery of the science of man, a mystery that all the various disciplines come up
against and which holds the key to their progress. (18)
While Levi-Strauss may be talking specifically about musicthat is, the musical elements, like
melody, harmony, chord structures, whole notes and half notes, in music-this idea could apply to rock
lyrics as well. Indeed, some rock lyrics can be especially difficult to decipher. This is certainly the
case with many of R.E.M.s early lyrics. Accordingly, Platos suspicion of music prompts the desire
to dispel the idea that music is a scary, dangerous thing. Instead, music is best seen as a permanent
part of society that is worthy of rhetorical criticism.
Rock Music And Popular Culture
The second source of inspiration for this study echoes this last statement and is provided by
rock historian B. Lee Cooper. He writes:
As a communication medium, lyrics do not systematically propagandize listeners. Likewise,
they do not function as flawless historical mirrors. Such polarized indictments of songs
ignore the inherent pluralism of contemporary lyrics, a pluralism that is a logical by-product

of the intellectual (and sometimes anti-intellectual) variety of modem U.S. society. Popular
songs replicate in unsystematic, segmented fashions a multiplicity of ideas and values; in
contemporary culture they form an unpredictable, ever changing audio collage. (4)
Coopers statement is laced with postmodern sentiments. He acknowledges that rock lyrics can have
multiple meanings and will affect different segments of society differently. The lyrics of R.E.M. offer
overwhelming evidence for Coopers argument. Using R.E.M.s substantial body of work provides an
opportunity to tap into a veritable gold mine of rhetoric from the rock and roll industry, and uncover
how they function in a postmodern society.
R.E.M. And Popular Culture
This last idea leads to the next two inspirations that were provided directly by Stipe and
R.E.M. Through the years Stipe has grown weary from having to explain his creative pursuits again
and again. However, with fame and fortune come a sea of ears tuned into every utterance that comes
from Stipes mouth. Stipe is aware of this and accepts that his art is reflective of who he is. Stipe
Theres a certain degree to which someone who doesnt actually know you can understand
you. The information you get back about any kind of artists personality from his or her work
may be conflicting within itself, but it does tend to point toward what this person is about.
This is their aesthetic. This is what they appreciate. Looking at someone through their
creative output is a blurred vision, but it really can be a very beautiful one. (Greer 60)
In this statement Stipe acknowledges that an understanding of the rhetor can be gained through an
examination of their rhetoric. This is significant because while there are many books that offer history
lessons on R.E.M., only seldom do these biographers attempt an analysis of R.E.M.s art. When these
evaluations do happen, they lack the rigorous structure that rhetorical criticism offers.
This last point leads into the second idea offered by Stipe. With thirteen albums, and one
hundred and fifty plus songs to their credit, the lyrical legacy of R.E.M. is undoubtedly rich in
rhetoric. But, what those lyrics mean, what that rhetoric is, remains unclear. When asked to explain

the lyrics of his early, ground-breaking songs Stipe cites an essay by Walker Percy entitled Metaphor
by Mistake. He comments:
Anyone who really wants to figure out the words to our songs should probably read that
essay, then go back and listen. It talks about how people misinterpret something thats being
said, and come up with a little phrase or word that actually defines the essence of what the
original was better than the original did. (Gray 2nd ed. 108)
Stipes synopsis of Percys essay is right on target and illustrates how R.E.M. uses mistakes as
metaphors. The results of this approach are lyrics that tend to be enigmatic and ambiguous. This
characteristic is fundamental to the art of R.E.M. Marcus Gray, author of the R.E.M. biography, It
Crawled From the South, reveals the salience of this point. He writes, In the spirit of Percys essay,
Michael maintains that his early lyrics are a blank chalkboard for people to pick up and scribble over.
They can make up any meaning they want to (108). This partnership with their audience is critical
to the band's philosophy. By incorporating the listener in to the meaning making process, R.E.M.
offers support to Jack Santinos claim that music is as much a creation of its audience as it is of the
artists or the businessman (499).
These four inspirations combined represent the pillars of this study. The contributions of
Plato, Levi-Strauss and Cooper position music as a pervasive and persuasive part of society that is
worthy of the critics attention. The question that remains is how. R.E.M.s tendency towards
ambiguity and obscurity, not to mention poor diction, creates an interesting problem for the critic. Just
exactly how one is supposed to make sense of something that seemingly does not make sense remains
unclear. Stipes contributions suggest that a lyrical analysis will at least offer a blurred vision of
R.E.M., and that a closer analysis of their metaphors, although he claims they are mistakes, will allow
for further interpretation. In short, this study is based on the idea that R.E.M.s lyrics are worthy of
examination, and that metaphoric criticism is the most appropriate tool.

Primary Purpose Of This Study
The purpose of this study will follow the ideas established in the discussion above.
Specifically, these ideas are: Platos warnings about music; Coopers acknowledgment that music is a
product of society and a source of cultural influence; Stipes acceptance that lyrical analysis is an
appropriate investigative tool; and, Stipes revelation that R.E.M.s lyrics are metaphorical. The
combination of these four ideas provides a platform from which this study shall proceed. In simplest
tenns, the primary purpose of this study is to add to the bodies of knowledge on metaphor, rhetoric
and rhetorical criticism. This study presents an opportunity to test the limits of metaphorical criticism
while postulating a new perspective on metaphor as a rhetorical device. The secondary purpose is to
examine an existent body of rock and roll rhetoric through the lens of a structured methodology. This,
too, is an opportunity to develop a greater understanding of how music lyrics function as rhetoric in
society. Closer examination of these stated purposes follows below.
The body of knowledge on rhetorical criticism is well over two thousand years old. The
following section will detail the evolution of this practice in the twentieth century. This is not meant
to be an exhaustive treatment of this subject; but rather a foundation from which this study will
Though the story actually begins with Aristotle, this chronology will begin in 1948 when
Thonssen and Baird published Speech Criticism with the intent of arming the public with a weapon to
combat potentially toxic rhetoric. Borrowing the ideas Herbert Wichelns, Thonssen and Baird outlined
the eight-step method known as neoclassical, or neo-Aristotelian, criticism. This begins the
methodological approach to rhetorical criticism. In 1965, Edwin Black attacks neoclassical criticism
in his book, Rhetorical Criticism: A Study in Method. Black concludes, It will suffice for the present
to observe that a system of rhetorical criticism that can give no satisfactory accounting of an excellent
workas neo-Aristotelian can give no accounting of the Coatesville Address-is seriously

compromised as a critical system (90).1 Recognizing the inadequacy of Thonssen and Bairds
preferred critical method, neoclassical criticism, Black adds, We simply do not know enough yet
about rhetorical discourse to place our faith in systems, and it is only through imaginative criticism
that we are likely to learn more (177). Blacks allegations changed the course of rhetorical criticism.
Benita Dilley adds, the blow struck by Black in 1965 was not fatal, but neoclassical criticism was
seriously damaged and stayed alive only by passing as a new and innovative approach" (57) In other
words, Blacks attack prompted the development and practice of new or refined critical methods,
though, as Dilley notes, these methods often had ties to neoclassical criticism (58-9, 102).
Accordingly, other rhetorical critical methods began receiving more attention. In 1991, Malcolm
Sillars summarized eight different critical rhetorical approaches in Messages, Meanings and Culture.
As the title implies, Sillars says that rhetorical criticism involves the interpretation and evaluation of
messages to determine meaning within a specific culture. Sillars suggests that the critics choice of
approach will depend on the critics stated objective. For example, determining accuracy requires a
different approach than determining effect or social influence. Thus, the critic is once again married to
a specific methodology based on a stated objective. Today, contemporary rhetoric and popular
culture, through certain technological innovations, are more complex than they were in 1965.
Wichelns argument that oratory can not be effectively assessed through literary analysis prompted
Thonssen and Bairds new critical method. Blacks attack on neoclassical criticism 1965 prompted
further pleas for more imaginative criticism. This request was deemed reasonable and sufficient and
was answered with the development and utilization of different critical methods. Rhetoric has become
1 Black uses John Jay Chapmans Coatesville Address as proof of the inadequacies of neoclassical
criticism. Black argues that this critical method yields a negative evaluation of Chapmans speech
because it did not fetch results (82). However, Black ventures outside the parameters of neoclassical
criticism to offer a positive evaluation of this speech while condemning the rigidity of Thonssen and
Bairds preferred critical method.

even more multifaceted ais new channels of discourse appear. The methodology of neoclassical
criticism is well-suited for evaluating public speeches; however, information in the information age
comes from many diverse sources. Given that audiences are bombarded by rhetoric from all angles,
including pop songs, music videos, television advertisements, bumper stickers, and even the fashion
choices of out favorite rock stars, the decision to revisit Blacks notion of imaginative criticism seems
appropriate. As such, the primary purpose of this study is exactly that. Paying homage to Wichelns,
Thonssen and Baird, and Black, this thesis is an attempt to practice imaginative criticism by applying
the conventional methodology of metaphoric criticism to an unconventional text, R.E.M.s Murmur
and Green. The purpose is not to discount current methodologies, but to acknowledge that as modes
of discourse diverge, so must methods of rhetorical criticism.
In short, this cursory treatment of the evolution of modem rhetorical criticism serves as both
an introduction and a warning. The primary purpose of this study consists of two parts. The first half
of this purpose is to apply the methods of metaphorical criticism to the lyrics of R.E.M., a text that
embodies the spirit of postmodern thought. The second half of this purpose is to illustrate how
frustrating and unsatisfying this process can be.
Secondary Purpose Of This Study
Rhetorical criticism can not happen without a text. The critic must have something to study,
and that object is usually chosen with regard to the critics various interests. Such is the case here.
The secondary purpose of this study is to create a bridge between rhetorical criticism and music. An
interest in R.E.M. precedes this study; however, this interest is super-ceded by a curiosity of how rock
music lyrics serve as a cultural influence. In short, the secondary purpose of this study is to examine
the lyrics of R.E.M. to determine how rock music influences society. The following section will

elaborate on this secondary purpose by highlighting the need for rhetorical criticism in the world of
rock and roll.
Over the years, rock and roll lyrics have amassed into a stockpile of untapped rhetoric. That
so little attention has been given to music lyrics is hardly surprising, given the wealth of rhetoric
available in other arenas. However, as the music industry proliferates, the need for rhetorical criticism
becomes apparent. While lyrical analysis has happened in various social arenas, most of these
criticisms lack the structural rigor that rhetorical criticism can offer. Part of the problem, as described
by Susan McClary and Robert Walser, is, It is still easy to forget that music is an especially resistant
medium to write or speak about. While it does share with speech both sound and a mode of producing
meaning that unfolds through time, most other aspects of music differ considerably from the patterns
of verbal language (278).
Another difficulty encountered when writing about music is that the language of music is
figurative rather than literal. For example, a guitar solo has no literal meaning; yet, figuratively this
technique symbolizes isolation. This translates to lyrics as well, as the words are just another part of
the song. Often the lyrics do not directly address a given topic; rather, the words are chosen as an
extension of the figurative message presented by the music. In other words, rock lyrics also tend to be
figurative rather than literal. In other words, the lyrics may say one thing, but mean another. For
example, while an audience may recognize when a political figure is speaking about the rain forest,
they may have difficulty recognizing when their favorite rock artist is commenting on the very same
subject. For example, R.E.M.s Welcome to the Occupation from Document is supposedly about the
United States intervention in Central America in the early 1980s. However, there is not a single direct
reference to Central America, and the only reference to the United States Government is the line,

Listen to the Congress.2 Instead, R.E.M. uses figurative language, such as Where we propagate
confusion / Primitive and wild / Fire on the hemisphere below, to create an image of this occupation
(Document). Certainly, a presidential inauguration or campaign speech may feature figurative
language, but the underlying theme of the message is usually presented in a manner that allows the
audience to readily grasp the ideas presented. In a public speech, the denotative meaning, even if
presented figuratively, must be apparent or the audience may not understood. In music, literal
expression is an exception, and randomness tends to rule. Connotative meanings are presented and the
audience is expected to decipher the messages. There is no better example of this than R.E.M.
However, this difficulty cannot be construed as an insurmountable barrier.
In an earlier section of this chapter a conversation between Socrates and Adeimantus about
the dangers of music as it pertains to matters of the state is recalled. Continuing that discussion here,
Adeimantus also acknowledges the difficulty of recognizing the dangers inherent in music. He adds,
The first beginnings of lawlessness are very hard to detect (Plato Republic 135). Seemingly
understanding the predicament of deciphering the language of music, Socrates responds, Yes, it is
looked on as an amusement which can do no harm (Plato Republic 135).
Rock music lyrics may be harmless. However, to shy away from a study of RJE.M.s lyrics
because an analysis would be problematic is also problematic. Stipe offers an appropriate perspective
on this subject. He comments:
On the one hand, its entertainment and rock n roll music, and something that you can look
at as furniture or as wallpaper, or clean the dishes to. Or, if you want to dig deeper, its
something you can think about, something that might provoke you towards investigating
particular things. (Gray 2nd ed.)
This comment captures the spirit of this thesis while offering a good summary of this second purpose.
The intent here is to dig deeper into the lyrics of R.E.M. with the hope of creating greater
2 See Appendix A for complete lyrics to this song.

understanding of how music lyrics work in society. In turn, as the body of knowledge on rock music
lyrics grows, future discussions should become that much easier.
Justification Of This Study
Given the discussion of the purposes of this study, justifying an analysis of R.E.M.s lyrics
might seem unnecessary. However, the following justification is offered to cement the legitimacy of
the argument of this paper. Returning again to the conversation between Socrates and Adeimantus, the
following conclusion is offered by Adeimantus. In discussing the lawlessness of music, Adeimantus
All it [music] does is gradually to establish and quietly to insinuate itself into manners and
customs. From these it issues in greater force and penetrates mens mutual dealings; from
mutual dealings it advances, with the utmost insolence, Socrates, to laws and constitutions, till
in the end it overturns all things public and private. (Plato Republic 135)
This almost sounds like the story of R.E.M. Like the cover of R.E.M.s Murmur, where the kudzu is
running amok, devouring the structures below, R.E.M. has overturned the institutions of rock and
roll since the bands initial appearance in 1980.3 No other band has contributed more to todays sound
and style of rock and roll than R.E.M. (Sullivan xxi). In fact, R.E.M.s longevity and importance in
the world of rock and roll over the last fifteen years is hard to match (Christgau 21). The proliferation
of alternative music that dominates the airwaves of American radio is due in large part to R.E.M.s
ascent to the top of the rock and roll ladder (Sullivan xxiii). Even Stipe acknowledges the bands
influence on society. In reviewing his stand on music and politics in 1989, he admitted, My opinion
about how mass media and entertainment can change peoples minds has really changed over the last
3 Kudzu is a fast-growing Asian vine that was introduced in Georgia as a way of managing soil
erosion. Unfortunately, this vine grows uncontrollably. While kudzu, with its full, green leaves is
very pretty during the summer, the brown, dormant leaves of winter suggest death and decay. Kudzu
is an appropriate metaphor for R.E.M. because of its uncontrollable growth and ability to devour the
landscape (as in, the landscape of rock music).

ten years I think public opinion can really change depending on things that are essentially
entertainment (Gray 2nd ed. 401).
This justification is not limited to the insights of R.E.M. Rouner posits that rock lyrics are an
important part of the socialization process of teenagers. In discussing how teens use lyrics in their
lives, she writes:
The measures of reliance showed sixteen percent of the sample ranked rock music lyrics as
the first, second, or third most important source for information about moral values and
beliefs. Twenty-four percent ranked rock music lyrics in the same manner relative to its use
as a source for information about interpersonal interaction. (Rouner 102)
Though these percentages are not that high, the idea that moral development happens while listening to
the radio is interesting. As noted earlier, Cooper claims, lyrics do not systematically propagandize
listeners, and, popular songs replicate in unsystematic, segmented fashions a multiplicity of ideas
and values (4). Rouners findings support these claims and further justify this study. As a prominent
source of information regarding personal development, rock lyrics demand attention. Understanding
these messages appears to be a worthwhile adventure. For example, when R.E.M.s single The One I
Love vaulted to the top of the pop music charts in 1987 it signaled one of two things: Either people
do not listen to the lyrics; or, people have a wickedly cynical view of love and romantic relationships.4
This song opens innocently enough with the lyric, this one goes out to the one I love. However,
later in the song, the one I love is identified as a simple prop to occupy my time, then later
discarded as another prop has occupied my time {Document). Sociologist Simon Frith has argued,
and his point is well taken, most rock records make their impact musically rather than lyrically-the
words, if they are noticed at all, are absorbed after the music has made its mark (qtd. in Shepherd
205). However, Rouners claim also deserves attention at this point as well. Further, any mass
4 See R.E.M.s Document for complete lyrics to this song. Stipe has commented on this songs
confusion, noting, Its better that they just think its a love song at this point (Hogan 49).

accepted iove song that metaphorically describes a romantic partner as a simple prop to occupy my
time, should at least cause one to wonder.
Whether or not people consciously attend to the lyrics of a particular pop song is a debate that
extends beyond the scope of this study. Frith is correct to assert that the sociology of pop is
important; however, lyrical analysis remains a salient methodology for examining how reality is
socially constructed in a mediated society. Longhurst finally gets Friths cooperation. In reviewing
Friths work, Longhurst comments that audiences often feel words and music, and develop them in
their imaginations (173). Frith writes, Pop love songs do not reflect emotions, then, but give
people the romantic terms in which to articulate and to experience their emotions (123). Longhurst
offers the following conclusion:
It could be said.. .those of us who listen to a lot of pop music have had our experiences
couched in ways that derive from pop songs, and that our experiences are formed and
interpreted in ways that are structured by the song. Thus, for example, I may be unable to
divorce the experience of driving through America from my prior knowledge of all those
songs which concern the American road. This would suggest an intimate relation between
music and social experience, such that music structures our social life. (173)
This contribution, as well as Friths, echoes the sentiments expressed by Rouner: music is a part of our
socialization process. Rouner adds weight to her comment with the revelation, Listening to radio is
much more likely to occur for adolescents and young adults than watching television (98). Thus,
lyrical analysis seems at least as, if not more, important to study rock music than television. This need
is magnified considering the nature of top forty radio, where exposure to the lyrics of a hit pop song,
like R.E.M.s The One I Love, tends to occur again and again and again. Finally, considering that
R.E.M. has sold more than thirty million albums worldwide over the last fifteen years suggests that
R.E.M.s messages are being heard loud and clear.5 Further, R.E.M. has released over twenty-five
5 There is great difficulty involved with establishing just exactly how many albums R.E.M. has sold
over their fifteen year career because sales figures on their first eight albums are unavailable. Warner
Brothers reports that R.E.M.s last five albums have sold over ten million copies in the United States

singles, thirty music videos, six video compilations, and played more live concerts than one can
count.6 The combination of all these points, at the very least, justifies, if not demands, a lyrical
analysis of RJE.M.s songs. To dismiss their lyrics because, as Frith would argue, they are secondary
to the music, would be to ignore a potential source of meaning.
Scope Of The Study
If every issue presented thus far were tackled with the tenacity that is deserved, this paper
would become, as R.E.M. say, three miles of bad road.7 As such, this study must be bounded by
certain limitations. The following section will establish these boundaries and outline the scope of this
Though there are hundreds or thousands of rock albums that are worthy of analysis, this study
will focus on two: Murmur and Green. This decision was actually made by R.E.M. on November 13,
1989, at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. This decision will be explained in greater detail in chapter two.
Suffice to say these two albums share many elements that facilitate comparison and enough
differences to establish contrast.
Also, this criticism is limited to the lyrics contained on Murmur and Green. Though the
importance of the musical elements is noted, the scope of this paper does not allow for an examination
of chord structures, guitar solos, or drum fills. While studying guitar solos may be an interesting and
alone. Tony Fletcher reports that worldwide sales of Out of Time and Automatic for the People
exceeds twenty-four million, while R.E.M.s first three albums are approaching sales of one million
each, and their and fifth albums are approaching the two million mark.
6 Those interested in a complete R.E.M. discography should check Jim Greers Behind the Mask.
Greer includes all commercially available albums, singles and videos, and documents every known
live performance between 1980 and 1991.
7 From Crush With Eyeliner on R.E.M.s Monster.

