Crush With Eyeliner

May 15, 2007

We are conditioned to value authenticity in art, but the thing is, all creativity is essentially at odds with objective truth and reality, even when we strive for aesthetic realism. Nevertheless, the will to express ourselves through the act of creation is a central part of the human experience in that whether we are aware of it or not, we are constantly revising our own personalities and nudging our realities into new shapes with every decision that we make.

“Crush With Eyeliner” is a song about being attracted to a person for their imagination and the way they use it to actively reconstruct their image and identity. Michael Stipe’s character is smitten by a woman’s calculated affectations, and is inspired to reinvent himself in order to win her favor. Though the lyrics are a bit wry, “Crush With Eyeliner” is by no means an indictment of superficial poseurs — if anything, it’s a celebration of those among us who recognize the fluidity of identity and are willing to unlock repressed aspects of themselves by playing dress-up.

It’s been said that this is a song about Courtney Love, and though that makes a lot of sense, I actually prefer to think that the object of the singer’s affection is actually a drag queen so that the “she’s a real woman-child” line has the same ring of irony as when Michael insists that he is “the real thing.” Same difference, I guess — even before she started looking like a Barbie doll, Courtney always had the instinct for nuanced irony and appreciation of artifice common among drag queens. As she sings in her hit “Doll Parts,” she fakes it so real she is beyond fake.

“Crush With Eyeliner” is unapologetically flirtatious and campy, and though it’s the second track on Monster, it’s the song that establishes the musical and lyrical themes for the rest of the album. Peter Buck’s exaggerated tremolo effect on the song is perhaps the most iconic sonic element on the record, and its colorful, cartoonish sound ranks among the most distinct guitar tones in a decade overflowing with inspired noisemakers. The oscillations come in a woozy intervals that recall the image of waves of heat rising off of concrete on an oppressively humid summer day, and it lends the song a stoned, slightly aloof feeling that fits nicely with Stipe’s intensely self-aware lyrics.

49 Responses to “Crush With Eyeliner”

  1. Kirsten Says:

    I couldn’t claim this to be my favourite on Monster because there are so many great songs on this album, but it’s certainly right up there. Peter’s guitar just rings with the sexiness of this song – it portrays it perfectly.
    I never thought of her as a cross-dresser, I always pictured a drop-dead gorgeous, perfect woman who wouldn’t look twice at the singer (or most others!) The “untouchable” woman too good for any mere mortal. The way the singer is prepare to re-invent himself over and over for this woman to be whatever she wants – knowing perfectly well he’d still have no chance with her.
    “We all invent ourselves” to me just rings true for all of us. And it certainly descibes Michael Stipe…..

  2. Kirsten Says:

    I also have to mention the great tongue-in-cheek line “Yeah, you know me”. I love it..
    : )

  3. jim jos Says:

    how can the REM fans dislike Monster? I agree with Matthew, this song is central to that album and, to me, the song sounds like something you could hear at a strip club, and how many REM songs can you say that about? Certainly not “Green Grow the Rushes”. It’s fun, inviting, more than a little sleazy, everything that the subject of the song seems to be.

    Just as REM were trying out more of a glam rock persona here, they created a song about the idea of adopting and adapting one’s persona, Genius.

    “What position should I wear” the position is something that can be worn, easily interchangeable. “cop an attitude” is sung as a question of possibly one thing to do; the play on “Fake her” or is it his conscience hollering “faker” all good lines here. Plus, I like “three miles of bad road” to describe someone and I also like that the first line is “I know you”. Very wry, indeed.

    I think, like so many of Stipe’s lyrics, one can draw their own ideas into what the subject of the song is really like. I have my own image. But it’s funny that you should bring up the idea of the drag queen.
    (not my personal image) I thought that inclusion of Frankenstein in the lyrics is a reference to “Frankenstein” by the New York Dolls, who largely came up with glam rock and invented themselves as cross dressers, naturally. Good call.

    Courtney Love wishes this song was about her.

  4. jim jos Says:

    kirsten, i like that line as well!

  5. Glassmeow Says:

    “What position should I wear” hmmm… hadn’t thought of a crossdresser or drag queen, but this line puzzled me and makes more sense that way.

    Also really liked “she’s a sad tomato” (brings Robyn Hitchcock-isms immediately to mind…) and “yeah, life is strange”. Great song. I’ve had Monster in the car changer for a week or so now – great way to wake up in the morning – way past loud, with the windows down and sunroof open.

    I keep wanting to pull out Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars as a counterpart to the entire album.

