Etude (Record Review): R.E.M., Automatic for the People

Automatic for the People was never my favorite R.E.M. album. Later, the inescapable ubiquity of “Man on the Moon,” and “Everybody Hurts” on radio tarnished the thing for me. Between the movie tie-in and the overly joyful “Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight,” it began to feel trite and commercially exposed. At least in comparison to the music I was discovering that year: Sonic Youth, Shudder to Think, Kronos Quartet, the Velvet Underground, and so many more. “Drive,” “Nightswimming,” “Sweetness Follows,” and “Take This River,” came to be overshadowed. It’s only now, 25 years later, that I’ve realized that it’s far more audacious to put “Drive” out as the lead single of a new R.E.M. record (especially as a follow up to “Radio Song!”) than to issue a 10″ EP of experimental noise rock.

“Drive” was singular, at least until U2 released “Numb,” (which I always thought of as a response) the following July. The music felt dark and the video even darker. Michael Stipe at sea, buffeted on waves of exuberant, yet somehow menacing young people; black and white, grainy, with jump cuts, harsh lighting, and strobes. Everything wet and uncomfortable. What should have been joyful was elegiacal. In those days, new singles broke as world premieres on MTV, video was king. So picture yourself in the waning days of “It’s the Economy Stupid!” watching the number one video on MTV:

“End of the Road” by Boyz II Men (nothing wrong with it, by the way). And then seeing & hearing the new single by R.E.M.:

Different, right? “Drive” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at #71 and climbed week after week until it reached #28. 25 years later it’s hard to imagine a song like it being a hit single. It’s like a group of punks had scaled Mt. Everest and had set-up a base camp from which they were

(Jump cut.)

It’s now been three months since I began the last simile and I have no memory of where it was headed. Anyway, I just wanted to say that Automatic for the People has never sounded better to me than it does now.  Especially now that the problem of the record’s popularity no longer colors how I hear it. Problem? Yes, I can now readily admit that who did or did not like a band was almost as important in forming my adolescent aesthetic judgements as the music itself. What can I say? Music is and has been about tribal identity and is one of the most complex systems of cultural signification our culture has. That’s one of the reasons why youth culture feels opaque to us 40-somethings, we don’t know how to read their record collections.

I think I’d meant to write more about the record and perhaps I will.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s