worthwhile study, and an A minor chord may have certain metaphorical properties, the language of
music is far too complex to be grappled with here.
The final issue regards the actual lyrics of R.E.M. The lyrics contained in Appendix A were
downloaded from an R.E.M. web site on the World Wide Web.8 As there are no definitive lyrics
available from the band, these interpretations by R.E.M.s fans are the most accurate lyrics available.
With this comes a warning, R.E.M.s lyrics are open to debate, and not everyone will hear every word
the same. In this respect, the lyrics of R.E.M. are an example of critical rhetoric. To clarify this point,
Michael C. McGee offers this explanation:
Critical rhetoric does not begin with a finished text in need of interpretation; rather, texts are
understood to be larger than the apparently finished discourse that presents itself as transparent.
The apparently finished discourse is... fashioned from what we call fragments [and as such,
the discourse] is only a featured part of an arrangement that includes all facts, events, texts, and
stylized expressions deemed useful in explaining its influence and exposing its meaning (McGee
R.E.M.s work is best viewed in the light of critical rhetoric. Their songs are hardly finished products
when recorded on a compact disc. Rather, R.E.M.s songs are, as McGee suggests, fragments. The
listener takes these bits and pieces, mixes them with any pre-existent knowledge of the subject matter,
then incorporates them into his or her life before the song is assigned meaning. As such, meaning is
best seen as a product of these different influences at work. The notion of a critical rhetoric is
fundamental to understanding the lyrical influence of R.E.M. Accordingly, each reader is invited to
create their own meaning as the lyrics of R.E.M. unfold. The auxiliary data to which McGee refers
will be provided in chapter two when the actual text is introduced and described.
The last parameter to be imposed concerns the critical method of metaphoric analysis.
Acknowledgment is extended to the other critical methods; however, this study will be limited to an
evaluation of the metaphors in R.E.M.s lyrics. At the same time certain elements of narrative
8 A complete file containing lyrics to all of R.E.M.s songs can be found at

criticism and neoclassical criticism may be employed to achieve the stated goals.9 Finally, the
definition of metaphor established in chapter three is shallow in comparison to the immense body of
work on metaphor generated by various disciplines such as philosophy and psychology.10 The
perspective forwarded in this study is sufficient where rhetorical interests are concerned.
Arrangement Of This Thesis
The remainder of this study will be organized as follows. Chapter two, appropriately titled,
An Introduction to the Music of R.E.M., provides historical and biographical data on R.E.M. and
their music. Included in this section is a song by song analysis of both Murmur and Green. Chapter
three, entitled Philosophical and Rhetorical Perspectives On Metaphor, traces the evolution of the
metaphor in rhetoric and develops a postmodern perspective that will be used in the analysis of
R.E.M.s songs. Metaphoric analysis is explained in chapter four: The Methodology of Metaphoric
Criticism. An outline of the methodology is provided here, as well as a quick overview of the process
and purpose of rhetorical criticism. Chapter five, entitled, Analysis Of The Metaphors In R.E.M.s
Murmur and Green, finally begins taking apart the lyrics of R.E.M. so that an understanding of their
metaphors can be constructed. This chapter follows the methodology explained in chapter four and
offers an assessment of both the metaphors R.E.M. chooses to use and the effectiveness of the critical
methodology employed. Chapter six, entitled, The Rivers of Suggestion: A Summary and
Conclusion, closes the study with a recap of the salient points in chapters one through five, a
9 See Sillars Messages, Meanings and Culture for descriptions of each of these critical methods.
Briefly, elements of narrative criticism will be used to interpret R.E.M.s songs, while elements of the
neoclassical approach will be used to assess effect and the persuasive elements of the songs in this
10 Ortonys Metaphor and Thought and Johnsons Contemporary Perspectives on Metaphor are good
introductory works for those who wish to carry this line of discussion further.

discussion of the limitations of this study, and suggestions for further studies in the areas of rock
music, metaphor and R.E.M. The remainder of this section will highlight the major points of emphasis
in the next five chapters.
Chapter Two
Chapter two is by far the most extensive chapter in this study. This is an acknowledgment of
the complexity of R.E.M. and an attempt to provide solid footing for the analysis that follows. This
section begins with a brief history lesson on R.E.M. that follows them through the backwoods of the
South to the expansive realms of rock and roll super stardom. This section describes the climate of
rock and roll in the early eighties that allowed R.E.M. to prosper, and elaborates on their significance
in the rise of a new form of music called alternative rock. The history lesson continues with an
overview of each of R.E.M.s thirteen albums. Significant events in the band's career are recognized
along the way. This odyssey then takes a sharp turn to the left to describe the lyrical dimensions of
R.E.M. Included in this section is a discussion of the bands philosophy towards their lyrics, as well as
a conversation on how the band actually comes up with the words in their songs. Finally, chapter two
concludes with lengthy introductions and descriptions of Green and Murmur. While it would be
impossible to pinpoint exactly what each of the twenty-three songs in this study means, the description
of each song is a careful collection of snippets and sayings that give insight to the inspirations for each
song. From that, guesses at what each song is about are offered. This section is not meant to a
definitive course in R.E.M., but the level of detail presented is sufficient to support the analysis that
happens in chapter five.

Chapter Three
Chapter three is also a history lesson of sorts. This chapter traces the ever-changing
philosophical perspectives on metaphor from the time of Plato to the present. Indeed, this has been a
long strange trip. Following Platos general suspicion of all figurative language, the metaphor is
relegated to an occurrence in language by the likes of Aristotle, Cicero and Quintillian. This treatment
and skepticism continue through the middle ages as philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, Georg Hegel,
and John Locke warn against the misuse of this trope. However, the work of Friedrich Nietzsche in
the late nineteenth century unlocked the shackles that had kept metaphor under raps for many
centuries. Others began to warm to idea that metaphors may be in some way related to thought.
However, in the 1920s some began acknowledging that this trope was actually an occurrence in
thought. I. A. Richards is traditionally credited with articulating the notion that metaphor is more than
a linguistic device. In a lecture appropriately entitled Metaphor, Richards claims that metaphor
involves the intercourse of thoughts and a transaction between contexts (94). The perspectives
that followed his all concurred with Richards beliefs, but the vocabulary was often changed to create a
perspective that seemed somewhat altered. Among this group, the most notable scholars include Max
Black, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Black helped aid in the understanding of metaphor by
diagramming the different parts: the frame and the focus. Lakoff and Johnson carry Richards idea
one step further by postulating that all metaphor is inescapable and central to our understanding of
everyday experiences. Lakoff and Johnsons contribution is by far the most comprehensive treatment
of metaphor in rhetoric. Their contribution to this field is enormous. In Metaphors We Live By,
Lakoff and Johnson develop an experiential perspective on metaphor that includes a discussion of how
metaphors are based on past experience and help color future experiences. Finally, the journey chapter
concludes with a contribution from Roger White. He maintains that ambiguity, a fundamental
characteristic of all metaphors, has been ignored in the study of metaphor. This perspective, coupled

with Lakoff and Johnsons experiential perspective, creates a definition of metaphor that will be used
in chapters four and five.
Chapter Four
After establishing a particular perspective on metaphor in chapter three, chapter four will
unveil the methodology to be carried out in chapter five. The importance of this chapter should not be
overlooked, even though this chapter is the shortest and may on the surface appear to be somewhat
insignificant. A solid understanding of the methodology of metaphoric criticism is essential for
completing the analysis The methodology of metaphoric criticism unfolds as such: Step one requires
the identification and isolation of the metaphors within the text; step two is completed after the
metaphors are sorted by either tenor or vehicle; and, the final step is to offer an assessment on how this
trope functions for the rhetor. This step by step approach allows the researcher to answer the research
questions that have been asked. Though this process appears to be rather simple, difficulties do arise.
Metaphors are not generally labeled as such within the body of the text. Instead, the researcher must
carefully harvest them from the artifact. This particular difficulty will be encountered in chapter five.
Chapter Five
As mentioned before, chapter five represents the heart of this study. While the second, third
and fourth chapters required hours of library research, chapter five required hours and hours of
pouring over the lyrics of R.E.M. Though this task seemed like a simple proposition in chapter four,
the methodology of metaphoric criticism grew several ugly heads and reared them all at once as this
tool was applied to the lyrics in question. However, the toil and trouble of making this methodology
work netted significant results. First of all, a hierarchy of metaphor was established regarding the
lyrics on Murmur and Green. The generic metaphors employed one of three perspectives, the surreal,

the child and the camera, to invite the listener into the meaning making process. These generic
metaphors tend to be largely ambiguous, but generally appealing because of their universality. The
specific metaphors utilized by R.E.M. allow the listener the opportunity to tailor the generic metaphor
to fit their own particular experiences. By incorporating the two types of metaphors, R.E.M. gave
their listeners first the opportunity to identify with their songs, and second the opportunity to establish
differentiation. In doing this, shared perspectives are gained without sacrificing individual identities.
This pluralistic approach supports the claim that the metaphor can be an effective postmodern
rhetorical device.
Chapter Six
This concluding chapter summarizes the main ideas presented in the other five chapters. The
salient points from each chapter will be revisited and connected to one another. From this the
following conclusions will be drawn.
This final chapter also serves as a discussion point for the limitations of this study. Included
in this section of chapter six is a conversation about the difficulties of applying metaphoric criticism to
the metaphors contained in the lyrics of R.E.M. Further, this section of chapter six will direct the
eager critic to other areas worthy of study, including avenues in rock music, metaphor and R.E.M.
The many ideas presented in this chapter thus far deserve a summary before any conclusions
are drawn. In simplest terms, this study has evolved from a variety of interests. First and foremost is
an interest in the music and lyrics of the Georgia rock group R.E.M. Shadowing this interest in
R.E.M. is a curiosity with how rock music lyrics influence society and culture. This thesis takes the
position that rock music is an inescapable part of life that merits scholarly attention. A healthy

suspicion of music, as forwarded by Plato, is justified, provided this attitude prompts further
investigation and not dismissal or retreat. Running parallel to this interest in R.E.M. and music is an
interest in metaphor as a rhetorical device. Specifically, this study is concerned with how metaphors
in R.E.M.s lyrics work to create realities for their listeners. The methods of metaphoric criticism
contain the tools necessary to answer this question. To summarize, this study follows the advice of
R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe who directs would be lyric sleuths to Walker Percys essay Metaphor as
Mistake, thus acknowledging that although Stipe considers his lyrics to be mistakes they also have
metaphoric properties. In short, this thesis recognizes the collision of metaphor and meaning in the
lyrics of R.E.M.
The many ideas presented in chapter one also deserve a conclusion. Rock music, despite its
prevalence in society, has been largely ignored in rhetorical criticism, despite its [rock and roll music]
obvious economic and cultural importance (Grossberg Is There Rock After Punk 478). Tony
Mitchell adds, pop music, which is surely the most widely consumed contemporary from of popular
performance entertainment, is rarely seen as worthy of analysis (274). The effects of rock music on
society are far-reaching. Much of the literature on rock music suggests that adolescents use music as a
tool for establishing identity. Rouner suggests, It [music] could provide them [adolescents] with a
sense of belonging during a crucial period in the life cycle that entails the leaving of childhood and the
entering of adult roles (99-100). Cooper argues, rock lyrics are ear candy to most youngsters,
offering both audio gratification and the challenge of being different (5). Holly Kruse carries idea
one step farther, arguing that some define themselves in relation to the music they enjoy (34).
Lawrence Grossberg adds, rock works by offering the fan places where he or she can locate some
sense of their own identity and power, where they can invest and empower themselves in specific

ways (201). Theodor Adorno concludes, Music today is largely a social cement. And the meaning
listeners attribute to a material, the inherent logic of which is inaccessible to them, is above all a means
by which they achieve some psychical adjustment to the mechanisms of present-day life (311-2).
Further complicating this matter is the fact that escaping the influence of the rock and roll
music is impossible at best. Grossberg suggests, rock is the soundtrack of the lives of postwar youth
(187). Rouner adds, adolescents listen to rock about three and one-half hours per day on the average,
across varied media-radio, tape recorders, record players, and listen and view rock videos on
broadcast and cable television (98). This equates to fifty-three days of music listening over the
course of a year. Contemporary popular music is everywhere. Elvis is not dead. He his heard on the
radio, on television, in movies, at the grocery store, in elevators, and while having cavities filled at the
dentists office. Jack Santino concludes:
Rock music is one of the distinctive features of postwar life, along with television, the Cold
War, space travel, and the atomic bomb. For instance, I can expect that everyone in my
classroom will be familiar with most of the songs of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, or Buddy
Holly. They hear them on the radio and on television, they are used in commercials, they are
covered by later artists-in short, it is difficult to be alive in America and not know these
songs. (497-8)
Indeed, to be alive in America and not feel the influence of rock and roll music seems impossible. At
the same time, as noted above, the cultural influence of rock music has been ignored even though the
significance of popular music in society has been duly noted.
Perhaps the reason that studies on music have been suspiciously absent from the scholarly
journals is, as Susan McClary and Robert McClary suggest, a fear of music (287). In an essay titled,
Start Making Sense, McClary and Walser confront the tendency to seek out political and intellectual
agendas in music while skirting issues of sensuality and physical pleasure (287-8). To this, they
To address these issues requires different strategies of speaking and writing than the more
usual objective modes: a greater willingness to try to circumscribe an effect metaphorically,

to bring ones own experience as a human being to bear in unpacking musical gestures, to try
to parallel in words something of how the music feels. (288-9)
In this essay, McClary and Walser are talking specifically about music; however, a similar claim can
be made regarding music lyrics. Essentially, this plea for less objective examinations of rock music is
akin to the notion of critical rhetoric. Raymie McKerrow defines critical rhetoric as, a perspective
on rhetoric that explores, in theoretical and practical terms, the implications of a theory that is divorced
from the constraints of a Platonic conception (125). One could argue that this fear of music is a
byproduct of Platonic thought where emotions and feelings are dismissed as secondary to truth.
Therefore, transcending these Platonic ideals is a necessary first step in the evaluation of R.E.M.s
lyrics as rhetoric.
In all respects, the lyrics of R.E.M., as are most rock music lyrics, are examples of critical
rhetoric. McKerrow offers a good summary of the points presented thus far in his argument for the
exploration of critical rhetoric. He writes:
There also is the danger that such extension of traditional forms of analysis would simply
perpetuate modernist cliches in constructing, through the myopic lenses of a predefined vision of
the media as a cultural wasteland, elitist standards of excellence. Facts of Life may never
aspire to inclusion in the canons of oratorical excellence, but it may have more influence on a .
teenagers conception of social reality than all the great speeches by long-dead great speakers.
To ignore symbols which address publics in all their manifest forms has, as its ultimate
consequence, the perpetuation of sterile forms of criticism. (134-35)
This study proposes to do exactly what McKerrow calls for in this argument. By applying the
traditional methodology of metaphoric criticism to the non-traditional text of R.E.M., this study will
stop the perpetuation of sterile forms of criticism. Instead, this criticism is teeming with bacteria
aimed at creating fresh perspectives on both metaphor and music. To reiterate, the methods of
metaphorical criticism applied to the lyrics of R.E.M. generates a greater understanding of how
metaphor functions as a postmodern rhetorical device for this Athens, Georgia band and their horde of
faithful followers.

In conclusion, the term postmodern will be bandied about throughout this paper. This is not
accidental. This term is frequently used to describe R.E.M. and their music. Bowler and Dray write:
One of the more confusing terms that has been employed in recent years, stolen from other
artistic spheres, is postmodernism, a phrase that allegedly covers modem attitudes utilized
within a traditional framework. It is this term that has been most regularly applied to R.E.M.,
and which most clearly indicates the futility of categorizing music: over the last decade and a
half, R.E.M. have surfed most musical forms, ranging from the futuristic strains of King of
Comedy on Monster to the arcane narratives that characterize Fables of the Reconstruction.
(Bowler and Dray 1)
Rodger Lyle Brown affirms the bands postmodern perspective, R.E.M.s songs gave listeners plenty of
room to insert themselves as reader. Stipe was saying something, they knew, but what? It sounded like
words, but what words? And people inserted their own; they heard what they wanted to hear: Take your
fortune became take up boxing... (205). This term postmodern is used to describe a society where
Culture is no longer a unitary, fixed category, but a decentered, fragmentary assemblage of
conflicting voices and institutions (Collins 2). This term defies definition in much the same way
R.E.M. does. However, Walter Truett Anderson accidentally offers a description of both. He writes,
This time is, for all its jangle, complexity and dissonance, a moment of great beauty and opportunity
(11). Indeed, this moment of great opportunity has arrived.

R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck describes R.E.M. as part lies, part heart, part truth and part
garbage (Hogan vii). Singer Michael Stipe adds, The secret of R.E.M. is that Mike doesnt play bass
like a bass player, Peter doesnt play guitar like a guitar player, and I dont sing like a singer. And Bill
just sort of holds it all together (Hogan vii). Somehow this formula has worked. In 1983, R.E.M. was
named Best New Artist and their debut album Murmur outpaced albums by Michael Jackson, the Police
and U2 to earn Rolling Stone's Album of the Year award (DeCurtis Introduction 8). In 1987,
Rolling Stone dubbed R.E.M. Americas best rock and roll band (DeCurtis Introduction 17). In
1996, R.E.M. signed a record eighty million dollar contract with Warner Brothers. Arguably, no other
band has contributed more to todays sound and style of rock and roll than R.E.M. With combined
album sales totaling nearly thirty million worldwide, R.E.M.s impact on the rock and roll world is
hard to match. Gary Kazcorowski confirms this point:
Of all the bands to emerge from the alternative scene none has been more successful than
R.E.M. Once the darlings of college radio, R.E.M. has become one of the largest and most
respected bands around. From their beginnings on I.R.S., as a quirky, often dismissed band
from Athens, Georgia, they scraped their way out of the minors to score with a number one
hit. (19)
Indeed, their success is indisputable. However, their story remains negotiable. Countless accounts of
R.E.M. and their origins have catapulted this enigmatic Georgia band to mythic proportions. Denise
Sullivan notes:
In many ways, the R.E.M. story is simple: four boys from a small town form a band, show early
talent, get some lucky breaks, work hard and eventually succeed, by achieving international

fame and glory. But the story of R.E.M. is exceptional for a number of reasons. Not only does
the band have an instantly identifiable sound, recognized the world over, but it has achieved and
sustained success on its own terms by following non-traditional methods. And unlike so many
of its peers, the band has not fallen prey to musical cliches or differences, drug addiction or mis-
management-elements that conspire to create disharmony within the ranks of many working
bands, (xvii)
This summary, while essentially correct, lacks the depth necessary to support this study adequately.
Sullivans parsimonious explanation mirrors the intention of this chapter. Yet, the simplicity of this
account leaves many essential elements uncovered. The remainder of this chapter will examine the
history ofalternative music, reconstruct the fables of RJE.M.s development, sketch a biographical
and historical image of the band, and explain and explicate the twenty three songs targeted in this
The History Of Alternative Music
Exactly where the story of R.E.M. begins is difficult to ascertain. However, their importance
in the evolution of rock music over the last fifteen years mandates that their story be situated within
the larger history of rock and roll. David Fricke writes, R.E.M., possibly the most commercially
successful and critically applauded new American rock band of the last decade, was bom as the rock
and roll clock struck 1980 (111). In April of that year the foursome of Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike
Mills and Michael Stipe played their first concert under the moniker the Twisted Kites. This drunken
bash, in an abandoned Episcopalian church in the heart of Athens, Georgia, might never have
happened without the musical revolution of 1976. As such, any understanding of R.E.M. and their rise
to fame and fortune requires a brief historical summary of the climate of rock and roll that incubated a
new style of music appropriately known as alternative.
The story begins in 1976. In that year, rock and roll music was dying. What had been a
metaphor for youth and rebellion in the 1950s, 1960s, and the early 1970s, had become stagnant and
stale. Kazcorowski remarks, labels and radio were pumping out so much mindless music that even