    That or maybe Blondie’s “Rip Her to Shreds” just to compliment this song.

  6. Kirsten Says:

    The more I read, the more I realise that EVERY line in this song is great….

    It’s just one of those gems.

    Good point on the strip club too, jim.

  7. jim jos Says:

    well, uh, you know me.

  8. Voltaire Says:

    This is your best review to date. You absolutely nailed the song. I especially like your comments about the guitar near the end: “The oscillations come in a woozy intervals that recall the image of waves of heat rising off of concrete on an oppressively humid summer day, and it lends the song a stoned, slightly aloof feeling that fits nicely with Stipe’s intensely self-aware lyrics.” That’s exactly what I’ve always thought!

  9. Carolann Monroe Says:

    Glassmeow mentions Bowie, and i’ve always heard huge echoes of his style in this song. The “We all invent ourselves…” line has always made me think of him, too. Can’t you just hear him singing that line?

    I’m thinking it started out as a lark, “Hey, let’s write a Bowie song..” and ended up a kick-butt, really unique R.E.M. rocker.

    Monster is killer.

  10. Dan23 Says:

    Matt, now this is your best post ever! This is the type of commentary I was expecting… You started off similarly, and you nailed everything on this post! Thanks, I love how you dissect the meaning of the song, by interpreting the melody and or lack of, and the action of the other band members with their instruments etc.

    This song rocks live!

    Daniel

  11. Justin Says:

    Who echoes Stipe on “she’s her own invention” and “yeah life is strange”…I seem to remember it’s Thurston Moore. Amiright?

  12. Kirsten Says:

    I always thought it was Bill, but I could be wrong.

  13. Graham Says:

    Courtney Love is notorious for claiming songs are about her. There is a discussion about this at last.fm at the moment, and we’ve got 13 songs already http://www.last.fm/user/hydrofire/journal/2007/05/12/421277/

    There may be some basis for the claim. Courtney was Michael Stipe’s date to the MTV awards in 1994, around the time this song was likely to have been recorded.

    Gotta say, the lyric “she’s three miles of bad road” suits Courtney perfectly.

  14. chinese brother Says:

    there’s something about monster, alright. it’s just so much fun – loud, seemingly careless and in the moment. (even though to me it does feel like the band are beginning to be support players to stipe’s trip – it still rules)

    beautiful post – this song will keep partying while the artistic types whom overvalue authenticity have long left behind “popular” music


  15. What a lovely song. Easily one of my favorites and I’m so glad to find you writing about it. And I definitely agree that, whether this is actually about Courtney Love or not, it’s much more important to focus on the theme of the song, which is invention over nature.

    He’s not disregarding anything she really is (three miles of bad road, after all), it’s just that she’s her own invention, and that gets him in the throat. She even inspires him to attempt a similar dress-up play, and he offers to be her Frankenstein.

    Of course, all of this is secondary to the first line in the song, which is in my top 10 opening lines of all time:

    She’s a sad tomato.


  16. >the first line in the song

    Whoops, it’s still early. Forgive me that mistake. It’s one of my favorite LINES, not opening lines.

    (Though the opening line, “I know you,” is pretty damn loaded in a song like this.)

  17. gabriel peters Says:

    I agree with the other comments: Great, high standard review.
    I disagree with the other comments concerning the greatness of the song. For me Crush With Eyeliner is in some ways a kind of transition, of supply that contains the shiny and noisy power and energy of the fantastic album opener What´s the Frequency Kenneth for a little while before the album drifts to the somewhat weaker parts – the rest of the songs on Monster.

    PS I never was a great fan of glam rock, but of the early ninties alternativ noise rock like Bob Mould´s Sugar, My Bloody Valentine or Slowdive – that might explain, why I prefer Kenneth to Eyeliner

  18. maclure Says:

    Probably can’t add much to what’s been said – excellent song and excellent analysis. Great tune that when played live is often at slightly faster tempo with somebody pounding a hammond organ in the background. They opened their encore with this at Glasto 99 and it rocked the joint. The video – with glammed up Japanese kids playing the song and REM watching in the audience – re-enforces the lyrical theme of changing identities…

  19. maclure Says:

    Er, I now think somebody pounds a piano in the live version not a hammond… anyway, small detail.

  20. Bandwagon03 Says:

    I cant add much either as to what has already been said. I agree that the thick, molasses sound really sets the tone for the rest of Monster.

