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.

43 Responses to “Losing My Religion”

  1. […] and “Circus Envy” has run its course. At this point in the record, the singer’s religion is thoroughly and irrevocably lost, and all that is left is an aching emotional void and a lingering, undead […]

  2. I’ve never heard this song. Is it good?

  3. ozon Says:

    I wish they would play it live sometime :p

  4. maclure Says:

    For me, LMR’s popularity is bizarre because it ticked so many boxes for so many people.

    I’ve heard people talk about it in a literal religious sense – as a song that defined a generation of “spiritual” people who refused to be chained by institutional religion. (For example, “Losing My Religion” was the title of the chapter of a book I read on the subject- the video contributed to this interpretation, I think). Also, I know people from other countries (such as Brazil) where their love of REM began with this tune even if they didn’t know what the lyrics meant. For others it’s just about singing along live (“Oooohhh, life, is bigger”). And I can distinctly remember everyone bopping to it at a high-school disco with it sandwiched in the mix between the Spice Girls and Queen.

    I struggle to see the song as having a chorus – it sort of has a prominant verse (which carries the main lyric) and then a sort of pre-chorus that never fully resolves. In your comment of “Aftermath” you mentioned how this lack of chorus was a problem of that song, but in LMR is contributes to this tension of saying too much, not saying too much…

  5. The chorus is big and obvious! Just because it’s slightly long doesn’t mean that it’s not a chorus:

    That’s me in the corner
    That’s me in the spotlight
    Losing my religion
    Trying to keep up with you
    And I don’t know if I can do it
    Oh no I’ve said too much
    I haven’t said enough
    I thought that I heard you laughing
    I thought that I heard you sing
    I think I thought I saw you try

  6. Bruno Says:

    I’m agreeing with Maclure here Matthew. In terms of stucture and melody ‘That’s me in the corner’ etc, although containing the the central lyrical section, is more verse like – the chord progression and michael’s melody are verse.

    The lines

    I thought that I heard you laughing
    I thought that I heard you sing
    I think I thought I saw you try
    But that was just a dream
    Just a dream

    are the closest structurally that come to a chorus (in my opinion) – the chord structure changes – the melody takes on a few variations on the verse melody.

    But I agree with Maclure these lines really feel more like pre-chorus than chorus, and then it’s back to the verse again. Really, although it works wonderfully, LMR is just a few different passages repeated (musically i mean, not lyrically) and contains no obvious chorus, which, although not unusual at all for songwriters of REM’s caliber, is unusual a big-time commercial hit.

  7. Okay, I’ll compromise a bit — most people just respond to the “that’s me in the corner / that’s me in the spotlight” part as a proper chorus because of the song’s dynamics. There’s no question that, especially in a live setting, that bit is the big sing along part.

  8. dan Says:

    Part of the appeal of the song is because the (pseudo) chorus is so inseparable from the verse. It’s one of those songs that sounds so organic, so fully formed, that it’s a marvel that human beings wrote it.

    As much as I love a good pop song, there are times when the distinction between verse and chorus is so painfully obvious that the writing process becomes totally transparent. “Losing My Religion” is the opposite.

  9. mm Says:

    Finally, a good thoughtful review of an REM song.

  10. maclure Says:

    Good point, Dan. That’s why the song works – it’s organic. No guitar solo either, just a break down of the instruments leading back into the verse/chorus, whatever it is.

  11. drew Says:

    the hidden crush reading has always worked for me, especially considering michael’s observed on more than one occasion that this song share’s a lot in common with the police’s “every breath you take.” crush / stalking: it’s a fine line sometimes, you know.

  12. Carolann Monroe Says:

    The lyrics have gotten so much attention over the years, it’s good to see the music and structure of the song discussed! To me what it most has going for it is how beautiful, lush and jangly it sounds from first note to last. It sounds to me like waves hitting the beach on a stormy day.

    When I saw them perform it live (1995) they played it so fast that I remember thinking that it almost wouldn’t be possible to play it any faster. But of course, if there was any time that they all probably felt like just getting away from *that* song, i’m guessing it was likely around 1995.

    I’ve seen video clips of live performances of it since, and while they didn’t race through it in those cases I still got the feeling that they approach it kind of like a less than fully enjoyable task. In one video, Michael moves in such a formalized, wind-up-doll kind of way through the whole thing, kind of like he’s saying ‘Okay, here’s us doing this for you…’

    I hope I get the chance to see them do it live again- would be interesting to hear how they approach it these days.

    When I first heard the line in “Diminished” that goes, “Does she know I sing that song..” I immediately figured it’s a wry, cynical reference to LMR and all it brought them.