parents liked it. Rock and roll had become rebellious in reverse (15). However, things would
change. In that same year, two bands, the Sex Pistols in England and The Ramones in New York,
kick-started the music industry with a brash brand of music known as punk rock. Rock historian
David Szatmary explains, In 1977, a new generation had arisen to lay claim to a rebellious rock-and-
roll heritage (251-2). He also recalls, The London Times declared that punk rock is the generic
term for the latest musical garbage bred by our troubled culture. It features screaming, venomous,
threatening rock sounds (251). This reaction resembles similar responses to Elvis Presley in the
1950s and the Beatles in the 1960s. For example, Szatmary describes the reaction to Elvis. He writes,
Fear of increasing juvenile delinquency underlay much of the backlash against Presley and adults
many times linked rock-and-roll to teen violence (Szatmary 54). Jack Santino adds, A similar thin
happened in 1964 when the Beatles performed on the Ed Sullivan Show. Kids loved them and parents
hated them-both their music and their appearance (496). Reactions to punk rock music were similar,
but not without justification. Lyrical gems like The Ramones, Now I wanna sniff some glue (The
Ramones), or the Sex Pistols, I am an anti-Christ, I am an anarchist (Never Mind the Bollocks),
recaptured the spirited edge of rock music that most parents despise. Once again embracing the idea
that rock and roll music was supposed to be dangerous, bands including the Talking Heads, Television,
Patti Smith, and the Clash invoked this anyone-can-do-it ethic. Denise Sullivan describes the
prevailing attitude of that time, It was the do-it-yourself era (thanks to the advent of punk rock in the
late Seventies and perhaps also due to the conservative political climate) so you did the best you could to
make the same thing happen in your area, if it wasnt already happening (xviii). The resultant onslaught
of alternative music collectively flew in the face of the established music business. Suddenly
hundreds of lesser known bands practicing the same restraint-free music flourished, and the walls of
the sheltered pop industry began to crumble (Kazcorowski 15). The punk revolution of 1976

galvanized the music industry by spawning a host of alternative rock groups armed with little musical
talent, but deep in rock and roll integrity.11
Punk music eventually splintered into various hybrid styles. These styles were termed new
wave,' no wave,' hardcore, and other less-recognizable names. However, because of their non-
conformist ideals, incendiary antics, and less-than-wholesome lyrics, the earliest punk and post-punk
bands had considerable difficulty finding outlets for their creative endeavors. The major record labels
would not sign them; and, the top forty radio stations would not play their songs. Accordingly, and
probably more importantly, this revolution caused an explosion within the recording industry.
Kazcorowski explains, Alongside the bands, dozens of independent labels sprang up in the midst of
the most unlikely of places, each promoting a type of music that was as far from the norm as you could
get (15). Still, becoming heard was difficult for most bands. Eric Weisbard adds, Relatively few
heard either hardcore or no wave, but the dozens, possible hundreds, of independent labels cropping
up to promote this music of the extreme made sales figures irrelevant: postpunks romantic ideals were
free expression and institutional autonomy (ix).
College radio stations eventually became the vehicle for delivering this new music to the
masses. In the 1970s, college stations played hippie music (Greer 40). Jim Greer adds:
This format had the advantage of great eclecticismin any given hour, you could hear
Stravinsky followed by Robert Johnson followed by Captain Beefheart followed by Miles
Davis; the music was always good, at least in a Special K kind of good for you sense, but
you couldnt (usually) dance to it and it wasnt exactly an accurate reflection of what young
college kids were listening to. (40)
College radio stations would begin adding punk and post-punk music to their playlists in the early
1980s. Not having to concern themselves with ratings or advertising dollars, many college radio
stations were free to experiment on air. Eventually, these stations began playing the new middle-
11 See David Szatmarys, A Time to Rock: A Social History of RockNRoll, for a complete telling of
the story of Punk Rock and the development of an alternative music scene.

class, white-boy art-school music of which R.E.M. was the most obvious and successful example
(Greer 42).
The impact and importance of these three developmentsthe birth of punk rock, the
proliferation of music labels, and the evolution of college radioare still felt today. This hybrid form
of punk rock, known as alternative music, has become a mainstay on American radio stations.
Second only to country music in popularity, alternative music-with an appreciative nod to the punk
pioneers of the late seventieshas become the musical choice of a new generation.
The History Of R.E.M.
R.E.M.s existence and subsequent success is inextricably linked to the punk revolution of
1976. While they are indeed benefactors of this musical movement, R.E.M. are catalysts as well.
Rodger Lyle Brown explains:
Although many bands have contributed to the insurgence of alternative music, R.E.M. clearly
emerges as the definitive leader of this new music movement. R.E.M.s music wasnt
intellectual or esoteric. It was physical, passionate. They played rock and roll with the erotic,
raw energy that has defined the genre for fifty years. (177)
Ira Robbins adds, The arrival of R.E.M. in the early 80s, signaled the beginning of a new era, a
bridge between the crash-and-bum naivete of70s rebellion and the bountiful rewards of crass
alternative rock (Appetite 94). Sullivan adds:
It would occur to me that some artists wouldnt have an outlet today were it not for the
groundwork R.E.M. laid, allowing a new kind of music to be heard.... In this day of MTV
creations, fly-by-nights and overnight successes, the way the story of a rock band (especially one
still vital in the culture today), used to develop now qualifies as rock history. (Sullivan xxi)
An examination of R.E.M.s history, set within the burgeoning realms of college music, shows how
this band maintained allegiance to the do-it-yourself ethic while navigating between the Scylla of
marginality and the Charybdis of mainstream compromise (Weisbard 329).

Emerging from an unlikely locale, Athens, Georgia, R.E.M. scraped its way to the top of the
music industry with a brand of music that was both creative and laced with integrity. R.E.M. quickly
became the best band in Athensno small feat considering Athens was also home to many bands
including the quirky, but ultra-successful, B-52s-then set out to conquer the music world, city by city.
Tony Fletcher explains:
There was a time, 1980 through 1982, four young men and a devoted manager, in the prime
of life, traveling from town to town across America in a 1975 green Dodge van bought with
the profits from a couple of well-attended home town shows, playing a backwoods circuit no
rock band had yet discovered. (44).
The band discovered those backwoods, and in turn, were discovered by hordes of followers seeking a
voice for their generation. R.E.M.s success and impact prompts music critic Ira Robbins to ask Who
would ever have expected an American musical revolution to be launched from Athens, Georgia?
Undoubtedly, R.E.M. not only launched this new form of music but also assured that it would
remain safely in orbit. Their dedication to the road in the early eighties allowed them to wave their
banner freely. Peter Buck explains the band's philosophy regarding life on the road:
We wanted to present those people with something that was just undeniable. By the time we
were finished we wanted them to think that everything else was irrelevant. I just loved that
challenge. And we did it every night, man, in all those bars. Man, we musta played, like, two
hundred bars, all over the south. Wed go in and thered be maybe thirty people if we were
headlining on maybe a cheap drink night-cause we always tried to play cheap drink nights,
cause that would draw 'em in-and by the end of the set, wed always be able to kinda go, See?
Now tell your damned friends about this. (Brown 178)
In many respects, R.E.M. crawled from the south (Gray). In doing so, writes Jim Greer, R.E.M. is
responsible for an entire genre of musiccollege rock-that did not exist, at least in any organized
sense, before the band did (Greer 40). Sullivan adds, Had it not been for R.E.M. helping to shape and
pave the road for alternative bands to mass acceptance, the path that their sisters and brothers in bands
routinely travel today would be veiy different indeed (xxiii).

R.E.M.s road construction began in 1981 with the release of their first single, Radio Free
Europe, on the independent Hib-Tone label. Accolades for this effort were almost immediate. Rolling
Stone critic Anthony DeCurtis called the single, One of those singles that shapes the way you hear all
the music that comes after it (Introduction 6). He adds, Radio Free Europe / Sitting Still
established the R.E.M. cult. Critics raved; indeed, smart, literate and musically allusive, the band was
the virtual definition of a critics darling (DeCurtis Introduction 6).12 Radio Free Europe
received many awards in 1981, including Village Voice's Single of the Year (Gray 2nd ed. 497). The
song was also listed in the New York Times Top Ten singles of the year (Gray 2nd ed. 497).
Remarkably, this early success was achieved with limited widespread exposure. DeCurtis explains,
At the time, it was all but unthinkable that a band like R.E.M. would get played on the radio-.-except
on college stations, an alternative means of exposure that R.E.M. helped bring to maturity
(Introduction 9).
R.E.M.s Chronic Town, a critically acclaimed five-song EP, followed in 1982. In discussing
Chronic Town, Greer notes, R.E.M. has never since produced anything as fresh or innovative (50).
DeCurtis describes his impression of Chronic Town:
On Chronic Town the band yielded nothing to its critics-or to tiresome complaints that You
cant understand the words. Stipes unwillingness to enunciate turned his voice into an
instrument; his words and singing contained meaning only in the sense that a melody or the
sound of a guitar contains meaning. Much as the band grew tired of the metaphor dreams do
provide the best analogue for the emotional effect of R.E.M.s early songs. (Introduction 7)
R.E.M.s first foray not only hinted at greater things to come, but also reaffirmed their commitment to
the punk ethos. Chronic Town showcases many of the elements that would later become R.E.M.
trademarks, including Peter Bucks jangly guitar, Michael Stipes lyrical fragments, and the percussive
12 Sitting Still was the B-side to Radio Free Europe.

and rhythmic drive of Mike Mills and Bill Berry. Weisbard adds, Chronic Town... is gorgeously
slight, with the ungraspable purity of sculptures left partly in stone (329).
The band then released their first-full length album, Murmur, in 1983. As noted earlier, this
album was named Rolling Stones Album of the Year in 1983. DeCurtis recalls, In Rolling Stones
1983 Critics Poll Murmur was voted Album of the Year-edging out Michael Jacksons Thriller and
U2s War-and R.E.M. was named the years Best New Artist (Introduction 8).
Brown comments on the importance of this album, The aftermath of Murmur left scorched
earth. When the smoke cleared and the dust settled, the landscape was rearranged (209). Sullivan adds,
The debut album, Murmur, has been termed seminal and frequently shows up in Top Ten and Desert
Island Disc lists (xviii). Indeed, Murmur is deserving of its many accolades. Further description and
elaboration regarding Murmur will be presented in later sections of this chapter.
R.E.M.s second full-length album, Reckoning, was anticipated with great enthusiasm, though,
many reconciled the fact that anything emerging from the shadows of Murmur could only be a
disappointment. However, because the styles of the two albums are distinctly different, comparisons
between the two are difficult to justify. Christopher Connelly writes, On Reckoning, R.E.M. has
opted for a more direct approach. The overall sound is crisper, the lyrics far more comprehensible
(34). Connelly also adds, As a lyricist, Stipe has developed considerably over the past year. In So.
Central Rain he notes, intriguingly, rivers of suggestion are driving me away (35). Weisbard
acknowledges, Reckoning tries to fmd the same formula, but, though more than satisfying, its not as
inventive and concise as Murmur and Chronic Town (329).

R.E.M.s third album, Fables of the Reconstruction (or Reconstruction of the Fables) marks a
departure both lyrically and musically for the band.13 This folky, narrative-based album hints at the
internal strife the band was experiencing during the recording of this album. Initially, all four band
members were disappointed with the album. Buck called it underproduced and hard to listen to
(Gray 2nd ed.225). Stipe, as have his band mates, have been more sympathetic towards the album
recently, calling it a great record (Gray 2nd ed. 226). Parke Puterbaugh concludes his review of
Fables of the Reconstruction with a fitting description. He writes:
Listening to Fables of the Reconstruction is like waking up in a menacing yet wonderful
world underneath the one youre familiar with. R.E.M. undermines our certitude in reality
and deposits us in a new place, filled with both serenity and doubt, where were forced to
think for ourselves. (45)
Fables of the Reconstruction is an unsettling album. Stipe calls the album, dark, dank and paranoid
(Hogan 21). Stipe adds, Its a misery albums in a lot of ways--but I like it, the songwritings great.
Its one of our strongest albums as far as songwriting (Hogan 21).
The misery of Fables is followed by jaunty bounce of Lifes Rich Pageant. Again, like
R.E.M.s other albums, the sound and style of this album is remarkably different from any of
Pageants predecessor. Dave Bowler and Brian Dray comments, Lifes Rich Pageant was their most
mainstream record yet (101). The sound was much clearer and crisper, possibly constructed
deliberately for radio play (Bowler and Dray 101). R.E.M.s success with Lifes Rich Pageant is
reflected in it becoming their first US gold record for sales in excess of 500,000 (Bowler and Dray
101). Rolling Stone describes the albums commercial success, With album number four, R.E.M.
made the quantum leap from underground sensation to mainstream sock-it-toem (George-Warren
64). DeCurtis adds, For R.E.M., the underground ends here (Lifes Rich Pageant 59).
13 This album is alternately labeled Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables, and Reconstruction of
the Fables of the Reconstruction on the albums spine. Typically, this albums title is shortened to
Fables of the Reconstruction.

The accessibility of Lifes Rich Pageant is due in large part to the production methods used
during the recording of this album. Don Gehman, who produced the album, is credited with creating
the harder sound that distinguished Pageant from Fables of the Reconstruction, Reckoning and
Murmur. Gehman describes his part in the process:
I wanted to make records that were more clearly focused. That were really what I call
records, and not just things that go from one end to the other and you dont know what
happened...To be able to introduce some production styles that maybe they had never used
before on their instruments... The idea of being able to hear and understand the words that
Michael was saying. (Fletcher 85)
These production efforts, though much more commercial, did not detract from R.E.M.s intrigue.
Gehman admits, I was aware that even if I did that you may still not understand what he meant, but at
least youd have a sense of its presence (Fletcher 85).
However, Gehmans techniques yielded an album that was more recognizable. By bringing
the lyrics to the front, but only after questioning why Stipe was saying what he was saying, Gehman
helped R.E.M. deliver their message with limited amounts of interference. DeCurtis summarizes Lifes
Rich Pageant. He writes:
Thematically, Lifes Rich Pageant carries on the legacy of the songs like the probing on-the-
road rock-out Little America and the dark Southern folk of artistry of last years Fables of
the Reconstruction. Suffused with a love of nature and a desire for mankinds survival, the
LP paints a swirling, impressionistic portrait of a country at the moral crossroads, at once
imperiled by its own self-destructive impulses and poised for a hopeful new beginning.
(DeCurtis Lifes Rich Pageant 59)
An example of this last point is R.E.M.s Fall on Me, the first single to be released from Lifes Rich
Pageant. Fletcher writes:
A political edge was to be found throughout the album, one which often pitted mankind
against nature, and, as ever, featured two or more subjects running concurrently within each
song. Fall On Me, for example, focused first on Galileos experiments on gravity (feathers
hit the ground before the weight can leave the air) and then on acid rain and the corporations
that buy the sky and sell the sky. (90)
The album is laced with other political moments. The most notable being Cuyahoga, The Flowers
of Guatemala and Begin the Begin.

However, Lifes Rich Pageant's overt political intentions are delivered in a raucous manner
that secures the accessibility of this album. Clearly, R.E.M. seemed intent on saying something, but
also enjoying themselves at the same time. Fletcher adds:
Signaling their intentions to have fun this year, R.E.M. decided to name the album after a
phrase in the Peter Sellers film A Shot In The Dark. Whenever problems befell the band, as
they frequently did Sellers hapless character Inspector Clouseau, they would brush them off
with his expression that they were all part of lifes rich pageant. (Fletcher 86)
The decision to omit the apostrophe from Lifes is viewed by Hogan as a mistake (31). However,
Bowler and Dray suggest, this decision may have been meant to reinforce the defiant comedy inherent
in the album (102). Though not R.E.M.s best album, Lifes Rich Pageant foreshadowed the bands
future work. DeCurtis concludes, As it is, its a brilliant and groundbreaking, if modestly flawed,
effort by an immensely valuable band whose most profound work is still to come (Lifes Rich
Pageant 61).
With five albums under their belt, R.E.M. had established a considerable catalog. However,
with those recorded songs came numerous out-takes, B-sides and cover versions.14 To combat bootleg
distribution of these songs R.E.M. released Dead Letter Office in April 1987.
The album is subtitled, a virtuous compost, Being a Compendium Of Oddities Collared, and
B-sides compiled. Hogan admits, and that pretty much sums it up (37). Buck adds, Listening to
this album should be like browsing through a junk shop (qtd. In Fletcher 95). However, this
collection of throwaways provides further insight on the band. In reviewing the album Jimmy
Guterman writes, Reverential covers of songs by the Velvet Underground, Aerosmith and Pylon
nudge against the steady instrumental White Tornado and the wacky Walters Theme, helping to
define sources of this wide-ranging band (66). Bowler and Dray add, It also provided newer fans
14 B-sides are the songs released with a single. The term comes from old 45 rpm records where the
single was featured on the A-side, while a second, less prominent song was included on the B-side.

with a chance to pick up on the bands humour and their method of letting off steam in the midst of
recording sessions by playing a drunken improvisation (107). Songs like The Voice of Harold and
Roger Millers King of the Road may not be highlights in R.E.M.s career, but as Bowler and Dray
recall, the best of this suggests that even what the group had discarded over the years is more
intriguing that the official catalogues of most of their contemporaries (107). Guterman concludes,
Dead Letter Office isnt meant to be anything special. Thats why it is (66).
R.E.M. returned to serious recording with the release of Document in September 1987.
Again switching producers, this time hiring Scott Litt, who continues to work with the band to this
day, Document again departs from the sound of Lifes Rich Pageant, but retains many of that albums
finer qualities. Fricke comments, Document, the fifth in a series of singular state-of-our-union
addresses by Americas most successful fringe band, positively ripples with the confidence, courage
and good, swift kick of a rock and roll band at the top of its form (70). DeCurtis adds, Confident
and poised even in its most casual moments, Document has all the earmarks of a major statement by a
major band (Introduction 16).
Document continues the political themes of Lifes Rich Pageant, with references to the state
of the nation and the unsavory nature of many of its leading lights (Bowler and Dray 111). Fletcher
adds, Trouble and confusion were themes evident in almost all the songs (99). He later adds, The
record defined itself both as a document of the latest year in R.E.M.s life, and as a documentary of
the world around them. As such it was able to draw on a wide range of subject matters to make its
point (Fletcher 100). Though the political rocker Exhuming McCarthy is clear in its intent, the
frenetic Its the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) and the misunderstood
Disturbance at the Heron House are not. Stipe offers, The whole album is about chaos. Ive
become very interested in chaos and the hypothesis that there is order within chaos, so I guess that
kind of carried over into the recording (Fletcher 98). He also adds, The whole album is about fire.