    And, i always have loved “shes a sad tomato” 😉

  21. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    “Crush With Eyeliner” is probably my favorite song off of Monster. I love the glam cruch of the song and the distorted guitars both fit this song perfectly and set the tone for the bulk of the rest of the album. Pretty much I agree with all of the above positive statements both about this great song and about Matthew’s post. Just a couple of other comments – I love the video for this song with all the Asian kids. I always thought that the video highlights the message and feel of the sun with all of the Asian kids acting decidedly “American”, because it is cool for them to be so.

    Finally, does anyone know much about Jacknife Lee, the announced producer of the next REM album?

  22. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I am on crack! I typed “sun” in the above quote. I meant “song”. Oh well, it’s early.


  23. He’s worked with a bunch of aggressively mediocre bands — Bloc Party, Editors, Kasabian, Snow Patrol. It makes me very nervous, actually! He did work on U2’s most recent album, but the only song he produced by himself is the weakest track on that record.

    My wish is that they would record with Britt Daniel and Jim Eno from Spoon. I love the sound they get as producers/engineers and think it is exactly the sort of clean, simple, and extremely physical sound R.E.M. needs after the last three records.

  24. Evan Says:

    I’m pretty sure it is Thurston Moore.

  25. catapult Says:

    lovelovelove this song. And what perfect timing to feature it here because I’ve been blasting Monster in my car a LOT the last week or so, and Crush is the one I most often repeat. I’m in my 40s, but this album and this song bring out my teenage tendency to crank the stereo as a drive past a crowd.

    I’ve never once thought this song was about a drop-dead gorgeous woman. All clues point to an over-the-top glam/drag queen(she’s a sad tomato; she’s 3 miles of bad road). Heck, the title itelf even points to that. But it’s her uniqueness (she’s her own invention), not the person herself that’s the real object of his infatuation. I can relate to that.

    It also occurred to me recently that the themes of Crush With Eyeliner and I Took Your Name are fitting companions. In one he wants to remake his own identity; in the other he’s stealing someone else’s.


  26. Ah, you’re way ahead of me on “I Took Your Name”! I was definitely going to bring that up when I get to that song.

  27. mouserobot Says:

    I wonder if you could interpret Monster as being a concept album about how to present yourself to others so that they think the best of you. By the time you get to the song ‘You’, the narrator is able to able to relax when he’s with the object of his affection without worrying about presentation. To me, Crush with Eyeliner was always about being attracted to someone who you know is bad for you; like a moth to a flame kind of thing.

    By the way, I found this blog on the livejournal REM community and I’m enjoyinig it immensely.


  28. Ha, you should go back and read my take on “You” in the archives. I kinda have a radically different point of view on that song!

  29. cono Says:

    i love this song, i play this one a lot on my acoustic, it’s a whole other, yet good vibe. I still prefer the electric version though. Its a shame they don’t play this song anymore live. does anyone know why not?

  30. mouserobot Says:

    I have a predisposition towards happy endings, plus I never really paid attention to the lyrics; but your interpretation of You probably makes more sense given the context of the rest of Monster.


  31. Well, they did play it very regularly on the Monster and Up tours — maybe they just got a bit tired of it? I wouldn’t be surprised if it came back around again on the next tour.

  32. wolfy Says:

    This is wonderful song. Very ironic and loaded with fluidity.

  33. Justin Says:

    Monster is one of the band’s more unjustifiably maligned albums, I find. The lyrics are as close as Stipe ever got to brazenly hilarious, and Peter Buck’s big box of tricks and textures elevated him from jangle popster to bona fide guitar hero.

    “Crush With Eyeliner” has always been one of my favorite songs from the boys, so sleazy and circular, and you’re right, an earmark of the whole album, not to mention Spike Jonze’s brilliant video – also a personal favorite. Great assessment of a fantastic tune.

    Matter of fact, I think I’m going to listen to Monster now. Thanks.

  34. drew Says:

    And this one was an outright thrill live on the monster tour. I always think of “Crush” together with “The Wake-Up Bomb.” Which reminds me of another reason to love Monster: that tour have birthed the last great REM album. To add my voice to the chorus: you really nailed this one, Matthew. Thanks. And cheers.

  35. gabriel peters Says:

    Hmm, those stunning positive comments of that song prompt me to listen to Monster again from a somewhat different point of view😉

  36. Glassmeow Says:

    “Peter Buck’s big box of tricks and textures elevated him from jangle popster to bona fide guitar hero.”

    E x a c t l y !

  37. Ignis Sol Says:

    “Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I am on crack! I typed “sun” in the above quote. I meant “song”. Oh well, it’s early.”