  13. The version that they’ve been playing since 1999 or so is pretty standard — faithful to the tone of the original but slightly pumped up to suit the big rooms. Actually, Michael has taken to introducing the song as being a song that they play for the audience, adding that they enjoy playing it for people.

    I don’t think they had any problem with “Losing My Religion” on the Monster tour — keep in mind that was the very first real tour to feature that song, so it was hardly played out at the time. I think they just rocked it up a bit so that it made sense with the rest of the set. The changes made to the song were nowhere near as drastic as what they did with “Try Not To Breathe” and “Drive.”

  14. Kris Says:

    When I saw them in Winnipeg on their ‘Around the Sun’ tour, Michael introduced LMR in this fashion: “Thanks for listening to what we wanted to play; now we’ll play something that you want to hear.” Although it seemed almost like an apology for ATS (which I personally didn’t think was necessary to do), it was an acknowledgement that LMR is what casual fans know when they think of REM.

    Oddly enough, when I recently mentioned to someone that I was a huge REM fan, they responded, “Is that the band that sings ‘Stand in the place where you live…” I was like, “That’s the REM song you know?” I promptly burned them a mix cd.

  15. Bruno Says:

    It’s interesting to me – this idea of ‘is there a chorus?’.

    This song is an example of a melody (and variations on it) and a set of chords (also subtle variations) carrying the whole thing. The only bit that strays from the pattern, and only slightly, is the backing of the lines ‘Try, cry, why try’ otherwise this song is really a set of passages, structurally and melodically repeating. There is a bit of variation but there is no clear verse/chorus/middle/break that is often common in pop. Still it feels full and it feels like all the pieces and dynamics are there. In this sense it’s similar to classical music. It’s so melody driven. And it has such strong character in terms of emotion, message and meaning that you don’t really notice that it is just repeated passages. As Matthew says, ‘That’s me in the corner’ is the big sing-along part, but essentially it’s another verse. So that must mean that those words carry some kind of power. It’s true, they are the heart of the song, but Michael is just singing another verse…interesting to me. Yes, organic songwriting and a timeless melody.

    I wonder if they tried to find a chorus as they were writing it and then realised they didn’t need one.

    I also tried to think off the top of my head of similar (mainstream) examples. And without much effort came up with two possibilities: ‘Drive’ and U2’s ‘Bad’. I’m sure there’s many more.

    Just my thoughts fellow REM’ers.

  16. Bruno Says:

    Umm, again off the top of my head, ‘Nightswimming’ would fall into the category too, but at the same time, is that pop songwriting? Back to a timeless melody that just plays along effortlessly.

    (Okay, I’ll shutup now)

  17. […] Losing My Religion I became a fan of rock music in the early ’90s, and so when I was a young teenager I just assumed that […] […]

  18. nino Says:

    Great project. Thanks. Mind if I link you to my site?

  19. Bandwagon03 Says:

    Something else to consider about LMR, for many people it was their first exposure to REM. A lot of people that would not have bought this record, bought it, and then became big ol fans. This record, and this single was a jumping point for a lot of people.

  20. bryan charles Says:

    i feel like no discussion of “Losing My Religion” would be complete without reference to the video, which was all over MTV and won all the awards. aesthetically, it created the template for a lot of the big alternative videos that came later–blink cuts between lots of blurred or impressionistic images (think “Heart-Shaped Box,” etc.). maybe there were others like this at the time but from what i remember R.E.M. was the first. i know it’s a popular thing to say it was an odd hit but it was also a notably odd video in that MTV climate (and now, well, forget it). “Losing My Religion” also marked one of the first times I felt that strange alternative-era disorientation over something i liked becoming so massive. R.E.M. was by no means obscure pre-Out of Time, but they took it up about ten levels with that record and it made me feel weird and like things were getting crazy. (maybe the same feeling other folks described when “Stand” first came out.)

  21. ChrisClark Says:

    “As much as I love a good pop song, there are times when the distinction between verse and chorus is so painfully obvious that the writing process becomes totally transparent. “Losing My Religion” is the opposite.”

    This is such a good point, Dan, and one that I’d never thought of before. I’ve tried my hand at songwriting in the past, and it’s something I’ve never quite mastered, this idea of making the verse and the chorus flow into one another rather than being these completely separate elements. The way that LMR flows is definitely one of the things that draws me to it. That, and the mandolin. I’m a sucker for strange instruments in pop songs. Count me among the people that loved the whole “Unplugged” thing back in the day. Cure songs on kazoos? I mean, who can’t appreciate that?

