March 26, 2008
One of Michael Stipe’s greatest strengths as a singer and lyricist — and presumably, also as a human being in general — is his seemingly effortless ability to convey genuine empathy. This is why so many of his “advice” songs work as well as they do, and why his corniest sentiments are often the most affecting. There’s just something there in his voice that indicates a sincere desire to see people do well, and a root of optimism that anchors even his most dark and cynical moments. As he moves on through his career, he brings up the future with greater frequency in his lyrics, and it makes perfect sense — much of the R.E.M. catalog is concerned with moving onward into the future, and finding ways to improve upon the flaws of the present in that future.
“Everybody Hurts” is an essential R.E.M. song, primarily because on a very basic level, it is about convincing another person that should want to be a part of this future. Out of everything they have ever recorded, it may be the most direct in its mission. Really, it kinda has to be — there is absolutely no use for ambiguity if the object of your song is to console the depressed and talk them out of suicide.
“Everybody Hurts” is a public service, and its arrangement is precisely calibrated to appeal to a person in a state of melancholy, and subtly, gently lift them up into a feeling of hope. There are no empty promises, and no expectations of easy salvation in the song, but there is kindness, generosity, friendship, and the encouragement that pain and suffering are not everlasting things, and that we often have the power to flip those negative experiences into something beautiful and constructive.
If you don’t need to hear any of this, you might find Stipe’s sentiment to be obvious, saccharine, and maybe even a little embarrassing. Good for you, but the reality is, the best, most important advice we ever get is the most simple and straight-forward. When we’re lost, lonely, and hopeless, we need the honest, obvious truth: Everybody hurts sometimes, so hold on. You are not alone.
A Birthday Note: This post marks the first anniversary of this blog’s first entry, and also the 20th birthday of my little brother Andrew. This song is for him.