    Cool,

    Feel of the sun/feel of the song

    Sooooo Stipean!


  38. […] Crush With Eyeliner We are conditioned to value authenticity in art, but the thing is, all creativity is essentially at odds with objective […] […]

  39. Mary Alice Says:

    I enjoyed reading all of your responses! Matthew and the rest of y’all have done it justice.

  40. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    SWEET!!! Nobody has ever comparaed my writings to Mr. Stipe! I’ll take it as a compliment (even though I totally did it by accident)🙂

  41. drew Says:

    all this talk of covers (see the “crazy” post above), got me thinking of the monster tour again. one of the rare covers to turn up with regularity on that tour was chris isaac’s “wicked game.” it seems like maybe that deserves mentioning here, what with lyrics like: “strange what desire will make foolish people do.”

  42. EK Alex Says:

    I remember hearing ‘Monster’ for the first time as I was queueing for a ticket to see the band at the SECC in Glasgow, (for a show which would eventually be cancelled due to Bill Berry’s aneurysm). I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, in a positive sense. After the melancholic brilliance of ‘Automatic’, the album was full of distorted guitar and grimy vocals which should have been alien to the band but somehow fit like a glove. ‘Monster’ while not the pinnacle of REM’s achievements in my view, remains very worthy of investigation for it’s sonic qualities alone.

  43. Eclipse Says:

    I have to admit, Monster never grew on me. It’s not one I pull out and listen to much at all. Of all the songs on that album, this is definitely the one that appeals to me most, in part because of the great wordplay. Someone mention that it was reminiscent of Robyn Hitchcock (my favorite artist), particularly with the line “She’s a sad tomato.” Very Hitchcockian indeed! There’s something very slinky and sexy about this song. Reading the comments here about it – particularly those of you who say you blast it as you fly down the freeway (which is my preferred way to listen to music) – is making me want to go give Monster another listen!

  44. David2 Says:

    The highlight of this fine review for me? Learning that Helium made a video for XXX. I really have to spend more time on YouTube.

  45. Aerothorn Says:

    Great write-up.

    I remember when I first looked up R.E.M. on last.fm, and was surprised to see this song as their most played/requested – despite it not being one of their big hits. But I can totally see why – it’s very accessible.

    Nice to see we agree on the theme (yes, I’m catching up and plan on being a regular poster here, overused parenthesis and all). There was a girl who this song reminded me of that fit it pretty well – I wrote a few sentences about it in the “Analysis of a Monster” piece I wrote for Creative Writing. She even wore ridiculous amounts of eyeliner😀


  46. […] 13th, 2007 “The Wake Up Bomb” is essentially the dark side of “Crush With Eyeliner.” Whereas the latter is a celebration of creativity and affectation, the former is sung from the […]

  47. transformerdog Says:

    first record with PB living in Seattle.. Bill explaining the new process,”This was the first record where he didn’t live in Athens so we couldn’t just spend months and months going in for an hour or two a day to write, which is the way we always worked. This time we had this really srong work ethic where we had to go in and work for eight or nine hours. At first I dreaded it because it sounded like a job, but very quickly those eight hours turned into twelve because we were having so much fun playing with tremolos, singing through strange microphones . We never applied ourselves that hard before.”

    Michael was especially affected by the death of RIver Phoenix around this time ..” River was like my little brother and his death was the most profound loss I’d ever experienced in my life.I had to sit back and look at everything around me in a different light. AFTP dealt with passage, mortality, we really covered that and we needed to do a recored that was really different because I felt that we had reached some kind of a zenith with that. River’s death preveinted me writing for five months. When I finally did write I wrote ‘Crush With Eyeliner’, What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?’, and ‘Circus Envy’..The record is “therapeutic”, one which he took to describing as “cut-up-thrash-punk-rock, in your face, kind of sexy and fuck-off.”


  48. […] 25th, 2007 Not too long after Monster came out, I decided that “Tongue” and “Crush With Eyeliner” were ideally suited to accompanying the feeling of having a crush on someone. The latter is a bit […]

  49. RedParakeet Says:

    The tremolo in the song certainly adds an interesting element to the picture, and is what i think emphasizes how it is a rock song done over-the-top. It also features Stipe singing in a completely different voice, emphasizing his change in character which has been done before, but in ‘Crush With Eyeliner’ he used a new voice, i think it worked really well.

    By the way, when are you going to write about ‘What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?’, i would really like to read your ideas on that.


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