Losing My Religion
June 2, 2007
I became a fan of rock music in the early ’90s, and so when I was a young teenager I just assumed that “Losing My Religion” was about Michael Stipe feeling conflicted about his relationship with his audience. Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder were the biggest rock stars in the world, indie was something that was being written about in every music magazine, flamboyant hair metal bands were deeply unfashionable, and somehow it just made a lot of sense that a skinny guy that looked like a high school English teacher would be singing a song expressing a deep ambivalence about his own fame and influence. I mean, what else are rock stars supposed to sing about? Hopeless unrequited crushes? C’mon, dude. This was the ’90s.
But yeah, “Losing My Religion” is most certainly a song about a hopeless unrequited crush, and not just because Michael has said so, several times over. Though I had my fair share of unrequited crushes throughout my adolescence, I don’t think I had the proper frame of reference for the song until I was a bit older, and everything in the lyrics snapped into focus: “Choosing my confessions.” “Oh no, I’ve said too much…I haven’t said enough.” “Consider this the hint of the century.” It isn’t just about desire, it’s about hiding it, and living in desperate fear that you’ll be humiliated by it. It’s about knowing that the sum of life is indeed bigger than the person you’ve fallen in love with, but succumbing to every irrational feeling anyway.
It’s not uncommon for people to note that “Losing My Religion” is a bit odd for a major hit single, but I’m not sure if I agree. Granted, it’s unusual for a hit song to feature a mandolin as a lead instrument, but it charted at a time when MTV Unplugged was the zeitgeist, and audiences were eager to buy into the notion that acoustic instrumentation automatically signified authenticity and sophistication. Also, the band were in a “now or never” scenario — they’d built up a substantial audience with previous hits and non-stop touring, and so much of heavy lifting involved in turning the public on to their aesthetic was already accomplished. Whether they knew it or not, a song like “Losing My Religion” was exactly what they needed: a driving ballad with grand, yearning chorus and an instrumental hook that was novel yet elegant. In many ways, it is actually one of the most obvious and accessible singles of their career.
A 90210 note: When “Losing My Religion” came up in a conversation with a girl I spoke to earlier this evening, she mentioned that she associated it with a scene featuring Brenda and Dylan on Beverly Hills 90210 back when she was ten years old. She said that it struck her as being a rather dark and mysterious thing at the time, and that the impression stuck. I never saw that episode, but it does seem like a rather bizarre song selection.
A “we’re making good time” note: This is the 50th entry on this site, which means I’m about one quarter of the way through the project.