About everything you think about fire as being cleansing, something that destroys everything in its
path. Its an element thats everywhere, the metaphorical and allegorical interpretations of Fire are
endless (Hogan 46).
Document's political intentions are apparent; however, the most notable song on this album is
the misunderstood love song, The One I Love. With this song, R.E.M. had their very first hit
single, though it seems apparent that the public had not listened beyond the opening line. Stipe
describes the song as perhaps the most violent song Ive ever written. Its very, very brutal (Hogan
49). He adds, Its very clear that its about using people over and over again. I think thats probably
a sentiment everyone has felt at one time or another, so you can apply it to yourself. But its not an
attractive quality (Hogan 49). Indeed, this song seems to continue the political theme, though this
time the concern is with personal politics.
On Document, R.E.M. paints a picture of, as they suggest in Crazy, a crazy, crazy world.
Though the chaos and confusion is abundant on Document, one thing is certain: the band has secured
its place in popular culture. Bowler and Dray reiterate this claim. They write:
Document is a tribute to R.E.M.s strength of purpose and clarity of vision. It represents the
culmination of seven years hard work, a record that finally placed them firmly within
mainstream popular culture. They had reached that plateau on their, own terms, or as close to
that ideal as most bands you could name. (Bowler and Dray 116)
Those concerned that this commercial success would impinge on the integrity of the band need not
worry. Fricke concludes, A vibrant summary of past tangents and current strengths, Document is the
sound of R.E.M. on the move, the roar of a band that prides itself on the measure of achievement and
the element of surprise. The end of rock and roll as R.E.M. knows it is a long way off (72).
However, Document was an end, of sorts, for R.E.M. With that album, R.E.M. had fulfilled
their contract with IRS records. However, IRS, with the bands cooperation opted to release one more
album. Eponymous was released in October 1988. Peter Hogan describes Eponymous, the album is
basically a satisfactory hits retrospective with a few hard-to-get goodies thrown in to tempt

completists (93). Though one could argue at great length about the selection of songs on Eponymous,
the songs contained accurately reflect R.E.M.s work to date. The original mix of Radio Free
Europe, an alternate take on Gardening at Night, and the release of an early R.E.M. song entitled
Romance, distinguishes this album as more than just a greatest hits collection and summarizes
R.E.M.s work on the IRS record label.
With the release of Eponymous, R.E.M. now had eight albums in their catalog in only then-
eighth year of existence. This prolific output from a band that started their career playing churches,
pizzerias and fraternities is remarkable. The rhetorical legacy of these seventy-five songs is more than
enough fuel to fire a critical study of RJE.M.s lyrics. Certainly, these eight albums are replete with
metaphors awaiting the eager critic. Because of space and time limitations, this study will focus on
Murmur. More will be said about this decision in later sections of this chapter. The second half of
R.E.M.s career is marked by the bands decision to switch record companies. The history lesson
continues from this point and includes a discussion of R.E.M.s five most recent albums.
In 1988, R.E.M.s contract with IRS records had expired. The record company that had
spawned R.E.M.s successful early career wanted desperately to re-sign the band. However, IRSs
inability to market R.E.M. worldwide forced the band to seek a contract with another company
(Fletcher 106-7). R.E.M. eventually signed a contract to record for Warner Brothers. The decision to
leave IRS for Warner Brothers was difficult. Buck explains, It was a real hard move. Theres no
label in the world that could have done for us what they did. What other label would have been able to
get us where we were, trusted us to give us the artistic control? Sometimes you just feel its time to
move on (Fletcher 107). In May 1988, R.E.M. signed a five-record deal with Warner Brothers worth
a reported ten million dollars. DeCurtis summarizes the bands history to this point. He writes:
It's been a long, strange trip for R.E.M., since the release of "Radio Free Europe" on a
minuscule independent label in 1981 first brought the group to national attention. Once the
darlings of the underground, they are now solicited by parents' groups to improve the social
habits of the young. College-radio perennials, they have now graduatedinto high schools.

Having signed a five-record deal with Warner Bros, last year for a reported $10 million, the
members of R.E.M. are approaching the status of-can it be?superstars. (DeCurtis R.E.M.s
Brave New World 95)
However, it was not money that attracted R.E.M. to Warner Brothers. As Fletcher recalls, money was
not even discussed until R.E.M. was certain that Warner Brothers could sell a band without the band
selling out (106).
R.E.M.s first album for their new record company was released on election day, November
8, 1988. This album, simply entitled Green, was released on this date as a reaction to the imminent
election of George Bush (Bowler and Dray 124). On Green, R.E.M. hoped to offer some
encouragement to get through the difficult times ahead (Bowler and Dray 124). Fletcher reiterates,
The synchronicity was far from coincidental. Although Green lacked the harsh political tones of its
two predecessors, the group that made it were becoming increasingly disgusted with the American way
of life (115). Green was both a shopping list of complaints and a statement of hope that these
aihnents could be remedied. More will be written about this album in later sections of this chapter.
R.E.M. again finds themselves changing directions on their second album for Warner
Brothers. Out of Time, released in March 1991, is described by Greer as Love songs, nothing but
love songs (80). Stipe explains this direction, The last two albums of ours have been fairly political
albums. And I wanted to move away from that, so as not to pigeonhole myself as a political writer.
And in order to challenge myself, I decided to write an album of love songs (Fletcher 130).
However, as they proved with their song The One I Love, R.E.M.s Move song is not
typical of the every day, radio-fodder love song. Stipe explains:
When I say love songs, I dont mean Move you baby, love you baby, but maybe the French
definition of a love pop song, a pop song that deals with love. Ive never written an outright
love song, and Im not sure that of the eleven songs on this record Ive written an outright
love song, but Im trying. (Fletcher 130)
Stipe adds, Youve got every kind of love on this record. The record is about love and its about
memory and its about time. Those are three things that for me as a writer are pretty new territory

(Fletcher 131). Puterbaughs review of Out of Time acknowledges that this album approaches the
topic of love from an unconventional viewpoint. He writes:
The songs on Out Of Time are seemingly small scale in their first-person obsessions, but their
meanings spread out to encompass shared feelings of dread, loneliness, anomie and a growing
loss of faith. There are no treatises on ecology or foreign policy, no oblique strategies or
hidden agendas. There doesnt have to be; all of that is implicit in the atmosphere of entropy,
of things falling apart, thats evoked and detailed candidly, with glimmering beauty and
unsurpassable sadness, on Out of Time. (Puterbaugh 126)
Indeed, R.E.M. deals with giving up on a love relationship in the melancholy Country Feedback;
offers spoken testimony to the power of a relationship between mother and child in Belong; and,
comments on time and distance as factors in love on Half a World Away {Out of Time). The latter
being described by Stipe as a song about someone who thinks theyre in love, but theyre probably
not (Hogan 70).
This new lyrical direction is matched musically as well. Puterbaugh notes, Musically, Out of
Time is R.E.M.s most baroque album; it breaks out of the guitar-bass-drums-voice format to make
room for everything from harpsichord and strings (Puterbaugh 124). Stipe adds, It was classic
R.E.M., but the instrumentation was skewered, completely different from what wed done in the past
(Hogan 64). While Berry adds, its the record weve always wanted to make (Hogan 66).
Puterbaugh tempers this enthusiasm when he offers, Yes, Its a departure, but no, its not so radical a
departure that it is unrecognizable as R.E.M. (124).
But Out of Time is a departure from, the sound and fury that propelled R.E.M. through albums
like Lifes Rich Pageant and Document. The album once again signaled the direction R.E.M. was
about to take. Stipe offers his summary of the record. He says, When I say that this record is going
to alter the course of pop history, I say it with my tongue firmly in my cheek and a little snicker on my
lips, but I think it really is, for 1991, a pretty peculiar record (Fletcher 132).
Out of Time was a definite commercial success, having sold nearly ten million copies.
However, R.E.M. would top that on with their follow-up Automatic for the People by selling nearly

fourteen million copies. Released in September 1992; this album finds R.E.M. tinkering with then-
formula to produce an album that Coleman describes as one for the ages (160).
Lyrically, Stipe again tackles a new subject. This time he chooses to address, as Hogan notes,
death and mourning (75). In discussing the lyrics on Automatic for the People, Stipe explains his
new philosophy. He says, Im in the process of depoliticising myself. Im glad that people look at
the band as politically active. I think thats healthy. But its a lot to carry, and to quote myself, not
everyone can carry the weight of the world (Hogan 75). Evans offers his description of this album.
He writes:
R.E.M. has never made music more gorgeous than Nightswimming and Find the River,
the ballad's that close Automatic for the People and sum up its twilit, soulful intensity. A swirl
of images natural and technologicalmidnight car rides and undertow, old photographs and
headlong tides-the songs grapple, through a unifying metaphor of the recklessness of water,
with the interior world of memory, loss and yearning. (157)
However, as Evans notes, Despite its difficult concerns, most of Automatic for the People is
musically irresistible (157).
Much of this albums success is due to the musical dimensions of the album. Buck describes
Automatic for the People as a kind of spooky record (Fletcher 148). Evans expands on Bucks
description. He writes:
Spooky was one way of describing Automatic for the People. Morose was another. R.E.M.
had reached what might well prove to be the commercial pinnacle of their career with Out of
Time, and yet the follow-up would have a dark undercurrent that suggested that the success
had not brought with it total happiness. (Fletcher 148)
Indeed, Automatic for the People would have a foreboding quality not present on previous albums.
Again, R.E.M. experimented with instrumentation to create this spooky feeling. Evans adds:
To capture this mood, the three musicians provided instrumentation that was uncluttered and
concise, often in minor keys with suspended fourths and imperfect cadences (musical tricks
that help tug at the heartstrings); on these canvases Stipe painted introspective narratives of
pain and doubt, though almost always with positive conclusions. (Fletcher 148)

On Automatic for the People, R.E.M. proves their worth by crafting songs that captured the intensity
of their messages, while forging ahead into new musical territory. Bucks description appears most
appropriate. Before Automatics release, Buck promised, Well have a folk-rock orchestra album.
The stuff is all turning out different. Weve got a bunch of weird kind of Arabic folk songs (Hogan
73). R.E.M. delivered on that promise with Automatic for the People.
Those expecting R.E.M. to continue the trend of understated, personal songs as featured on
Out of Time and Automatic for the People were woken abruptly by the high charged Monster released
in September 1994. Stipe describes Monster as our punk rock album. Very in your face. And very
sexy: most of the songs are about sex and relationships (Hogan 85). Drummer Bill Berry adds, We
didnt set out to make a wild guitar record, it just turned out that way (Hogan 84-5). Rolling Stone
magazines Robert Palmer adds, If the new album isnt exactly a sonic grungefest, it comes a hell of a
lot closer than anyone could have anticipated (167).
While many saw this album as a radical departure for the band, the R.E.M. faithful
recognized this new direction as a return to R.E.M.s early days of playing churches in Athens and
pizza bars across America. However, the second time around reveals a songwriting maturity that was
not present in the early days that allows R.E.M. to continue crafting excellent music. Palmer explains:
Dont misunderstand: R.E.M.s exceptional pop craftsmanship, their luminous melodic
inventions, their sense of mission~in short, everything fundamentalare still there and
shining more brightly than ever. What has been jettisoned, at least this time out, is all that
tasteful restraint. Monster is one urgent-sounding album, and thats as it should be. (157-8)
But, while Monster represents a departure from the latter R.E.M. efforts, this abrasive album also
recaptures some of the mystery of their earliest efforts. Palmer comments, Michael Stipes singing,
so difficult to decipher on early records, so plain-spoken and out in front of the mixes since Green, has
slipped back in to the sonic murk, where it fights to be heard (167).

Thematically, Monster presents a new challenge. While the album certainly grapples with
issues relating to sexuality, the recurrent theme is more often concerned with problems of identity
(Palmer 168). Palmer adds:
It [Monster] explores how important having a stable sense of ones own identity can be and
how up for grabs identities have become in our postmodern hothouse, where its possible to
slip on a new persona as easily as a new look and couture can mean anything from Paris
fashions to body piercing to a sex change. (168)
This is especially apparent in the song Crush With Eyeliner when Stipe sneers, What can I make
myself be (Fake her) / To make her mine {Monster). Palmer summarizes, Monster is a deeply felt,
thematically coherent, consistently invigorating challenge to evolve or die, with all the courage of its
convictions (169).
The sonic blast of Monster gave R.E.M. plenty of new material to support a major world tour.
Once again R.E.M. hit the road and the clamor for a live album followed thereafter. However, R.E.M.
again surprised their fans by delivering the unexpected. New Adventures in Hi-Fi is a live album, but
not in the traditional sense of recording a concert featuring vintage R.E.M. songs. Instead, R.E.M.
chose to use their soundchecks to write and record this latest album. The manner in which this album
was recorded-over several months and several venuesyielded an album where the usual thematic
continuity is sacrificed (Walters 129). As such, the album failed to reach platinum status, but
captured the critics praise.
Rolling Stone writer Mark Kemp gives New Adventures in Hi-Fi four and a half stars and
calls this album R.E.M.s most ambitious album to date (79). He adds, the band attempts to stitch
together all the disparate mood swings that have characterized its fight to maintain its integrity in the
face of both disaster and superstardom. This could be R.E.M.s swan songor the first day of the rest
of their lives (Kemp 79). The kudos continue as Kemp recognizes R.E.M.s importance to the
alternative music scene. He writes, But in a time when too many cookie-cutter alternative bands
crank out predictable ear candy, R.E.M. choose artistic restraint over crass commercialism, giving New

Adventures in Hi-Fi a sense of ambition and liberation that R.E.M. havent displayed since 1985s
Fables of the Reconstruction (Kemp 80).
Though this album again takes a different course from previous albums, the album is
reminiscent of earlier works. Chris Heath recalls Stipes description of the album. He writes, He
[Stipe] noticed that their flavor was, if anything, closest to R.E.M.s first album, Murmur (Heath 54).
Stipe explains, Again, its passage. Its distance and passage and moving from one place to another,
and never quite being there, and how close are you and how close do you want to be, and how far
away are you and how far away do you want to be, and how does that affect you. Kinda (Heath 54).
While these similarities exist, the differences are also worthy of mention.
Continuing his description of New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Stipe comments the album features
more dark, sad songs about death and anxiety (Heath 54). This is certainly the case in Undertow
where Stipe finds himself lamenting, I am breathing water. Then, with much resignation, he
accepts, I cant say Im fearful /1 cant say Im not afraid / But I am not resisting, I can see (New
Adventures in Hi-Fi). However, even with these darker moments, New Adventures in Hi-Fis themes
of liberation create an album that is ultimately uplifting. Kemp writes, Liberation is a recurring
theme on New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Whether Stipe is singing of escape on Departure or Low
Desert or questioning religious faith in New Test Leper or Undertow, he seems anxious to rid
himself of the noise and clutter of celebrity excess (80). Finally, Kemp summarizes, The sequence
of songs and the range of emotions on New Adventures convey a narrative that has all the dynamics
and contradictions of life itself (79-80). Indeed, New Adventures in Hi-Fi seems to be a journal of
R.E.M.s tour in support of Monster. The story begins on the opening song, How the West Was Won
and Where It Got Us, when Stipe confesses, The story is a sad one, told many times. The story of
my life in trying times (New Adventures in Hi-Fi). And the story ends with the last song,
Electrolite when Stipe admits, Im not scared. Im outta here (New Adventures in Hi-Fi).

This haunting last line left concludes the history portion of this thesis. Suffice to say, after
sixteen years, thirteen albums, countless singles and more live shows than the band cares to remember,
R.E.M. has solidified its place in rock history. Sullivan adds:
From the outside it seems the band has never compromised its ideals for the sake of imagery, or
its sound for the sake of fashion. Redefining its own relationship to global politics and thereby
setting a standard for other bands to follow is one of its legacies. The do-it-yourself ethic which
R.E.M./Athens, LTD so staunchly employs has served as a model for bands from Sicily (Flor de
Mai) to Seattle (Nirvana) and points in between, (xxi)
Indeed, R.E.M.s place is secure. Weisbard continues the elevation of R.E.M. to rock icons. He
Meanwhile, vocalist Michael Stipe has progressed from the most gripping art student
mumbles ever recorded to full-fledged status in the fellowship of progressive and media-shy
quirky lead singers, sometimes drowning in his own pretensions, but mostly forcing R.E.M.
to achieve the passion and pomp that elevates organic roots music into the realms of a dream.
DeCurtis adds, No one has a crystal ball, but this much is certain: After fourteen years of creating
challenging, adventurous music-music by genuine people trying to say something, as Billy Bragg
described it-R.E.M. deserve what has come to them. And, as artists and as people, they deserve to
survive it in splendid form (DeCurtis Introduction 25). Ira Robbins concludes, R.E.M. are rocks
most thoughtful boy scouts. Long may they wave (Robbins Trouser Press 1st ed. 330). Finally,
DeCurtis concludes:
Two hard-working energetic musicians, one naive avant-gardist and one young man gripped
by the vision of rock & roll promise, all striving to make music that is both popular and
deserving of its popularity. If thats not the rapid eye movement of some hip American
dream, who cares to think about what well have to wake up to? (DeCurtis An Open Party
This conclusion is the story of R.E.M. Rising from the rubble of the punk rock explosion of 1976,
R.E.M. has secured their place in music history by crafting a style of music that remained true to the
spirit of rock and roll. In doing so, R.E.M. championed a new style of music, known today as
alternative, while moving this form of rock music from the margins to the mainstream. Indeed, as

Greer suggests, the story of College rock, or alternative music is, in fair measure, the bands story,
too (40).
However, R.E.M. was not alone in championing the alternative music scene. Other important,
but less successful alternative bands, like The Replacements, Husker Du, Black Flag, Jason and the
Scorchers, The Dream Syndicate and The Rain Parade, contributed to the scene as well (Gray 2nd ed.
44). But at the same time, R.E.M. is credited as the originator of the alternative touring circuit
because, then as now, it happened to have the highest profile (Gray 2nd ed. 44). DeCurtis adds,
turning your friends on to R.E.M. became something of an eighties rite of passage (Introduction
6). Hogan explains R.E.M.s ability to outdistance their competition. He writes:
And then there were R.E.M., who were different. Why have they been so successful? Because
they were fronted by someone who appeared to be a general purpose art-rock weirdo in the
David Byrne mould, which made them a gift to the media, for a kick-off. And because-more
than those other groups~R.E.M. seemed to be offering something original: new psychedelia, if
you like. As a result they became, in the words of Peter Buck, .the acceptable face of the
unacceptable. (vii-viii)
Peter Buck best describes R.E.M.s impact on the music world in this latest comment. The music of the
Sex Pistols in 1976 is not that much different from the music on R.E.M.s Monster. However, what is
different is the way R.E.M. insinuated the punk ethos into the music world. R.E.M. borrowed the do-it-
yourself ethic of the late seventies punk rockers to craft a brand of music that remained loyal to the
rebellious nature of rock and roll. Dave Bowler and Brian Dray add:
Only a churlish observer would try to denigrate the achievements of R.E.M., but it would be
excessive to suggest that they have redefined the course of popular music. Their success has
been in taking rock'n'roll back to its theoretical roots in a similar way to the punk movement
in the '70s. By giving the music back to ordinary people, by succeeding on their own terms
and by eschewing compromise wherever possible, R.E.M. have embraced all of rock's
guiding principles. The vital ingredient in R.E.M.'s rise is, of course, their songwriting, rather
than their musical ability. (Bowler and Dray 189)
In simplest terms, R.E.M. moved alternative rock from the margins to the mainstream while ensuring that
every ounce of integrity remained in tact.

