Music

The end of the world


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As We Know It.

R.E.M. broke up in September. Thus ends the run of the one of the most enigmatic, talented, influential bands of the last two decades of the twentieth century. The fact that their importance as a musical act has not extended into the first decade of this century only serves to underline the fickleness of legacy, the unreliability of the public spotlight. It should not negate the critical effect that their music once had on the American songbook.

In the 80's, when the college alternative music scene was just beginning, as music was diverging from a one-size-fits-all pop music mosaic to a specialized mix of music built for different segments of the population, there was a raging debate in rock music over whether U2 or R.E.M. would be the next Greatest Band on Earth. In scope, popularity, and music catalogue, U2 clearly won that debate. But R.E.M., at the time, was the Rolling Stones to U2's Beatles. They were essential. Their music was a bundle of jangling, riddling noise innovations that put a full stop to one era and gave birth to another. They were mysterious in the way that rock stars ought to be mysterious. And they were the greatest American rock band of their moment.

R.E.M. was assured their place in rock and roll history long before they were inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. Like most great groups they have a mixed legacy of musical and cultural impact. Beginning as a cult band, they grew into national and then international superstars, and then settled in for the long haul of icon-inducing stardom. They had occasional single hits, but their albums were generally the work of interest, as they crafted brilliant, emotive questions about the world the band saw around them. The band's final years were filled with moments that were almost embarrassing when viewed from the perspective of their original status as rock innovators ' for example, the fact that the band became known as much for the protest they raised when their music was being used for torture purposes at Guantanamo Bay as they did for their latest single, or the fact that the group's front man Michael Stipe saw fit for some odd reason to post full-frontal nudity pictures of himself online ' but their contribution to rock has been important enough that it has been able to weather these later storms. In fact, there are very few musical superstars from their era who have not gone the way of the washed-out eventually. Madonna couldn't avoid it. Michael Jackson couldn't either. It is increasingly difficult to stay relevant and vital in the 24-hour world of popular entertainment. The fact that R.E.M. stood in as long as they did, swinging away with artistic integrity speaks to their significance in American rock.

R.E.M. has always had the distinction of being perhaps the best band in a world in which no one wants to claim them as their individual favorite group. This is because they have always had a somewhat troubled relationship with both the public and what is ostensibly their fan base. They have often been viewed as too obscure and obscuring for the general public's taste, with lyrics that read like gibberish and a delivery by Stipe that is impassioned but seemingly intentionally off-putting. And their fans have been increasingly disappointed with each new release since at least the mid-90's. That said, they delivered in their day incredible hooks that are as singable by the occasional listener as any in rock history. Just think of the line that serves as this article's title. Or think how many times you have found yourself in the corner, losing your religion. You may not know exactly what the band's songs mean ' or even what they are saying, per se ' but go back and listen to their catalogue and you will be amazed at how many of their songs feel like home all these many years after.

At least one reason for this is that R.E.M. had an undeniable impact on much of the music that followed, on rock and college radio. Essential groups like Nirvana, Radiohead, Sonic Youth, and Pavement all drew from their music. They had a seminal influence that was rivaled by the Pixies, the Smiths, and very few others in what has developed to become indie music. And as an American band from that era, they have had an impact on their specific genre of music that is rivaled only by Metallica in Metal, the Ramones in Punk, George Strait and Garth Brooks in Country, and Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest in Hip-Hop. Which is to say, that they not only inspired a movement and infused it with serious musicality, they also achieved the kind of success and acclaim that allowed other groups that followed them to build on their influence.

R.E.M. both staked the claim and developed the fallow ground that led to the bounty of indie music. Although they never had the number of hits and the cross-over success that U2 had and continues to have, they maintained an artistic vision and a stylistic weirdness that, even when they failed to generate public or critical interest in their output ' as they often did in their later years ' one could sense in their projects the kind of seriousness that only exists in the major music groups. There was nostalgia in the latter years, certainly, but it was a nostalgia that was earned on the basis of musical innovative and artistic integrity that few bands from that period have been able to match. Now, although perhaps a decade or so too late, they are bowing out before they become, like the Rolling Stones before them, a complete caricature of themselves, a mere greatest hits machine. And even in this, they have provided a model that other groups would do well to follow.

So let's remember them in the blush of their youth, as full-throated, lyric-garbling rock star enigmas. And let's forgive the fact that they overstayed their welcome a bit. Let's be thankful that they bridged the gap between disco's dying embers and hip-hop's thumping fist with music that made us remember what it felt like to be stirred by a guitar and that made us ponder when it wasn't befuddling us entirely. Let's remember them not for what they became in their later years, but for they were in their vital early beginnings. Pure. Rock. Gods.

That's what I'm planning to do, anyway. I'll let them pass gently into that good night and occasionally remember their complex, indispensable contributions. And I'll let them go without remorse but with a quiet respect for the way they wielded their craft. Like Lenny Bruce, I'm not afraid to let them go, even though I was glad to see them come. They kept the fire glowing for a while and for that I am appreciative. But now that they are done, I'm OK with that, too. It's the end of the world as we knew it, but I feel all right about it. Fine, even.

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Updated May 6, 2017 6:01 AM EDT | More details

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