  22. 1969 Says:

    i think I thought i saw a pussy cat…

  23. James Says:

    The LMR video was also a first for visual references to Soviet propaganda art on MTV, that’s for sure.

    Seriously, though, the video is packed with cues to art forms outside the medium of music video (the Soviet art, Greek mythology, Renaissance painting, etc.) That makes it a unique one-off for MTV. I can’t think of any other videos that does anything quite the same.

    One of my favorite “interpretations” of LMR comes from professional scold Michael Medved, in his Godawful book “Hollywood Versus America.” He simply assumes the songs is about losing religious values, without adding one word about the lyrics, anything Stipe might have said about the lyrics, or even what he thinks about the lyrics. The title alone was enough to offend him. Hilarious.

  24. davegassner Says:

    As well, isn’t “losing my religion” a term from the American south? I believe it means “losing my mind” or “losing my temper”, somewhat on level with an overanalyzed obsession with a lover I spose.

  25. Kirsten Says:

    I heard it means “at my wits end”

  26. maclure Says:

    I’m really impressed with the great stuff coming out about LMR on here… Just a few further comments from me.

    1) I also heard “losing my religion” means what Kirsten says it means.
    2) re: structure and chorus/verse flow. I think REM have sometimes got this side of the song-writing process so well sewn up, they have no equals: Fall on Me, World Leader Pretend, Try Not to Breathe and Driver 8 are some of the songs that flow effortlessly between parts with nothing lost in the mood or essence of the tune. I sometimes wonder if their supposed “decline” in recent years has become because they haven’t been able to do this in quite the same way – Binky the Doormat, Leaving New York, Daysleeper even Man on the Moon feel a bit “cut and paste” with some redundant spaces in those songs.
    3) re: the video. Although the song doesn’t have much to do with religion, the video is I reckon probably most non-die hard fans overriding view of the song and maybe the band as a whole. I think it’s controversial nature appealed to/shocked some people (both reactions contributing to its popularity). It was alternative, but somebody sticking a finger in the side of an elderly Jesus?… that’s alternative with a sharp edge.

  27. Jared B. Says:

    I always thought that was funny when I heard Stipe talk about LMR as a southern expression. I don’t dispute or deny that it is* but I’m a multi-generation southerner and niether I nor anyone I knew at the time had ever heard that term prior to the song coming out.

    *We have lots of colorful language that doesn’t get used on a regular basis–not to mention that the South isn’t the monolith that it’s often portrayed to be.

  28. 1969 Says:

    My 2 cents… I believe LMR was a half attempt by Stipe to “come out of the closet” and reveal his sexuality to his fans.

    “Consider this
    The hint of the century
    Consider this
    The slip that brought me
    To my knees failed
    What if all these fantasies
    Come flailing around
    Now I’ve said too much”

    But he is greatly concerned about their reaction:
    “I thought that I heard you laughing”.

  29. Jay Says:

    Dude! I saw that 90210 episode! I’m also about ten years older than your friend, and I remember thinking at the time how freakin’ obvious it was for the folks at 90210 to cash in on the REM craze by using that song as background to this tender scene between high-school lovers, in a convertible no less, at sunset. If I remember correctly, they were parked by the beach. Ah…the ’90s.

  30. Matthew will you please turn off the Snap previews they are making me crazy.

  31. Justin Says:

    Wasn’t the video for LMR the first to feature Michael lip-synching? I remember comments in interviews during the Document and Green eras in which Michael vowed never to appear to be singing along in any of their videos. The only example of Michael singing in a video prior to this was “So. Central Rain” and that was actually him singing live with the pre-recorded instrumental tracks.

  32. 1969 Says:

    This was probably the first video unless Shiny Happy People came out first. ???

    Michael said he never lip-synched because he had “pillow lips”. The record company apparently didn’t accept that excuse.

  33. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I was already a fan of REM by the time Out Of Time came around, so this was not my intro to the band, but this song is so emotionally powerful that it is one of only a handful of songs that despite near constant airplay (even still today) I never get tired of it. The lyrics can be taken on so many levels, as has been discussed, and the music is haunting and melancholy, but a little bit defiant as well. It is still my 2nd favorite REM song of all time (behind only Drive, which has a very personal connection for me and at least for me is of a similar tone to LMR anyway – whenever I make an REM mix CD the first two songs are always Drive and then Losing My Religion, which then is almost always follwed by Orange Crush, anyway I digress. . .)