... This cursory chronology of R.E.M. is grossly Inadequate where biographical interests are
concerned. Much better stories exist elsewhere.15 However, this abridged history is an acknowledgment
that R.E.M.s importance to the music world far exceeds the scope of this study. Buck concludes this
history lesson with a commentary on alternative music and R.E.M.s success. He says:
The received wisdom is that punk was a failure, because it didnt have a success. But it was
successful in that it influenced a whole generation. All those bands that are reaching fruition
right now, thats great. The only fear I have is that of our peer group, were the only ones
that made it (Fletcher 142).
Suffice to say, Steve Ponds 1983 remark, R.E.M. is clearly the important Athens band, needs revisiting
(28). Given the direction that American music has taken since that first performance by the Twisted Kites
in 1980, it seems much more appropriate to claim that R.E.M. is clearly the important American band.
The Lyrical Dimensions Of R.E.M.
While the history and importance of the band have reached mythical proportions, more often
than not, it has always been R.E.M.s lyrics that have garnered the most attention. Gray adds:
In fact, worrying about the meaning of R.E.M.s songs have turned a lot of people on.
Between them, Michaels unconventional writing technique and what soon became known as
his enigmatic delivery played arguably the largest part in the bands early and rapid rise to
major cult status. Quite simply, a cryptic phrase followed by an indecipherable
mnwuuuurgh is more intriguing than a clearly enunciated moon / June or dance /
romance couplet. Some critics have suggested the band deliberately set out to build a
mystique and exploit a gullible public. While R.E.M.s motive was nowhere near so cynical,
their utterances on the subject have indicated a desire to have it both ways: The band
demands considerable input from its listeners, but expresses irritation when they demonstrate
a natural urge to play detective and determine Just What Michael Meant. (2nd ed. 105)
At the risk of annoying Stipe and his band mates, this section will explore the lyrical dimensions of
R.E.M. While there is no definitive method to R.E.M.s lyrical madness, this section affords the
15 For example, see Marcus Grays It Crawledfrom the South, Tony Fletchers Remarks: The Story of
R.E.M., Dave Bowler and Brian Drays From "Chronic Town" to Monster", and Jim Greers Behind
the Mask. An excellent oral history is offered by Denise Sullivan in Talk About The Passion.

opportunity to erect the scaffolding needed to survey the lyrics on Murmur and Green from all angles.
Covered in this section is a brief discussion of the bands philosophy towards their lyrics, an
examination of their different approaches to lyric writing, and a conversation about how the bands
intentional ambiguity has contributed to their success. Though no promises are being offered, this
section hopes to arm the reader with tools needed to begin deciphering just what Michael meant.
Though many have speculated on the bands philosophy concerning lyric-writing, Michael Stipe
offers a fitting introduction. Speaking of his earliest efforts, he confesses:
I was a bad lyricist. I wrote stream of consciousness. Stream of consciousness doesnt make
sense. It does on some level, on some very emotional level, but Ive always said that R.E.M. is
emotional. The impact of the band and the sound of the voice and the music is like a visual
landscape. Its not something you can put on a table and mathematically tear apart and have it
make sense. (Hogan viii)
This statement reveals much about R.E.M. and their lyrics. There are no formulas, and there are no
correct answers. Though they dispel the myth that R.E.M. stands for rapid eye movement, there is a
certain dream-like quality to R.E.M.s lyrics. Hogan confirms, as much as anything else, it was the
obliquely dreamlike imagery of their lyrics that was the key to their appeal (1).
Ironically, this enigmatic approach feels calculated; but, it was not. Instead, R.E.M. was just
presenting rock and roll as they thought it should be presented. Puterbaugh responds, But a certain
amount of mystery and subterfuge is basic to the concept of R.E.M., and that aim to fuse words and
music into a total experience that defies any single, literal interpretation (31). Buck adds, its all part
of the philosophy of the band. We never wanted to spell things out (Puterbaugh 31). Buck also adds,
rocknrolls supposed to something thats kind of like magic, an you cant divide it down into words
and music and bits and pieces (Gray 2nd ed. 106). When asked why they didnt publish a lyric sheet
with their early albums Bill Berry quips, its not as if its poetry, it would be like going to the movie
and getting the script of the film with your ticket (Gray 2nd ed. 106). Buck offers this summary of the
bands lyrical philosophy:

As we went along we realized that we didnt want to be a straight narrative band that has stories
in our songs that began and ended. You can put meaning in there--you can write a song about
something without ever really referring to what youre writing about-by using evocative
phrases, by association with words that you wouldnt normally associate, by repetition, by the
power of the music itself and the melodies. You can get the feeling from the experience without
ever actually referring to the experience itself. (In Hogan 4)
This idea is central to understanding the lyrical dimensions of R.E.M. From day one, R.E.M. has not
concerned themselves with a direct confrontation of their subject matter. Instead, R.E.M.s philosophy
has allowed them to capture the power of music by creating an experience for their listeners.
R.E.M.s philosophy becomes their practice in their approach to songwriting. Their tendency
to approach their subject matter in this fashion often resulted in songs that were often characterized by
indecipherable lyrical fragments. This lack of structure was instrumental in R.E.M.s early successes.
However, this unfamiliar approach featured the familiar. Buck explains:
When we first started, Michael and I use to say how much we hated most rock and roll lyrics.
We had this idea that what wed do is take cliches, sayings, lines from old blues songs,
phrases you hear all the time, and skew them and twist them and meld them together so that
youd be getting all these things that have always been evocative, but that were skewed just
enough to throw you off and make you think in a different way (DeCurtis An Open Party
This fragmentary approach to song writing clearly resembles William Burroughs and Brion Gysins
Cut-Up technique (Gray 2nd ed. 109). This technique takes an existing text, cuts it up, then rearranges
the words to create a new text. R.E.M.s approach is slightly different in that they do not start with an
existing text; rather, they take bits and pieces from other sources to create a new text. Stipe admits,
Three quarters of my lyrics probably come from overheard conversations. I steal a lot, basically.
Someone will say something really interesting, and Ill write it down (Gray 2nd ed. 109). Stipe
continues with an explanation of his technique. He says, The first thing for me is building those walls,
coming up with rules-with these turns of phrase-and using them differently, changing them so that the
old rule doesnt apply anymore and a new rule has taken its place (Hogan viii).

This approach supports the aforementioned philosophy. R.E.M. practices what they preach.
Rather than spelling things out for their listeners, R.E.M. offers only enough detail to hint at what the
larger picture contains. Stipe extends this metaphor to prove this point. He says, I really focus on
detail more than the grand picture, and that detail is what becomes the words of the song. I guess its
left to the listener to spot it, put a frame around it, and see the whole thing (Gray 2nd ed. 135-6). He
adds, Without getting too Zen about it, I think the words I write are there and the songs are there, and
its just a matter of waiting for the right ones to come together right (Gray 2nd ed. 111). This last
statement is a good description of just about any R.E.M. song. The words are there, but, as Greer
notes, the lyrics still dont make a heck of a lot of linear sense (48).
This non-linear approach resulted in ambiguity, prompting many to question What is
Michael Stipe singing, and, what does it mean? Brown notes R.E.M. had rejected ideology so
heartily that they even refused to be committed to lyrics of any sort. The words, the name, the look-it
can mean what you want it to mean, they said (205). This intentional ambiguity is noted elsewhere.
Bowler and Dray write, R.E.M. have contrived a form of presentation that has cloaked them in mystery
(1). Greer adds, The bands unique sound, intriguing lyrics, and haunting melodies established it as one
of the countrys most popular rock bands-and one of the most enigmatic (back cover). Brown
concludes that even the name R.E.M. was open for interpretation (175). By adding this piece to the
puzzle R.E.M. gracefully evaded the rapid eye movement stigma, and equated the experience of
R.E.M. with dreaming itself (Brown 175).
Much of this ambiguity is derived from R.E.M.s keen understanding of the virus called
language.16 Stipe explains:
16 In Grays It Crawled From The South, Stipe accepts, I kind of agree with Burroughs when he says
language is a virus from outer space. I dont agree with a lot that man says, but I think hes kinda
correct there (109).

I appreciate language, and I appreciate the different ways that we can abuse it or use it or
twist it around to make beautiful shapes at the ends of our fingers. And, yknow, in terms of
communicating, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesnt. So, its a big mystery. (Gray
2nd ed. 109)
These postmodern sentiments are characteristically R.E.M. They recognize that language is unstable,
and they use that to create ambiguity and uncertainty in their lyrics. Bowler and Dray offer, "Stipe, for
his part, accepts that their songs have an appeal beyond mere words (5). To this, Stipe admits, I
personally fmd language quite stifling and, simultaneously, liberating (Bowler and Dray 5).
In all respects, R.E.M.s ambiguity and vagueness helped create a partnership with its
audience. Stipe admits the listener is at least a quarter, maybe a third of, what a song is. Its what
makes music special and magical (Gray 2nd ed. 117). This invitation to the audience was clearly part
of R.E.M.s early success. Brown summarizes:
The kids loved it. It was perfect. The Bs [The B-52s] were literal, but absurdist. Pylon was
obtuse, but in a known style-a cynical, late-seventies, proto-post-modem Talking Heads-ish
ironic distancing. Everybody else at least said something. Michael Stipe didnt say anything.
His voice was just another instrument, and the lyrics were strings of melodic syllables, snippets
and catch phrases of intriguing composition. They were obscure, yet suggested some
meaningful context from which they came. To the generation of a new decade, fatalistic in the
face of Reaganism and desirous of the spectacle of meaning rather than the truth of it, R.E.M.s
obscurantism, Michaels pseudo-aphasia, was perfect (205)
Obviously at times this approach results in confusion, and lyrics that do not seem to make sense. To
this Stipe adds, I think its OK every now and then to throw in a little bit of nonsense (Gray 2nd ed.
108). Gray explains, Such examples are hardly rare in his lyrics, as he cheerfully admits in Monty
Got A Raw Deal, Now nonsense isnt new to me (Gray 2nd ed. 108).
However nonsensical R.E.M.s lyrics may seem, one thing is certain: their lyrics have been a
source of debate since day one and a monumental factor in their ascent to super stardom. The bands
philosophy and approach to lyric writing has produced a wealth of ambiguous rhetoric waiting to be
explored and debated. However, at the fulcrum of this study lies a lyric that may never be debated. In
Life and How to Live It, a song about a schizophrenic man in Athens, Stipe croons with

unmistakable clarity, If I ever write a book, it will be' called life and how to live it (Fables of the
Reconstruction). After thirteen albums and over one hundred and fifty original R.E.M. songs, that
book exists in the lyrical legacy of R.E.M. However, to analyze each and every song would exceed
the scope of this study and result in large-scale forest depletion. Instead, this study will focus on the
two chapters of that book entitled Murmur and Green. Between the two albums R.E.M. presents
twenty-three songs. The remainder of this chapter will introduce and interpret each of these songs, and
explore the lyrical dimensions of these two albums with the hope of uncovering how these two albums
are alike and how these two albums are different. This preparatory work will provide a foundation
from which to examine how metaphors function in the lyrics of R.E.M.
The Selection Of Text
As noted in chapter one, the decision to analyze both Murmur and Green was not made
without careful consideration. This section will explain the rationale for choosing these two albums.
First of all, as noted before, an examination of every R.E.M. album would present a nearly impossible
task. Suffice to say, an examination of these two albums presents a daunting challenge. The second
factor in this decision rests primarily on a choice made by R.E.M. in 1989. On November 13 of that
year, R.E.M. played a special concert at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. As Gray notes, this concert was:
special for four reasons: it was, of course, the last night of an epic haul; it was given in an
unusually small and intimate venue; it was specially organised as a benefit for two local
environmental organizations, the Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation (LEAF) and the
Campaign for a Prosperous Georgia (CPG); and R.E.M. did not perform anything like its
customary set. (Gray 1st ed. 273)
Instead of the standard set list, R.E.M., as DeCurtis recalls, played all of Murmur and all of Green back
to back (Introduction 19).
The pairing of these two albums was hardly coincidental. DeCurtis recognizes this gesture as
an acknowledgment of the degree to which they felt that Green had represented a new beginning

(Introduction 19). Singer Michael Stipe continues the explanation. He adds, I think Green is very
similar to Murmur, and that irony is not lost on me. A similar cover, material that carries different
interpretations, (is) kind of internal and knocks you down at the same time, and makes you ask, Whats
this about? (Gray 1st ed. 273-4). Fletcher adds, In many ways Green was a return to the subtlety of
Murmur, requiring repeated exposure before its delights could be coaxed out from the melange of
unusual instrumentation or its intrigue unearthed from the directness of its pop songs (117). Gray
notes R.E.M. chose this set list With the intention of making this point musically (273). For those in
attendance this show was powerful and moving. Gray recounts the early moments of the show:
R.E.M.s plans were not communicated to the audience in advance. As a result, it was both
pleased and taken aback to find the band opening with Radio Free Europe, the same song that
had been used as an April Fools Day tease at the Omni earlier that year. When Pilgrimage
followed, the cheers were louder, with everyone enjoying what he or she presumed was just a
continuation of the joke. It was only once this song had been followed by both Laughing and
Talk About The Passion that just about everyone caught on. (Gray 1st ed.l 274)
For the R.E.M. faithful packed into the four-thousand seat Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia this night must
have been a special occasion. Buck remembered, It was great. Everyone was howling! (Gray 1st ed.
274). The recreation of Murmur and Green in their entirety, and in order, allowed many R.E.M. fans to
hear songs that had never been played live before. The opportunity to experience Murmur and Green in
this context allowed R.E.M. to present each album as recorded. Certainly, many of R.E.M.s classic tunes
from their other albums were missed; but, this method of presentation gave R.E.M. the opportunity to
present the ideas on Murmur and Green without sacrificing the coherence of either album.
However, this particular concert is evidence of RJE.M.s political savvy. As this show was a
benefit for an environmental cause, R.E.M.s decision to conclude the show with all the songs on Green
can not be overlooked. This albums overt environmental message and underlying themes of optimism
and personal power provided an opportunity for R.E.M. to issue a call to action. Choosing Murmur, with
its hints of despair and loss, is also significant. The net political effect of the juxtaposition of these two
albums is typical of R.E.M. The band opened the show with a hint of resignation, then closed the show

with a glimmer of hope. Certainly, this must have had some effect on the audience as they contemplated
making a donation (either time or money) on their way out of the theatre.
The thematic connection between these two albums justifies the decision to include both
albums here. Further, R.E.M.s decision to present both albums back to back on November 13, 1989
further cements this decision. However, it should be noted that the connection is more often than not
between albums, rather than between individual songs. While certain songs do in fact reference each
other, the bond between Murmur and Green is generic. Buck explains, Ive kind of come to terms
with the fact that were never going to be a singles band, he continues, we might make good singles,
but theyre part of albums. When you hear So. Central Rain, its a good song but it really makes
sense in the context of the album (DeCurtis The Price of Victory 49). The same could be said for
each of the twenty-three songs included in this study. Each song could stand on its own; but, these
collections of tunes called Murmur and Green reiterate that often the whole is much greater than the
sum of its parts.
The following section offers an introduction to R.E.M.s Murmur. Following a brief listing of
the accolades and awards that justify this albums inclusion in this study is a brief description of the
entire album. Included is a thorough examination of the album and album packaging. This is
followed by, to borrow an R.E.M. expression, talk about the passion, or, in other words, a song by
song analysis of Murmur. This section then concludes with a summary of Murmur's importance, and
further explanation of this albums connection to Green.
Talk About The PassionAn Introduction To R.E.M.s Murmur
The critical success of R.E.M.s first album, Chronic Town, generated huge expectations for
their full-length debut. R.E.M. did not disappoint. Hogan summarizes Murmur's success. He writes:
Murmur made a real impact, largely via college radio. Rolling Slone gave it four stars and
called it intelligent, enigmatic, deeply involving. They subsequently voted it Album Of

The Year and R.E.M. Best New Artist.' The album reached number 26 on the US charts
far higher than anyone involved in the project had dared dream. (5)
Echoing Hogans enthusiasm, Greer affirms Murmur's importance while securing the albums place in
rock and roll history. He writes:
Murmur will forever carry a weight unequal to the other records in the R.E.M. catalog, simply
because it was the first~or at least, the first most people would hear of the band. The album
was an event, in a way that nothing afterward could ever be. It was the opening salvo in a
fight to regain some of the credibility for American underground, or less commercial,
bands... (Greer 57)
These latest statements by Hogan and Greer justify the inclusion of Murmur in this study. The
remainder of this section will further this justification. A description and discussion of the album itself
follows a summary of the praises for Murmur. Included in this discussion is a song by song analysis
of Murmur. It is hoped that this section will not only provide the essential background information
necessary for the critical evaluation to follow, but also allow the reader to develop an appreciation for
R.E.M. and one of their finest works.
Again borrowing from R.E.M., the following section establishes Murmur's position under
the honor roll. This section highlights the critical praise garnered by this album and offers
justification for Murmur's inclusion here.
Under The Honor Roll-An Examination Of Accolades And Awards
As noted earlier in this chapter, R.E.M. began their recording career with the release of
Chronic Town in 1982. In 1983, the music world was blessed by many successful albums, including
Michael Jacksons Thriller and U2s War. However, R.E.M.s Murmur quietly stole the show by
capturing the hearts of the critics. Murmur departed from the sound and style of Chronic Town, but
received enormous critical accolades. Though this list is too long to include in entirety here, a
sampling of Murmur's praises illustrates the impact this album had on the rock world in 1983. Rock
critic Ira Robbins writes, Murmur is a masterpiece, containing all the essential components of truly

great serious pop music (Trouser Press Record Guide 4th ed. 544). Praise continued to flow freely for
Murmur in 1983. The New York Times writes, u [Murmur] will sound as fresh ten years from now as it
does today (Fletcher 51). Musician adds, R.E.M. has the most hypnotizing sound of any group in
rock today (Fletcher 51). The accolades have continued through time. In 1987, Murmur was listed in
Rolling Stones Top 100 albums of the last 20 years (George-Warren 68). In 1997, it was again listed
in Rolling Stones list of the top two hundred essential rock compact discs of all time. In defending
Murmur's inclusion to this exclusive list, Robbins writes:
The virtues of the bands first full album, Murmur, an eloquent and atmospheric
recombination of great works by the Velvet Underground, the Byrds and others, may be too
modestly stated to seem monumental after all that has followed, but it is no less an archetype.
(Appetite for Destruction 94)
Defining Murmur as an archetype is high praise for an album that only sold 170,000 copies in 1983
(Fletcher 59). Though the reviews were all favorable, DeCurtis reminds, Its necessary to emphasize
in this age of multiplatinum debut albums that Murmur, while a critical smash, was not remotely a
commercial hit (Introduction 9).17
Despite the initial lack of commercial success, R.E.M.s Murmur proves to be worthy of
study based on the critical accolades alone. Murmur also deserves consideration for serving as a
guidepost for many of the bands who chose to follow R.E.M. back to the New South for inspiration
(Robbins 4th ed. 544). Bowler and Dray echo Robbins in their assessment of Murmurs importance.
They write:
The quality of Murmur, its classical and subtle references, couldnt be faulted. Its appearance
sowed the seeds for a radical change of agenda with American music that was to see college
radio take an increasingly important part in shaping the future. R.E.M. became the patron
saints of that movement whether they liked it or not, and it is here that Murmur is of lasting
significance. (65)
17 Album sales for Murmur are not readily available because distribution rights have changed hands
many times in the last fifteen years. Fletcher estimates that Murmur has finally exceeded the one
million mark.

In many ways, Murmur is the link between the crass, subversive and defiant punk rock of the late
Seventies and the all-too-acceptable alternative rock that dominates the airwaves today.
As Murmur is best experienced through repeated listenings, the reader is encouraged, as
Michael suggests in West of the fields, to Listen through your eyes in the following section
detailing the album.
A Description Of The Album
To borrow a phrase from Michael Stipe, the reminder of this section will attempt to sort out
the music from the sound (Fletcher 189). Included in this section is a general description of the
album, a discussion of the albums packaging and an analysis of the musical tricks and techniques
employed throughout the album. This conversation begins with a description of Murmur
Describing Murmur presents a formidable challenge because the album resists singular
interpretations. Instead, the album becomes a new experience on each successive listening. Greer
Possibly the most striking feature of Murmur is its inventiveness. Despite the somewhat
limited stylistic range the band possessed at this early stage in their career, it never seemed to
run out of ways to make a song interesting, whether it be a trick arrangement or an
unexpected sound half-buried in the mix. One of the records most persistent delights is in
the relistening; almost always, something new, something you hadnt heard before, yields
itself. (60)
This characteristic of Murmur is one of the album's delights, and appears to be an intentional ploy by
the band. Peter Buck adds:
We wanted to make a ghostly, floating, from-nowhere album. I dont know why we felt
confident enough to make such a weird record. Because live, we were still a rock & roll
band, concentrating on vocals, falling down, whatever. But it was time to come up with
something a bit more diverse, evocative. (George-Warren 68)
Hogan describes the album as emotional, mystical and sublime (5). Robbins describes Murmur as
haunting webs of guitar rock that are heavy with atmosphere (4th ed. 544). DeCurtis adds, Overall

Murmur stirringly intermingled a heady sense of excitement with a vague but persistent air of
apprehension (Introduction 8). All of these descriptions are accurate, and all lend themselves to an
understanding of the general dimensions of R.E.M.s Murmur. However, Peter Buck offers a worthy
description while explaining the bands inspirations and aspirations. He says:
Murmur was meant to be a textural-type record. Without really thinking about it we knew we
didnt want to make the traditional first album which usually involves merely laying down the
live act. We wanted to try something a bit different and the songs seemed to call for a
textural approach so we used a lot of twelve-string guitar, piano and even some strings.
Without taking a firm approach, we wanted the album to be coherent in a way that meant you
couldnt pick it up and say, I like this and I like this but I hate that bit. It had to be
something that fired you or else left you totally cold. (Bowler and Dray 57)
The result was an album that is, as Pond asserts in his initial review, an intelligent, enigmatic, deeply
involving album...full of false starts and images of movements, pilgrimage and transit (28).
Describing Murmur as post-modern might well sound like a cliche, but the complexity and richness of
the album defy modernists' interpretations.
R.E.M.s intentions to create a mysterious record are apparent even before the first listening.
One need not look beyond the albums cover to get a sense of the mystery contained within. The front
side of the album cover shows a kudzu-covered field that is so common in the state of Georgia. The
kudzu has enveloped something, but the density of the dormant foliage makes discerning that something
impossible. Bowler and Dray comment, The sleeve was also picked as a metaphor of sorts, the kudzu
apparently covering some solid construction, but without stripping the vine away, thereby depriving
the scene of its beauty, it was impossible to tell just what was there (58). This choice for Murmur's
cover was intentional. Brown explains:
Peter and Michael at first tried to find something Flannery OConnor-like for the cover. They
each wanted something twisted, crazy-rooted, mystical. The photo of a kudzu field on which
they finally agreed perfectly represented their sound and image: tangled, blurred at tire edges.
And kudzu itself became R.E.M.s ideal icon: It was everything they were: overwhelming,
unstoppable, creeping, and ultimately dominating. (Brown 204)

Murmurs cover is not immediately striking; nor was it typical of album covers from that time. While
most new wave bands of the early Eighties were featuring neon colors, angular designs and pristine
graphics, R.E.M.s decision to present an organic album cover is as remarkable as the twelve songs
contained within. Gray adds:
The triumph of Murmur's packaging is that it manages to be at once a declaration of the
bands origins, mysterious, and-in the way it takes everyday symbols and signals and
combines them so that they appear somehow otherworldlya visual echo of the theme of
threatened innocence running throughout the albums' songs. These elements are not
unrelated. In fact, they are inextricably linked: according to Peter, the rural south is a
strange slow surrealistic place where a sense of honour and tradition is just a thin veneer over
seldom articulated but deeply felt passions, frustrations and superstitions. (2nd ed. 173)
To the casual observer, Murmurs album cover may appear to be rather plain, and even amateurish.
The front cover is bland; the band mugshots on the back cover are out of focus, leaving the members
of R.E.M. seeming somewhat suspicious; and, the blurred font forces a re-reading of the songs listed
on the back. However, these artistic choices are in perfect tune with the rest of the album.
The musical elements of Murmur continue the metaphor initially presented by Murmur's
packaging. Murmur is, in many ways, a strange sounding album. The studio tricks, like using layered
guitars, recording the vocals in a stairwell, and recording the sounds of billiard balls crashing into one
another, create a sense of uncertainty that borders on confusion. Buck adds, Its not a record where
you sit and admire the pristine clarity of the separation. I mean, theres about twenty acoustic guitars
on some tracks, 'its supposed to be a mush. We worked really hard to get it to be a mush (Bowler
and Dray 57). This approach helped to create an album that was, as Buck notes, more about wannth
and things being together (Bowler and Dray 57).
Again, one could argue that this lack of musical clarity could be mistaken as evidence of
R.E.M.s inexperience in the studio. Buck admits, It sounds like someone whos never mixed a
record mixed the record (Fletcher 52). However, this was not the case. Part of Murmurs success

belongs to the albums producers, Mitch Easter and Don Dixon. Their expertise allowed R.E.M. to
create the desired sound of the album. Dixon comments:
The sophisticated aspects of the record were not appreciated right off the bat. It was viewed
as this naive accidental thing, because nobody knew who Mitch and I were in the industry.
So since they didnt know us and we were southern, obviously we were really stupid, and we
just stumbled across this stuff. (Fletcher 52)
Buck also defends the album, commenting, That was the record we wanted to make, and people
tended to, at least in those days, just go Oh well, that must have been an accident. No it wasnt.
Mitch and Don went out on a limb to make a strange sounding record (Fletcher 52). The musical
tricks employed by R.E.M. in the recording of Murmur further established the album's mystique by
creating a mood of uncertainty and apprehension.
Murmur is complex and simple all at once. The musical ingenuity of Murmur created a
listening experience unlike any other album of its time. Listening to Murmur became an adventure.
However, for better or worse, Murmur's music will always play second fiddle to Murmur's lyrics.
Fletcher explains, Its strangest facet of all was, no doubt, its hide-and-seek vocals. The beauty of
their tone aside, it was hard to decide which presented a greater challenge: interpreting the words
where they were audible, or deciphering them where they werent (52). Given Buck and Stipes
contempt for traditional rock lyrics, the lyrical vagueness of Murmur comes as no surprise.
Without a doubt, the lyrics contained within the twelve songs on Murmur are, as Marcus Gray
suggests, rivers of suggestion. Much has been written about R.E.M.s lyrical obscurities. An earlier,
and considerable, portion of this chapter has addressed this matter in detail. The next section will
focus specifically on the lyrics presented on Murmur.
This idea that lyrics are not meant to be readily understood quickly became trademark R.E.M.
The hide and seek lyrics on Murmur are instrumental to the albums mystique. Reiterating this
philosophy, Buck explains:

Were not the most linear band in the world, but I think so much of rocknroll has become
easily digestible. Its all right out front for you. You have a video that tells you what the
song is about, and the lyrics, only an idiot could misconstrue them. And the music is
something youve heard eight million times. I dont think its necessarily a bad thing for
people to have to work a little bit harder at listening to a record and think about it. (Gray 2nd
ed. 437)
If R.E.M.s goal was to revolutionize the rock music industry by re-inventing the lyric, Murmur is
weighty evidence that the band has succeeded in doing just that.
R.E.M. has always maintained that their lyrics are open for interpretation. As such, the
following section will treat the songs on Murmur accordingly. For example, Greer jokes that all the
songs on Murmur are about Stipes cat (58). However, rather than boldly state that this song is about
this, interpretations will be offered. Inspirations and explanations for each song will be given where
possible. In all respects, each song will be treated as a river of suggestion. The next section is meant
to be a navigational tool only. All white-water rafters are encouraged to explore each river as they see
Common sense would dictate that each song be presented as it appears on the album. One
could also argue for a chronological discussion. As there appears to be no benefit to either method, the
former will be used here. Of course, either way would produce a discussion of Radio Free Europe
Rivers Of Suggestion-The Songs On Murmur
Radio Free Europe was written by R.E.M. in the second half of 1980. This song was the
first single released by R.E.M. The singles producer, Atlanta-native Johnny Hibbert described Radio
Free Europe as a record that was just full of energy, that made people want to dance, that was kind
of fun and mysterious all at once. It had an innocence, yet a slightly sardonic angle to it too, which to
me is almost the quintessential American pop single (Hogan 94). The song could also be R.E.M.s
first recorded attempt at making a political statement.

The previous year Ronald Reagan had been elected President of the United States. The
staunchly democratic R.E.M. may have viewed this as an opportunity to take a poke at the new
administration. However, it seems more likely that R.E.M. was merely commenting on their political
influence as pop musicians. Marcus Gray reveals one possible inspiration for the song. He writes:
The lyric of their very first single, Radio Free Europe, derives from a conversation Peter had
with Michael about US radio commercials they remembered from their childhood asking for
donations to support Radio Free Europe. The station had been established in Berlin during
1950, with the intention of broadcasting propaganda to destabilize the communist Eastern Bloc
countries under the slogan Bringing the Truth to the Reds. When I was a kid I thought that
stuff was perfectly natural, Peter told Creem in 1984. But as I got older, I thought, isnt it
strange? America is spreading cultural imperialism through pop music. The song is related to
that: to uncomprehending outsiders listening to rocknroll and not having a clue as to anything
about it. (2"ded. 410)
The opening line, Decide yourself if radios gonna stay, could be construed as an admonition by the
band to think for yourselves (Murmur) The lines Beside defying media too fast / Instead of pushing
palaces to fall support this argument {Murmur). Stipe appears to chastise those who align themselves
with benign media slogans rather than take action. That the single was backed by Sitting Still (to be
discussed later) only adds force to this observation. DeCurtis adds, The singles hints of
desperation... only made its oblique messages of hope and forbearance seemed earned
(Introduction 5).
That Radio Free Europe was the first single released by R.E.M. is hardly surprising. Hogan
explains, Whether its about college radio, pirate radio or American propaganda station broadcasting
to Eastern Bloc countries is anybodys bet, but it was a shrewd commercial choice for a debut-songs
about the radio are almost guaranteed to get airplay (94). Commercial sensibilities aside, R.E.M.
displayed their media savvy in this decision. In doing so, they kicked off their career by asking the
listener to decide yourself what their lyrics meant, and simultaneously invited the listener to become
a part of the creative process.

The second track on Murmur is Pilgrimage/ This song was written in March and April of
1982. Greer writes, Pilgrimage fades in gracefully after the chiming bell-like ending to Radio, its
layers of backing vocals lending it an almost gospel, elegiac quality (58). When asked, Stipe
admitted, Pilgrimage still baffles me. At one point right after we recorded it I heard it and it made
perfect sense. I was so exhilarated. I thought I had accomplished what I set out to do. And then I
forgot! (Hogan 6).
When Stipe croons, Rest assured this will not last, one might wonder whether or not he is
referring to his memories of this song {Murmur). However, others are willing to venture a guess at the
song's meaning. Hogan writes, The song seems to be about the line between superstition and
religion (6). To which Gray adds:
The multi-tracked backing vocals on Pilgrimage give the song a hymn-like quality, and the
lyric captures the close relationship between fire-and-brimstone-style religion and superstition.
Speaking in tongues is a manifestation of religious ecstasy, talking in unknown languages
supposedly being indicative of possession by the Holy Spirit; the title and chorus of the song
refer to the journey made for religious reasons to a scared place, usually in hope of receiving
blessing or with the intention of doing penance. (2nd ed. 266)
Other songs on Murmur carry a religious theme, so these guesses may not be off track. However,
other interpretations could be offered. Most notably, Pilgrimage may be a self-reflexive take on the
bands early days of continuous touring. When Stipe sings, Speaking in tongues, its worth a broken
lip, he might be referring to doing penance. However, the end-justifies-the-means' implications could
be applied to the pilgrimage between concert venues.
Ironically, Pilgrimage contains the most clearly enunciated vocals on Murmur, but, the
song may also contain the most elusive lyrics. With this in mind, R.E.M. could very well be stating
that one appears to be clear may or may not be. This idea could be applied to religion, touring, or
Murmurs third song, Laughing, continues this trend of puzzling lyrics. Written in early
1982, Laughing is described by Hogan as gently baroque psychedelic folk-rock, with buzzy bass,

delicate guitar and perplexing lyrics (7). Buck admits, I never understood what Laughing was
about (Gray 2nd ed. 268).
The key to the song is perhaps presented in the opening line reference to Laocoon and her
two sons. Laocoon was a Greek mythological figure. Gray writes:
Although Michael changed his gender in the song, Laocoon was a priest of Apollo who tried
to stop the Trojans from taking the wooden horse into Troy. As he was preparing a sacrifice
to his god, serpents came out of the sea and attacked his two sons. An unsuccessful rescue
attempt resulted in daddy joining them for breakfast. (2nd ed. 268)
Hogan also acknowledges the reference to Laocoon, but reveals that Stipe has claimed the song is a
rewrite of Nathaniel Hawthornes novel The Scarlet Letter, and has described it as violent and
brutal (7). This reference appears to offer more insight into the song's inspiration and possible
The Scarlet Letter, according to Gray, is an examination of the effect of sin upon the mind
and spirit of its characters (2nd ed. 268). Grays summary of The Scarlet Letter's story line offers
further insight. He writes:
In the novel, published in 1850, Hester Prynne is denounced for carrying an illegitimate child
and refusing to name the father. She is spumed by her spouse, ostracized by her community
and forced to wear a scarlet letter A on her clothes. Hester eventually embroiders the A
with gold and turns it into a badge of courage and endurance. (Gray 2nd ed. 268)
Stipe offers a similar but different explanation of Laughing. He says, Its like the photo you see in
Nazi Germany. You know, the woman with the shaved head, clutching her baby, running away from all
these people who are laughing at her (Gray 2nd ed. 135). Laughing portrays a protagonist who is
martyred, misconstrued, as do all three stories associated with this song (Murmur). From this it could
be deduced that Laughing is about finding the courage to be true to yourself, despite the consequences
whether they are deserved or not. Again, as with Pilgrimage, this song contains elements of religion
and superstition, themes that echo throughout Murmur.

Talk About The Passion is the fourth song on Murmur. This song was written in January
1983. The version recorded on Murmur represents the first time the song was played all the way
through (Gray 220). Hogan describes the song as Catchy rock-protest, a song about hunger (7).
R.E.M. again invokes Greek mythology to convey meaning in Talk About The Passion. As
Gray notes, the song features the chorus line Not everyone can carry the weight of the world, a
metaphor drawn from the Greek myth of Atlas, sentenced to do just that for eternity as punishment for
the part he played in a revolt against Zeus (Gray 2nd ed. 268). Gray adds, Michael contrasts the
carefree naivety of childhood with overwhelming forces of nature and/or unimaginably huge celestial
bodies in order to evoke the pain of attempting to-as Talk About The Passion would have it-carry
the weight of the world (2nd ed. 124).
Hogan adds that Talk About The Passion also condemns religion as this song is also about
religious hypocrisy (7). Gray adds, Talk About the Passion, although not strictly speaking about
religion, hints at religious ecstasy in its title, involves more speaking in tongues (namely, French), and
refers to empty prayer (2nd ed. 267). Buck confirms this interpretation with an explanation of his
own. He says, (Talk About The Passion) castigates those who talk about the passion yet think about
their own material gain and leave the poor to starve (Gray 2nd ed. 410).
Again, R.E.M. seem to be condemning the religious leaders who offer empty prayer for
empty mouths {Murmur). Their talk about the passion is likened to Atlass betrayal of Zeus.
Fletcher concludes, Talk About The Passion was saying that passion is just something you
experience, not talk about (52-53). Stipe repeatedly asks, combine de temps, the French way of
saying how many times {Murmur). In doing this, Stipe appears to be asking how many times the
religious leaders are betray their followers, much like Atlas betrayed Zeus. To which Stipe warns,
not everyone can carry the weight of the world {Murmur).

Moral Kiosk continues the attack on religion. Buck adds, it too is about religious
hypocrisy (7). The fifth song on Murmur, Moral Kiosk, was penned in May and June of 1982.
Gray suggests the title was chosen as a pun on moral chaos (2nd ed. 266). Gray adds. Moral
Kiosk.. .has been explained by Peter as being concerned with the hypocrisy of television and radio
evangelists who appoint themselves the nations moral guardians, denounce sin, demand money with
eternal menaces, and get their kicks in motel rooms with expensive hookers (2nd ed. 266-7). Buck
expands, Unfortunately, these people who are being preyed upon are not the smartest or richest folks in
the world. They work in garages, they come home, and then mail off money they dont really have and
whited be better used feeding their children (2nd ed. 266-7). Fletcher concurs with Gray, adding,
Moral Kiosk was more or less a reaction to all those Jerry Falwell-ish TV ministries (52-53).
The lyrics support this interpretation with hints of scandals in the twilight and idle hands
{Murmur). The song even carries a high sexual charge (Gray 2"d ed. 133). The allegation that things
are so much more attractive inside the moral kiosk suggests that what is presented within the
confines of religion, whether it is in a church or on TV, are merely illusions to mask what is really
going on {Murmur).
Perfect Circle was written in the middle months of 1983. This song is the sixth track on
Murmur, and may be one of R.E.M.s most beautiful ballads. The simple musical arrangement is
contrasted by complex and thoughtful lyrics. Gray writes, Perfect Circle is a fascinating song, not
least because the members of R.E.M. cannot seem to agree on its subject (2nd ed. 120). Buck explains
his interpretation of the song. He says, These kids were playing touch football, the last game before
dark, and for some reason I was so moved I cried for twenty minutes (Gray 2nd ed. 121). Buck says
he asked Stipe to write lyrics that captured that feeling. Stipe denies Bucks story and adds, To me, it
was about my ex-girlfriend (Gray 2nd ed. 121). Both stories may be correct. The lyrics contain

illusions to a football game, including eleven shadows and try to win {Murmur). Also included
are lyrics referring to a sexual encounter, such as, pull your dress on and stay real close {Murmur).
However, the lyrics demonstrate that both Buck and Stipes interpretations could be true.
Gray explains:
In fact, the song seems to employ and juxtapose images from both scenarios. The
awkwardness and growing pains of pre-adolescence represented by the kids at play are
contrasted with post-coital tristesse and the guilt that accompanies a failing post-adolescent
relationship, both in turn overshadowed by images of age and death. (2nd ed. 121)
The complexity of this song invokes a strong reaction in the listener and characterizes R.E.M.s ability
to draw the listener into the meaning-making process. Stipe adds, I really like it that it can mean two
different things. But the feeling is exactly the same as what I think about the song and what Buck
thinks about the song. Its the exact same feeling but the details are different (Fletcher 52). Gray
adds that Perfect Circle is a good illustration of R.E.M.s use of juxtaposition in balancing two
contrasting groups of images in the verse and chorus, respectively to create a powerful effect (Gray
2nd ed. 133-4).
This effect is a feeling of loss and sadness. The repeated lyric, standing too soon, shoulders
high in the room that closes the song suggests a mournful loss of innocence {Murmur). Whether this
song is about football, Stipes girlfriend, or Stipes cat is hardly relevant. The message and feeling
conveyed is as powerful as any in R.E.M.s entire catalog.
While Perfect Circle laments the loss of childhood innocence, Murmur's seventh song,
Catapult, takes the listener back to childhood. The song was written in 1982 and is described by
Hogan as an underrated ode to childhood (Hogan 8). This light-hearted ditty serves to lighten the
atmosphere and provides a brief hint of optimism. Greer writes, Its haphazard position on the CD
only emphasizes what a silly little op song it is (58).
Hogan takes a stab at interpreting this song with an infectiously dumb chorus (8). He
writes, They sound concerned at having been too young to appreciate the Sixties (Hogan 8).