    I have to say that the power of this song is only added upon by its video, which to me, still to this day is the best video ever made – it seems to capture the tone, mood, and feel of the song in a snapshot visual image better than any other video I can think of, it is true art and I love it. By the way, as far as I can think of this is the only video directed by Tarsem, can somebody let me know if I am wrong? Also, if I am, does anybody know why he was not used again after doing such an obviously masterful job? Anyway, one final thought, in one hundred years when some big company makes a mix CD of the 1990s or even the 20th century, this song will be on it.

  34. ana-log Says:

    Peter Buck about LMR:
    “The night I wrote “Losing My Religion,” I was drinking wine and watching the Nature Channel with the sound off and learning how to play the mandolin. I had only had it for a couple nights. I had a tape player going, and the tape has me playing some really bad scales, then a little riff, then the riff again, and you can hear my voice say “Stop.” Then I played “Losing My Religion” all the way through, and then played really bad stuff for a while. I woke up in the morning not knowing what I’d written. I had to relearn it by playing the tape. That’s where songs come from for me, someplace where you’re not really thinking about it.”


  35. Scott Malobisky Says:

    there’s so much that I could speculate on concerning that extremely interesting entry , oh ana-log, I love that kind of stuff…like, for example , how Keith Richards supposedly came up with the main riff for Satisfaction while totally intoxicated ,woke up in a Miami hotel room and there it was on his little tape recorder but he had no real recollection of ever playing it !…….I could go off on this subject , like , imagine the temptations to do major amounts of mind altering substances if as an artist you feel that it might lead you to some powerful material…… especially if you are a “star” and everyone wants to give it to you meanwhile you could buy Peru without anybody having to give it to you..(!) Must be incomprehensibly tuff at times to be in that position when you think about it.That’s a really interesting tid-bit there ana-log………..And to add my two cents to the debate about the phrase “losing my religion”, no doubt it is a negative thing , though what exactly I don’t know.I don’t think it’s something a normal person wants to do…And WHAT A VIDEO IT WAS !!

  36. […] few songs — “It’s The End of the World As We Know It,” pretty much always. “Losing My Religion” and “The One I Love,” usually. And more curiously, I have encountered both […]

  37. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    By the way, I know that there has been some debate about the term “losing my religion” and I can definitively say it IS a southern term for giving in to pressure, etc. I recently came across it used in context in Gloria Naylor’s book “Mama Day” – Naylor is a black, southern author.

  38. Michael Black Ph.D. Says:

    I seem genetically predisposed to disagree with Matthew again. Everything about LMR suggests to me that it is in fact about Stipe’s ambivalnce vis-a-vis fame. However, I will grant that it works at multiple levels and in that sense, it is work of Symbolist brilliance.

  39. […] he’s not being understood. If you fast-forward eight years, a similar dilemma comes up in “Losing My Religion,” though that song offers more in the way of context. “Sitting Still” sounds fantastic […]

  40. rodhutch Says:

    I think I agree with Michael Black Ph.D. I’ve always seen this about his ambivelence toward fame. But, thats the beauty of REM songs – they are open to different interpretations, none of them wrong.

    I also disagree with you, Matthew about the appropriateness of LMR as the first single. In retrospect, it seems obvious, but in Spring of 1991, it most certainly wasn’t. The mandolin, by itself, is reason enough for this. At that time there simply wasn’t stuff like this being played on the radio. I remember hearing it and thinking “What the hell is this doing on the radio? Rock radio, no less.” And MTV was most definitely not the zeitgeist yet. I was working in a music store back in the early 90s and the Unplugged thing came around about a year later. If anything, REM were at least partly responsible for clearing the way for the Unplugged series to get radio play. Clapton, too, of course.

    Funny side story – I have a bootleg of REM playing live at the time of the release of Automatic (this collection ended up making up the Monster B-sides). As an intro to LMR, Mike Mills relates a story of he and Peter travelling to Israel to promote Out Of Time, and they were hanging out with a friend who DJs there. They asked her why nobody requests LMR, and she said that they do, they just don’t really have a translation for it, so everybody just asks for the song “Oh, life”. They then proceeded to play, just for that audience, “Oh, life”.

  41. rodhutch Says:

    Sorry, I meant to say that MTV Unplugged was not the zeitgeist yet. Obviously, the world pretty much revolved around MTV back then.

  42. […] 20, 2008 If “Losing My Religion” can be understood as a portrait of a person who has been driven into paranoia by an infatuation […]

  43. […] tap into one of the most potent themes on the record: Obsession. In its way, the song is an echo of “Losing My Religion,” with our protagonist ruminating endlessly on his relationship with an entity that barely seems to […]

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