However, Gray suggests that this song may be more concerned with Stipes memories from the
Sixties. He adds, Catapult uses childlike language to describe childhood experiences and childish
behavior. It does so in such convincing detail it is hard to believe it draws on anything other than
Stipe family mythology (2nd ed. 122-3). The lyrics contribute to what could be a reenactment of any
bedtime scene in America. Its nine oclock, dont try to turn it off (Murmur) refers to TV termination
and bedtime (Gray 2nd ed. 123). While Porch could be darker (Murmur) could be an indication that it
is getting late (Gray 2nd ed. 123).
All the images used in Catapulf add up to a song written and sung from the childs
perspective. The songs placement on the CD (or album in 1983) may well be an acknowledgment that
amidst the cynical world views of Talk About The Passion, Moral Kiosk, and Perfect Circle lies a
glimmer of childish, but optimistic, hope. Although, the impending darkness on Catapult invokes a
sense of fear that serves to temper this hope.
Murmur's eighth song, Sitting Still, also promotes the childs perspective. This song was
written at the end of 1980. Like other songs on Murmur, the origins of Sitting Still are equally
vague. In 1988, Berry said, I couldnt tell you what Sitting Still is about. If you gave me a pen and
a pad and a couple of months, I could probably come up with something (Gray 2nd ed. 111). Greer
adds, The song is an example of the type of R.E.M. arrangement where Stipes voice would be used
pretty strictly as simply an additional instrument. The lyrics are deliberately stretched and slurred so
that verbal sense doesnt interfere with the purely musical value of the syllables (58). This vocal
styling makes deciphering the lyrics challenging and interpretation difficult.
However, Gray attempts an explanation that seems consistent with the lyrics. He writes, The
very title of Sitting Still, one of the first R.E.M. songs to be written and recorded, suggest
restrictions placed on a child (Gray 2nd ed. 121). Supporting this claim is the resolution of one debate
concerning what Stipe is actually singing. The lyric We could gather, throw a fit (Murmur) has been

misinterpreted as We can gather through our fear, to which Stipe concedes, Thats better (Gray 2nd
ed. 116). This willingness to change their lyrics upon suggestion is trademark R.E.M. This occasion
suggests an attempt to capture a feeling in words. The key to the song could be the line Katie buys a
kitchen-size. This is a butchered version of the phrase, Katie bar the door {Murmur). As Gray notes,
this phrase derives from the barring of the door to prevent a child from escaping punishment and means
youd better watch out or, sometimes, things are about to get out of control (Gray 2nd ed. 266). In
Sitting Still the lyrics suggest both fear and defiance, feelings easily associated with a child being
punished or abused.
While interpretation of this song remains a challenge, the inspiration for this song is more
certain. Gray notes, [Sitting Still] alludes to deafness (Gray 2nd ed. 109). While discussing Stipes
sources of inspiration, in the case of Sitting Still Gray suggests Michaels starting point was his
sister Cyndys job as a teacher of deaf children (Gray 2nd ed. 121). The closing line I can hear you,
can you hear me support this claim; but, preceding lines like get away from me suggest this childs
troubles extend beyond the physical disabilities {Murmur).
Murmur's ninth song, the dubiously titled 9-9, proves that often the most obscure is the
most obvious. Written in early 1981, 9-9 is described as A meandering mess, but it has its
moments (Hogan 8). Gray reveals that Stipe has claimed, that both Radio Free Europe and 9-9
have no discernible, and that the latter is not meant to be understood. It is undeniable that his
delivery makes them particularly difficult to decipher...but perseverance reveals both the be composed
of recognisably English phrases (Gray 2"d ed. 108).
While the complete lyrics exist, courtesy of many hours of sleuthing by R.E.M. fanatics, the
casual observer could guess what the song is about from the clearly enunciated last line. In talking about
9-9, Stipe reveals, It was purposely recorded so you could never be able to decipher any of the
words except the very last phrase, which was conservation fear, which is what the song is about

(Fletcher 52-53). The uncovered lyrics support this claim. 9-9 features twisting tongues that
turn to lies then asks, what is in my mind {Murmur). The song also returns to a religious theme
with a revisiting of a traditional childrens prayer. Rather than reciting the expected, If I should die
before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take, Stipe prays, If I should die before I wake, I pray the
lord to, hesitate (Murmur). This is a rather scary prayer to teach to children; but, the effect is
convincing. By pairing the fear of death with conversation fear, R.E.M. shows just how terrified one
might be of communicating.
The ballad Shaking Through follows 9-9. Similar in style to Perfect Circle, this song is
a strikingly beautiful ballad. Shaking Through was written near the end of 1980 and is the tenth
track on Murmur. Just exactly what this song is about remains unclear. Hogan admits, only God and
Michael Stipe know what its about (8).
Again, as with the last four songs, Shaking Through seems to be written with the child in
mind. The questions Could it be that one small voice doesnt count in this world? and Are we
grown way too far are just two examples (Murmur). To this, Gray speculates, In Shaking
Through, it would seem the threat to childhood innocence is prematurely awoken sexuality. The song
could be construed as addressing the confusions felt after first tentative fumblings, or, more seriously,
child abuse (Gray 2nd ed. 121). The line Autumn marches on, yellow like a geisha doll, suggests a
change or maturation consistent with Grays speculation (Murmur). It may be that only God and
Michael Stipe know what this song is about. However, the image created-a yellowing tree clinging to
its shaking, fearful leaves-invokes the same feeling of threatened innocence captured on other parts
of Murmur.
R.E.M. again chooses to break the dour mood with a bouncy little song called We Walk.
The eleventh song on Murmur, We Walk was written in August 1982. According to Gray, this song
was originally conceived as a joke (Gray 2nd ed. 266). Greer describes the song as a pedestrian (in

more ways than one), country-inflected ditty (60). Hogans description offers another perspective on
We Walk. He writes, A really strange one, this. It sounds like a vaudeville song-and dance number
and a Syd Barrett song, evoking A. A. Milne-like images of childhood (Hogan 8). Continuing a
noticeable trend, R.E.M. again summons the child to carry this song.
What the song is about is unclear. Interpretations vary. Stipe once revealed the songs origin
to an audience in Boulder, Colorado. He begins by explaining that there is a small print shop in
Athens. After giving map details, he continues:
On the right hand side is this place called the print shop. It was built around 1893. If you
walk up the stairs, you have to go through the bathroom to get to the kitchen where theyll
make coffee for free, and theyll do you printing for less than Kinkos. Sometimes you open
the door to go through the bathroom and theres someone laying in the bathtub with their arm
extended down over the edge like that painting [Jacques Louis Davids portrait of Jean-Paul
Marat, the French revolutionary who was assassinated in his bath]. (Gray 2nd ed. 162)
Stipes story is confirmed by the line Up the stairs to the landing, up the stairs into the hallway, and
explains why Marats bathing {Murmur). Stipes story is believable and entertaining.
Hogans interpretation pales in comparison, but is worthy of mention. Concerning We
Walk, he writes, Allegedly about Michaels friend Dory Duke (who would walk five steps behind
him) (Hogan 9). Again, not as entertaining, but Hogan may have tapped into the songs deeper
meaning. Given Stipes celebrity status in Athens, We Walk could very well be a commentary on
his followers. The command Take oasis could be construed as take a break, or give it a rest
{Murmur). To this Gray adds, A touch of disquiet is even introduced to the album version of the
otherwise saccharine kiddy-ditty that is We Walk by the menacing underlying rumblings (Gray ed.
2120). It could be that We Walk is a reiteration of the sentiments originally presented in Radio Free
Europe. However, Bowler and Drays interpretation also deserves a fair hearing. They write:
The nursery rhyme approach in this song worked well whichever way you looked at it; it was
plainly a piece of studio nonsense, as Michaels affecting closing vocal amply illustrates, but
it acted as a false trail for those who were always looking for hidden meanings within the
songs. We Walk meant precisely what it said-nothing at all-but that didnt stop it being
analysed to death, to their shared amusement.

If this is the case, R.E.M.s joke worked without flaw. Although, it may also be that the non-message of
We Walk was merely intended to illustrate the argument present in Radio Free Europe. Sometimes a
silly little pop song is just a silly little pop song.
R.E.M. closes Murmur with a return trip to Greek mythology. The fields in West Of The
Fields, written in March and April 1982 with lyrical assistance from Neil Bogan, refer to the Elysian
fields of Greek myth (Hogan 9).
Like Moral Kiosk, Pilgrimage, and Talk About the Passion, West of the Fields returns
to the topic of religion. Grays explanation provides a good foundation for.further explanation. He
West of the Fields owes much to the Greek (and, subsequently Roman) concept of heaven:
the title and the line dreams of elysian refer to the fields on the banks of the river Oceanus,
situated in the farthest west, where the blessed dwell. However, the urgent chanting and
drumming and allusions to the jungle and strange animals undermine the veneer of civilization.
It is though a primitive society has established itself in the ruins of a once mighty and
sophisticated civilisation, its rituals and ceremonies based on half-forgotten folk memory of
what went before. (Gray 2nd ed. 268-9)
Lines like Listen through your eyes, the animals, how strange, and Tell now what is dreaming,
suggest that something may be going on underneath the surface of our civilized glazing {Murmur).
Gray suggests that this song is an example of Stipes penchant for using his reptile brain in the
writing process (Gray 2nd ed. 115). Gray adds:
West of the Fields, a song which carries along references to intuition and race memories on a
primal jungle beat. It recalls JG Ballards novel The Drowned World, in which dramatic climate
changes bring about an evolutionary reversal. The way back home for Kerans, the central
character, is a biological as well as physical journey to his (and all our) pre-reptilian equatorial
origins. (Gray 2nd ed. 115)
Indeed, the lyrics of this song may be about Stipes reptile brain. The song certainly suggests just
that. With that in mind, it is hard to accept Greers assessment that West of the Fields is a
throwaway track (60). Especially when considered in the context of Murmur. On the contrary,
West of the Fields seems to echo the theme represented by the kudzu-covered cover, the murky

instrumentation and the enigmatic vocals. Specifically, R.E.M. closes Murmur with the warning that
not everything is what it appears to be.
This warning extends to R.E.M.s Murmur. The kudzu covered cover hints at an
uncontrollable force taking over the established structures of society. Rodger Brown summarizes:
On Murmur, R.E.M. capitalized on the mystique of the South and the sense of place and
environment that it is known for despite the fact that none of the bands members was native
to the region. As a band, they took the standard cliches of pop rock and twisted them, convolved
them through nai've manipulation and quirky taste into something murky, complex, thick
(Brown 203-4)
The twelve tracks on Murmur are characteristic of R.E.M. They include songs of political interest, like
Radio Free Europe, Talk About the Passion, and Moral Kiosk; and songs of personal interest, like
Shaking Through and Perfect Circle. However, to suggest that any of these twelve songs is about any
one specific thing would detract from the beauty of the album. The murk and mumbles of Murmur may
seem to be a sign of R.E.M.s inexperience and lack of confidence; however, this ambiguity and
confusion is fundamental to Murmurs success. Bowler and Dray explain, Most of the songs on Murmur
have a very personal meaning, hence the albums obliqueness for outside observers (63). Buck
embroidered further by adding, The imagery is pretty strange sometimes but thats just the way it is,
there are two million ways to tell stories and theres no law that says you have to be straightforward about
it. If youre writing personal stuff, sometimes its gonna be kinda obscure (63). Commenting on Stipes
vocal delivery, Buck adds, I kinda like the idea of people with one hand cupped to their ear and going,
Whats that theyre saying? (Bowler and Dray 62). The combination of cryptic phrasing and slurred
vocals allows Murmur to become more than just another rock and roll album.
Murmur is considered a masterpiece by most in the music world, and this is the album that
ignited R.E.M.s rise to fame and fortune. Tony Fletcher concludes:
Only rarely does a debut album succeed in capturing a group on the brink of becoming a
shattering new talent, one that has already honed its craft into a distinct sound, that has the
ability to capture that identity in the studio, and the purpose of mind to retain control while
doing so. Murmur is such an album. (Fletcher 51)

Murmur caught the rock world by surprise in 1983. Nobody knew that this quirky collection of songs
about religion and innocence would spark an alternative music revolution. Maybe the band knew.
At least, as Buck slyly admits, We knew we were on to something (George-Warren 69).
Talk About The WeatherAn Introduction To R.E.M.s Green
Murmur's success undoubtedly affected how R.E.M.s subsequent albums would be
perceived. The band must have surely felt the effects of the Heisenberg Principle, for clearly all eyes
in the music world were focused squarely on them, ensuring that nothing R.E.M. did after Murmur
would match their debut albums unexpected success.18 The five albums that followed Murmur-
Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, Lifes Rich Pageant, Document and Dead Letter Officewere
all shadowed by the enormity of that first album because they could not take the rock world by
surprise. While all worthy albums, none of these received the critical acclaim that Murmur did.
However, to make comparisons between two separate albums hardly makes sense because each album
has departed both lyrically and musically from its predecessor.
Finally, on November 8, 1988, the day that George Bush was elected President of the United
States, R.E.M. released Green. Though Green lacked the impact of Murmur, this album struck a
familiar chord with the R.E.M. faithful. Fletcher writes, In many ways, Green was a return to the
subtlety of Murmur, requiring repeated exposure before its delights could be coaxed out from the
melange of unusual instrumentation or its intrigue unearthed from the directness of its pop songs
(117). Green again finds the band playing with words and finally returns to the sound and vocal
impressions of Murmur.
18 The Heisenberg Principle comes from Physics. Essentially, this principle asserts that as soon as a
researcher looks at what s/he is researching, the object is forever changed. This applies to R.E.M.
because nothing after Murmur could again be viewed innocently.

Stipe confirms Greens connections to Murmur in an interview with Rolling Stone. He
comments, For me, Green had so many connections to Murmur. It was very much in the back of my
head the whole time we were working on it. From the album cover to the topics of the songs and the
way the songs were carried out, to me, theres a great connection there (Hogan 56). The inclusion of
Green in this study is justified by the connection to Murmur. With Green, R.E.M. displays a new
maturity, but re-visits many of the themes first visited on Murmur. The remainder of this section will
mirror the earlier discussion of Murmur. A brief summary of Greens awards and accolades will be
followed by a general description of the album, which will be followed by a song by song discussion.
This section will provide the necessary background information for further analysis, and establish
Green's position as an equal to Murmur.
Under The Honor Roll-An Examination Of Accolades And Awards
If R.E.M. made any mistakes in the early part of their career, this mistake would have to be
producing a phenomenal first album. Murmur would be the benchmark for all the albums that
followed. While falling short of Murmurs accolades, Green perhaps came the closest to matching
Murmurs impact. The following is an incomplete, but representative sample of the commentary on
R.E.M.s first record on the Warner Brothers label.
First of all, Green was not named album of the year by Rolling Stone. Nor were they hailed
as Americas Best New Artist. However, as Hogan remembers, on the heels of Greens release, a
December 1989 issue of Rolling Stone of 1988 proclaimed R.E.M. Americas Hippest Band (57).
Hogan adds, the British press was even more ecstatic. Qs Andy Gill called them, the nest band in
the world, and Melody Maker's Allan Jones noted, they could bow out now with Green and we
would remember them with nothing but awe (57). Ira Robbins continues the parade of praise with a
brief description and evaluation of Green. He writes:

The quartets arrival into the global pop stakes, Green, is a great, artistically mature record
with more good songs than any prior R.E.M. album. Dropping the familiar jangle pop and
crisp rhythms, the band finds a characteristic compromise with modem rock (although several
numbers are entirely acoustic) that grants the lyrics and melodies precedence over
immediately recognizable presentation. (Robbins Trouser Press Record Guide 4th ed. 545)
This is indeed high praise coming from a rock critic that called Murmur a masterpiece. Robbins was
not alone in his praise for Green. Michael Azerrad adds, R.E.M. may be dangerously close to
becoming a conventional rock and roll band, but Green proves its a damn good one (92). Finally,
Hogan adds:
Not only was Green spot on in mood for its time (consider how many world leaders lost
their jobs in the following year), but it has a timeless quality that places it right up there with
Van Morrisons Astral Weeks and Loves Forever Changesits a genuine classic. The
later albums may have shifted more copies, but Green is a more coherent work than any of
them. (56)
The comparison to Astral Weeks did not go unnoticed. Buck responded, R.E.M. has yet to scale the
dizzy heights attained by Van Morrison with Astral Weeks, and also that judgments about the best are
necessarily subjective and transient (Gray 2nd ed. 501).
The same conversation could happen concerning R.E.M.s first seven albums with the
conclusion always being the same: there just is not a best R.E.M. album. Though Murmur will
always be singled out, the reviews of Green prove its inclusion in this study is justified. To
summarize, Green's producer Scott Litt admitted, Id like to deliver you a record thats gonna sell
5,000,000 copies, but Green is not that record (Fletcher 117). However, for the masses hoping for an
unexpected gem that matched Murmur's inventivenessboth musically and lyricallyGreen proved to
do just that.
A Description Of The Album
Hearkening back to an earlier section of this chapter, the following section will dissect Green,
to again borrow a phrase from Michael Stipe, sort out the music from the sound (Fletcher 189).

Included in this section is a general description of Green, a discussion of the albums title and
packaging and an analysis of the musical and lyrical methods employed throughout the album.
R.E.M. has a long history of departing from the sound and style of their previous album. This
trend continued with Green. The overtly political Document, released in September 1987 represented
R.E.M.s boldest effort to date. Many wondered if the band would continue moving in that direction.
This question was answered in November 1988 with the release of Green. Stipe explains the difference
between the two albums. He writes, Document for me was a very vitriolic statement. If this album is a
reaction to Document, most of the songs that we wrote hopefully are very uplifting and that cynicism is
passed over. I wanted to put hope into the music, and hopefully I did (Gray 2nd ed. 79). Stipe adds,
Hope is important, its an intrinsic human emotion to think there is some light at the end of the tunnel
(Bowler and Dray 124). While politics remained a general concern for R.E.M., that concern was colored
with optimism on Green.
The first indication of R.E.M.s political agenda was evidenced by their decision to release
the album on November 8, 1988. Azerrad writes, It was no coincidence that such a hopeful record
was released on an election day whose outcome was a foregone conclusion. Now is not the time for
despair, R.E.M. seem to be saying, but for a redoubling of efforts (91). DeCurtis adds, 'Green, with
its suggestions of optimism, environmentalism and innocence, was released on election day. The
singer meant for the album to be a gesture of hope and encouragement (R.E.M.s Brave New World
101-2). Michael Stipe confirms the bands intentions for Green. He comments, I decided that this
had to be a record that was incredibly uplifting. Not necessarily happy, but a record that was uplifting
to offset the store-bought cynicism and easy condemnation of the world we're living in now
(R.E.M.s Brave New World 102). To which Peter Buck adds, hope was a nice quality to have on the
record this year. ..Green is probably the album that reaches out most positively (Bowler and Dray 124).

Green represents a return to the belief in individual action apparently mislaid during
Document' (Gray 2nd ed. 423). The album is a call for action. Stipe adds, Something I was really
stressing on Green was that the individual has a great power and a great strength (Gray 2nd ed. 423).
R.E.M.s political message was clear, but it was delivered with a subtle and inherent optimism not present .
on any of their other albums.
Musically and lyrically, R.E.M. skirted the issue of politics, with the obvious exception being
the song Orange Crush. Instead, the band opts for a juxtaposition of images that conveys the sense
of hope that R.E.M. was intent on delivering. Fricke offers a good description of Green's musical and
lyrical dimensions. He writes:
Green is a welcome distillation of R.E.M.s stage magic and love of extremes; the album
incorporates elements as divergent as the bubblegum delight of Get Up, the subtle ballad bite
ofHairshirt, the frank romanticism of the untitled closing track-and dare we say it?the slow
Zeppelinesque grind of Turn You Inside Out. Singer-lyricist Michael Stipes new interest in
enunciation and his more explicit approach to personal and political affairs~in You are the
Everything, Pop Song 89 and World Leader Pretend~also give Green a firm, emotive kick
that shows how the older, wiser R.E.M. has adapted rock and roll conventions to its own
purposes. The result: accessibility without compromise. (Fricke 109)
Azerrad adds, Still others reveal more emotion than the band has shown in the past; You Are the
Everything and the untitled track that closes the album are frank love songs with few strings attached
(91). On Green, R.E.M. presents images that are unsettling; but, these images are couched in an
optimism that makes the challenges feel manageable.
As noted earlier in this chapter, Green's connections to Murmur are undeniable. Stipe adds,
For me, Green had so many connections to Murmur. It was very much in the back of my head the whole
time we were working on it (Gray 2nd ed. 79) This connection manifests itself through the use of the
childs perspective on both albums. Gray adds:
R.E.M.s first two albums for Warner Brothers {Green and Out of Time) found Michaels use of
childlike language and images derived from childhood at its most pronounced and varied for
many years, something that was also evident in the phrase he used to describe his decision to
take a rest from the more overtly political subject matter of Document: Having vented that
spleen, I can kind of go beyond it and pick up the crayon again. (Gray 2nd ed. 127-8)

The similarities between the two albums do not end there. In comparing Green to R.E.M.s first album,
Bowler and Dray note, Many of the songs point to the same kind of smoky, wistful regret that had
colored Murmur half a decade earlier, a concern with the passing of time and a world that was not as
simple as it once appeared (131).
The connection between Green and Murmur are also evident in the album packaging. Green's
packaging is similar to the album packaging for Murmur and echoes the general theme of the album in
much the same way. The front cover is simple enough. Green is spelled out in block letters at the top of
the cover with R.E.M. positioned directly beneath. The background portrays a forest of lush ferns. The
back cover features a cross-section of a tree framing the song titles and album credits. These images seem
appropriate enough for an album entitled Green; however, the album cover is colored orange. This
decision was intentional. Gray explains, The color of the packaging would seem to be just another
offbeat R.E.M. joke, until one realizes it is a reference to the albums only overtly political moment,
Orange Crush (Gray 2nd ed. 184). A full appreciation of this ironic moment requires a discussion of
R.E.M.s decision to call the album Green.
R.E.M.s decision to name this new album Green generated many discussions. Stipe explains,
Theres all the different aspects to the word green, all the different ways it can be taken (Gray 2nd ed.
183). This vagueness prompted many to venture a guess at what Green meant. Fletcher writes:
With the exception of the somewhat sardonic reference to the color of dollar bills, of which
the whole world knew that R.E.M. had almost too many to count, the title 'Green' was chosen
early in the day for its many positive connotations: the groups 'Green' politics, naivete, and
enthusiasm. It was, says Michael Stipe, a slap in the face to the shop-bought cynicism of the
era. (108)
Hogan comes to a similar conclusion. He comments that green implies a solidarity with Green politics,
a global consciousness and eco-awareness in general (55). He also adds, It [Green] could also be taken
as implying innocence and/or naivety (Hogan 55-6). Buck adds, "Green is everything you want-youth,
maturity, growth, strength and also its money and the other kinda nasty, grubby things (Bowler And

Dray 123). Buck, frustrated by the question, also quipped Its just a title. We could have called it
Fred (Hogan 55-6). But they did not, and it seems clear that R.E.M.s choice of album titles is
Coloring the album orange is also significant. The orange is clearly a reference to the song
Orange Crush, a song about the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. On the artwork for Green, R.E.M.s
green world is tainted by this insidious defoliant. Given the albums recurrent themes of personal action,
R.E.M. chooses to present this dilemma visually as well. This juxtaposition is also ironic. Gray
recognizes this and his explanation provides an excellent summary of the importance of Green's
packaging. He writes:
The most obvious association of the albums title, though, is with the Green movement. The
ferns on the front cover and the cross-section of the tree trunk on the back set out to develop this
theme. So does the inset photograph of the earth, a recurring image in the campaign literature of
Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. However, the picture was taken from Apollo 17, the other
inset photograph depicts electrical conductors, and the inner sleeve features the tracking to be
found at the beginning of a movie film stock. All these images acknowledge the contradictions
inherent in R.E.M.s reliance on environment-unfriendly technology and resource-depleting
materials in the pursuit of their art. (Gray 2"d ed. 184)
Stipe has said the song World Leader Pretend sums up the whole idea behind Green" (Bowler and
Dray 128). Greer affirms this songs importance to the album. He writes, Green was the first record to
actually print the lyrics to an R.E.M. song: The song was World Leader Pretend, whose thematic
importance to the message of the album was thus underscored, as ambiguous as even those black-and-
white lyrics might have been (75). The beauty of Green's packaging is that it paints a picture of the
world the way it is, while suggesting the way it could be. The vagueness of the term green is used to stir
the intellect and prompt action. Once again, R.E.M. succeeds in using ambiguity to their advantage.
Green's connection to Murmur is generic rather than specific. Similar ideas, perspectives and
themes are presented on both albums; however, the songs are delivered in dissimilar styles. Bowler and
Dray write, The internal dynamic may have been similar to that on Murmur, which had the same urge to
create a mystery record of sorts, a level of excitement at a new departure and the determination to

produce their very best work, but from the fans perspective the two records have little in common
musically or lyrically (Bowler and Dray 123). Indeed, Green was a musical and lyrical departure from
Murmur. The following discussion will examine these two areas of Green.
As Rolling Stone's Jeffrey Ressner notes, much of Green is more accessible than earlier R.E.M.
works (88). R.E.M. bass player Mike Mills adds, I think Michael has grown so much as a lyricist that
its natural for the words to become more and more prominent (Ressner 88). On Green, Stipe shows a
lyrical maturity not present on Green. Half of this could be attributed to experience, while the other may
be in part due to Stipes increasing confidence in his songwriting abilities. Or, it could be argued that
Stipe understood his role as the bands representative and capitalized on the opportunity to craft more
distinctive lyrics.
Gray describes the lyric writing process for Green and explains the change in Stipes approach.
He writes, For Green, the lyrics were also often the last component parts of the songs to be completed,
but it was due to perfectionism rather than lack of preparation. Having watched the intended meaning of
several of Document's lyrics pass people by, Michael was intent on making every word count (Gray 2nd
ed. 80). Azerrad adds, "As Michael Stipe's vocals get more distinct, so does his message-instead of
meaning almost anything you want them to, his noticeably improved lyrics seem to be about at most
two or three different things" (91). This was clearly a departure from the lyrical and vocal style of
Murmur. However, thats not to say that the lyrics on Green are void of ambiguity. In many cases, an
attempt to be deliberate seems apparent. Gray explains:
By 1988, though, influenced by the precise writing methods of his friend Natalie Merchant,
Michael was taking more care than ever with the bulk of his lyrics for Green, and there is
something far more deliberate and controlled about his juxtaposition of words: Get Up,"
dreams alternately complicate and complement his life; World Leader Pretend makes the
most of homophones raising and razing; Turn You Inside Out switches back and forth
between I believe in watching you, and I believe in what you do; and the coda of I
Remember California repeats the line, At the edge of the continent, several times before slyly
exchanging the key word for the almost-but not quitesynonymous end.' (Gray 2nd ed. 112)

This willful manipulation of words results in a similar effect to the cryptic, slurred vocals on Murmur.
However, on Green, the question is not, what did he say?; rather, the question is what did he mean? In
either case, the audience became a part of the meaning-making process, a similarity Bowler and Dray
notice. They write:
The most obvious thread between the two is that element of mystery; recognizing that they were
about to be exposed to a vast new audience, R.E.M. had absolutely no intention of playing to the
lowest common denominator and making the songs and their content blatantly apparent.
Instead, they made it clear that people would have to put some work of their own to get the full
benefit of the new record, introducing the new supporters to the R.E.M. way of doing things.
(Bowler and Dray 123)
On Green, as on Murmur, R.E.M. demands a certain level of participation from the listener. The
vocals are clearer. The lyrics are more linear, and the references are more concrete. However, R.E.M.
accomplishes this lyrical maturity without forsaking their lyrical philosophy. The lyrics on Green,
while fairly straightforward, are still open to interpretation.
Musically, Green is a departure from Murmur, and the other R.E.M. albums, as well. Mills
adds, [Green is] a little more upbeat, lyrically as well as musically. But the songwriting is a
continuation of a direction we've taken before. We start playing with no real idea where we're going,
and the songs literally evolve out of nothing (Ressner 88). This mirrors the songwriting approach of
the other albums, but the instrumentation on Green had not been utilized before. To this Berry
comments, Weve found a whole new songwriting technique now: just grab an instrument you dont
know how to play, and fool around with it until it sounds right (Hogan 55). Gone from Green are the
layered acoustic guitars from Murmur, instead, Green features the mandolin, accordion and cello. The
effect is summarized by Azerrad, who writes, Green reveals a much wider range than previous efforts,
including a playfulness that wasnt there before (91). While Gray adds, The results of these tentative
dabblings on unfamiliar instruments were tunes with a naive, vulnerable quality well suited to the new
lyrical approach Michael wanted to take (Gray 2nd ed. 79). This new musical approach prompted

Melody Makers David Cavanagh to quip, They sound unlike any other band, including the four
intelligent-looking young men who made Murmur (Bowler and Dray 133).
Buck might agree with Cavanaghs remarks, and offers this assessment. He says, It reminds
me of a Led Zeppelin record because it touches a lot of different ground; theres the big rockers, theres
long, slow, weird psychedelic ones, theres a folk song, theres kind of mantra-ish stuff on it. Perhaps
were closet dinosaurs (Bowler and Dray 134). Azerrad adds, Musically, Green quotes a lot of sources.
Listen closely and you can hear references to the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Sly Stone and others (92).
However borrowed their ideas may be, R.E.M. proves on Green that the conventions of rock music can
be used unconventionally.
With Green being R.E.M.s first album for Warner Brothers, many expected the band to
compromise their ideals for the sake of money. However, the large contract allowed R.E.M. to take
the time to make the record they wanted to make. Azerrad confirms:
Having made the leap from a small label, I.R.S., to a monolithic major one, Warner Bros.,
R.E.M. hasn't sold out; rather, the band has taken the opportunity to crack open the shell it's
been pecking at since it recorded its first album. On Green, R.E.M. acknowledges the outside
world with a slew of musical references and some relatively pointed lyrics. (91)
Green, like Murmur six years before, represents a new beginning for R.E.M. The themes and challenges
on Murmur and Green are the same, though the music is strikingly different. However, Greens
inventiveness and lyrical poignancy allowed RE.M. to recapture the magic that helped make Murmur a
masterpiece. The result: an album that is fresh, exciting, inventive, and most importantly, unexpected.
The lyrics on Green are indeed more straightforward; however, they remain open for
interpretation. As such, the following section will treat the songs on Green accordingly. While
Murmur may be a collection of feline tunes, as Greer suggested, Green is a collection of personal
challenges. Adopting a thoroughly postmodern stance, the following discussion will posit that each
song will have as many interpretations as listeners. Inspirations and explanations for each song will be

given where possible; however, while navigating these rivers of suggestion the reader is encouraged,
as Stipe implores in Stand," to think about direction, wonder why you havent before.
Rivers Of Suggestion-The Songs On Green
Again common sense would dictate that each song be presented as it appears on the album.
One could also argue for a chronological discussion. As there appears to be no benefit to either
method, the former will again be used here. On the other hand, there could be readers who have
grown weary of R.E.M. and would prefer to talk about the weather. In any case, a discussion of
Pop Song 89 seems in order.
Pop Song 89, the first song on Green, was written in November 1987, presumably as a
prediction of what the music world would be like in 1989, or a forecast of what the other ten songs on
Green would sound like. Stipe describes the song as a complete piss-take (Hogan 57). Explaining
what he means by that, he later added, I guess its the prototype and hopefully the end of the pop
song...I think it describes where a lot of pop music stands right now (Fletcher 130). Fletcher expands
on Stipes description, adding, With its bland questioning in the lyric, it looks at artificial provocation
and stimulation, conventional devices that mean nothing, and makes a dig at the superficiality of the
modem world (130).
Gray recalls Pop Song 89 was originally more angst-ridden, much like the songs on
Document, but was later toned down to fit the intended mood of Green (77). Gray describes the song
as upbeat and jolly (128). Hogan adds, great widdly-wop guitar, brooding organ, an infectious
rhythmthis is almost commercial (57). The lyrics describe a superficial encounter that ends with the
questions, Should we talk about the weather? and Should we talk about the government? {Green).
Hogan adds, Stipe deflates all these questions by echoing The Doors Hello, I Love You and
admitting he hasnt a clue as to the answers (Hogan 57).

This friendly sounding song again, like many of Murmur's songs, invokes images of childhood
by suggesting a certain level of immaturity. But Gray adds, Pop Song 89 is nevertheless too knowing
to be completely childlike (Gray 2nd ed. 128). Still, this image deserves closer inspection. While the
song is generally uplifting, its shallowness casts a shadow of sadness. Gray continues this vein by adding,
A line from Pop Song 89, Hello, my friend, are you visible today? seems to sneak over and suggest
that the childs newfound friend is imaginary, making the song even sadder, despite its professed
intention to be about acceptance. Also like Sitting Still,' it ends with an appeal. But its OK, OK?
(Gray 2nd ed. 128). In more ways than one, Pop Song 89 is similar to Radio Free Europe. They are
both opening tracks on their respective albums, and they both question the influence of popular music on
The party continues with Get Up, the second song on Green. Written in early 1988, Hogan
describes Get Up as joyously bouncy pop, complete with Beatlish harmonies (57). The obvious
wake up theme is reinforced by an inventive musical touch inserted in the middle of the song. Berry
explains, I had a dream that we should take 12-not 11, not 13, but 12music boxes and get em all
going. We just woundem up, turnedem on, and thats what you hear (Gray 2nd ed. 239). The effect is
appropriate as it sounds like an other-worldly alarm clock (Gray 2nd ed. 239).
Stipe has been noted as saying Get Up is my favorite song (though he says that about other
songs as well) (Hogan 57). Bowler and Dray add that Get Up is about the thin line between
dreams and reality (133). To this, Stipe relates a story about Ronald Reagan:
Yknow he was a movie star? There was a study done showing anecdotes that he would tell
earlier in his.. .reign.. .where he would talk about his character he played and say that this
character would do something in this film. And later on it became not a character but him.
Theres actual television broadcasts that bump these one by one and you watch this story
become completely hyperbolized to where, yknow, a character from Bonzo Goes to
Washington becomes him and Nancy in 1985. (Bowler and Dray 133)

This idea is realized lyrically in the song. Hogan writes, While he sings about dreams complicating
his life, Mike Mills avows Dreams they complement my life (57). Stipe later adds, I think dreams
are pretty crucial to everyone. Certainly to me, theyre as real as anything else (Hogan 57).
Literally, the song is a wake up call. Stipe admits, Theyre dumb words, but theyre
basically a call to action: Get off your ass! Do something! Do anything! Get a life! Youre going to
be around for another maybe sixty years. Get up and do something! (Hogan 57). However, upon
closer examination the song appears more complex. Gray writes, Get Up is more subtle in its
manipulations of expectations. A lullaby in reverse, it uses kiddyspeak like sleepyhead,' but at the same
time implies that its protagonist is suffering from torpor and depression (Gray 2nd ed. 128). This
argument forwarded by Gray suggests that waking up is not as simple as it seems. The invocation of the
child suggests the protagonist may be refusing to accept adulthood, while the juxtaposition of complicate
and complement suggests that both the real and the fantastic have advantages and disadvantages. In tune
with the hopeful theme of Green, Get Up is a call to action tempered with the acceptance that life is
R.E.M. continues the optimism on You Are The Everything, the third song on Green. But, the
raucous enthusiasm is halted in favor of quiet sincerity. Also written in early 1988, You Are The
Everything embodies the new musical direction R.E.M. had chosen to take. Fletcher comments:
When these new lyrical and musical approaches collided, as they did on You Are The
Everything," the result was the remarkable stylistic change the group had hoped for. Despite
the fear expressed in Stipes lyrics, the effect was more wistful than melancholic, a love song
as he had never sung before. Behind his yearning voice lay a ballad as emotive as the group
had attempted, the simple instrumentation seeing Mills on accordion Buck on mandolin and
Berry taking the bass. It would arguably be the albums highlight. (108)
Hogan carries Fletchers praises to the next level. He writes, heartbreakingly beautiful, with a serenity
that echoes its lyrics, and (one feels) naked honesty. A mystical, evocative, affirmative hymn-to life,
to a beautiful woman, to music, to everyday contentment at its most sublime, to the Beyond. This may
well be R.E.M.s finest moment (Hogan 58).

The experiment with instrumentation works perfectly for this song; however, the most notable
musical effect concerns the bands choice for back-up musicians. Recalling Chronic Town, Gray notes,
Crickets make their second appearance on an R.E.M. song, this time audible throughout and perfectly in
tune with its mood (Gray 2nd ed. 240). The lyrics support this mood as well. Gray adds, The lyric
marks a return to what Peter calls Solipsism 101,' the examination of the internal landscape, vaguely
recalling Perfect Circle from Murmur (Gray 2nd ed. 79).
A closer look at the lyrics on You Are the Everything reveals further insight. Stipes friend
Georgina Falzarano explains some of the lyrics origins. She says, Some of the references in You Are
The Everything where from a trip I made with Michael from Seattle to Boulder back in 86. Looking at
the stars, little comments would be made and later they reappeared in the song (Sullivan 143). Those
lines, specifically, include, The stars are the greatest thing youve ever seen and The windows wrap
around to the sound of the engine and the travel {Green). However, it is unlikely that this song is
actually about traveling. Instead, as Gray notes:
You Are the Everything describes a situation where fear of the present causes the protagonist
to retreat to the comfort of childhood memories. The flashback technique and the line You are
so young and old give a sense of the cycle of life similar to that suggested by Perfect Circle.'
You Are the Everything is even more complex. Its title alone is open to multiple
interpretations, as a statement of absolute love, Zen-like we-are-all-oneness, or, at the other
extreme, unchecked childish ego. (Gray 2nd ed. 128)
This metaphor works well. Bowler and Dray write, You Are The Everything gained strength from
their expression of warmth and tenderness of human relationships which persist despite the dangers
lurking beyond that security blanket (130). Gray adds, You are the everything provides perhaps the
most succinct example of the way he juxtaposes for effect, yet also establishes the relationship between,
the very large and the very small: Im veiy scared for this world / Im very scared for me (2nd ed. 127).
You Are The Everything is a song about fear and hope, big and small, past and present, or, in short,

After the short break offered by the wistful You Are the Everything, Green continues with
Stand, a song described by Stipe as a big dumb pop song (Gray 2r,d ed. 128). Stipe likens the song
to Yummy, Yummy, Yummy and other bubblegum songs remembered from his own childhood (Gray
2nd ed. 128). Fletcher adds, Like the opening number Pop Song 89 ... Stand was as much a
comment on pop music as it was a pop song. It could be taken as a clever satire of the genre as much
as it could be loved by young children for its pure inanity (110).
Stand was written in early 1988 and is described by Hogan as Deeply profound or
profoundly dumb (probably both) bouncy pop... (58). Fletcher comments, The future single
Stand," for example, combined one of pop musics most obvious chord structures with a tune of
staggering naivete, direct lyrics, and a wah-wah guitar solo that lent the finished song an undeniable
kitsch value (Fletcher 109). Gray suggests, The titles of Stand and Get Up recall similar
exhortations by Sly Stone and James Brown, respectively and, appropriately enough, at least part of their
function is urging the listener to be aware and get involved (Gray 2nd ed. 422).
The inspiration for the song apparently comes from a friend of Stipes, Georgina Falzarano
(Hogan 58). She recalls:
Stand was written about a comment 1 made. I have really bad direction so I make a real
conscious effort to know where north is in town. The left/right thing is very difficult for me.
Michael was really intrigued with how I remembered direction and asked me exactly what I do.
I told him I visualize Im standing in front of my house because when Im looking at my house I
can tell thats north, then I can tell where east and west and south are in relationship to where I
am. (Sullivan 142)
The lyrics certainly confirm her story; but, the message seems to be of greater importance. The
alternation between think about direction and giving directions (now face north), encourages the
listener to be aware of where they are and where they want to go (Green). The lines, Your feet are going
to be on the ground and, Youre head is there to move you around, again ask the listener to think about
where they are going (Green). Like Get Up, Stand is a call to action. The inspiration for these lyrics
are another example of metaphor by mistake.

World Leader Pretend follows Stand on Green and also suggests another person in retreat
from the present and from adult responsibilities (Gray 2nd ed. 128). Written in May and June of 1988,
this song is described by Bowler and Dray as the crux of the album (130). Stipe adds:
That song is the voice of Everyman or Everywoman desperately trying to better their finest
enemy which is, of course, yourself. I feel that my voice and the direction of thought in the band
is very much presenting the confusion that is inherent in our society this century.. .were just
questioning.. .it summed up the whole idea behind Green. (Bowler and Dray 128)
The importance of this song, as Hogan notes, is reflected in R.E.M.s decision to print the lyrics inside
the albums packaging (58).
Interpreting the song is fairly straightforward. Stipe reiterates, Something I was really
stressing on Green was that the individual has great power and a great strength. People have to realize
that, to tap it. World Leader Pretend is exactly about that: you have to overcome yourself before
you can overcome whats outside of yourself (Hogan 58). Mills, who initiated the song, describes
World Leader Pretend. He says, Its this kind of morose, meandering thing about some guy sitting in
a room by himself (Gray 2nd ed. 80). Gray echoes Mills description, World Leader Pretend concerns
a loner isolated behind walls of his own making (Gray 2nd ed. 110). This loners fortune turns when he
comes to the realization that This is my world / And I am world leader pretend. Gray describes this
turning point and its importance to the song. He writes:
In World Leader Pretend-according to its author-the line Let my machine talk to me is the
turning point of the entire song, where it is very clear to me that the machine is the reptile brain,
or in Jungian terms, the feminine side coming through and overwhelming the masculine, making
the person in the song completely whole. (Gray 2nd ed. 115)
The protagonist resolves, Its high time Ive razed the walls that Ive constructed to conclude what had
been a downtrodden song with a glimmer of hope {Green).
This final version of World Leader Pretend was remarkably different from this songs original
inspiration. The song was initially written to be another fun pop song in the mold of Stand (Gray 2nd ed.
80). Mike Mills, who initiated the song, was originally disappointed with Stipes lyrics, commenting, At