Pretty Persuasion

June 27, 2007

It doesn’t even matter what you think Michael Stipe and Mike Mills are singing on “Pretty Persuasion” so long as you catch the title phrase.  The composition jerks back and forth between gorgeous, sunny cascading harmonies and moody tangents, basically seducing the listener with its beauty before revealing something a bit more dark and sinister. Y’know, just like the people in the lyrics. Michael has fun with his pronouns in this number, intentionally obscuring the gender and sexuality of the song’s subject to the point that I wonder if it was always intended to evoke a sense of deep confusion with regards to sexual orientation.

33 Responses to “Pretty Persuasion”

  1. Justin Says:

    Yeah, the lyrics read like something off “Monster.” Sounds like he’s looking for a “date” for the evening and he’s considering all offers, male or otherwise.

    Or maybe he’s just at some sort of bazaar.

  2. maclure Says:

    Good thoughts, Matthew. I love this track and feel it precedes – in terms of it’s sound – later albums of theirs.

  3. Clive Says:

    “The composition jerks back and forth between gorgeous, sunny cascading harmonies and moody tangents, basically seducing the listener with its beauty before revealing something a bit more dark and sinister….”

    … A great description – you’ve wrote what I wouldn’t have been able to put into words myself. I was looking forward to this song review as ‘Pretty Persuasion’ means a lot to me because it was my first introduction to pre-Document R.E.M.
    I was 16 and of the opinion that R.E.M. began their career in the late 1980s. I was surprised when they appeared on a re-run of The Old Grey Whistle Test doing ‘Moon River/Pretty Persuasion’ dated 1984 – Michael Stipe with his long curly hair and mustard suit. This triggered a spending spree of cassettes of Murmur, Reckoning, Fables and Lifes Rich Pageant, and began my fascination with their early sound.
    ‘Pretty Persuasion’ has few tangible words, just a series of dual vocal melodies that are seemingly nonsense and yet lay down a great soundscape for provoking an emotional reaction.

    Has anyone heard the 1980-1981 version of this song with the alternative guitar intro…?

  4. Evan Says:

    It seems to me like a number of songs on “Reckoning” shift keys, or anyway feels, from verse to chorus: “Harborcoat,” “So. Central Rain,” and this one — almost as if they stuck two different songs together. Maybe this was just a side-effect of their compositional naiveté? But I agree, it gives a great, moody, dramatic effect.

  5. James Says:

    Peter Buck’s guitar part at the beginning of “Pretty Persuasion” reminds me a heck of a lot of the chiming guitar opening on Todd Rundgren’s “Couldn’t I Just Tell Ya.” I’m convinced Peter and Todd are playing the same chords, or similar ones.

  6. Justin Says:

    I’ve heard Stipe introduce this as “a Mamas and Papas song” before, which always cracks me up a little.

    I always read it as you did, a song about confused sexuality. The words are difficult to decipher, but it’s hard to deny he’s saying “God damn your confusion” there in the chorus. One of my favorites, a good, solid tune.

  7. Ignis Sol Says:

    I remember hearing this as the theme to MTV’s “House of Style” hosted by Cindy Crawford (it ran over the end credits).

    I thought it an odd choice that a band not affiliated with glamour (sorry, Mr. Stipe) would be associated with this show about fashion. It got me hooked to the song and maybe it helped it gain some fans.

    I enjoy the gender change as well. It was an obvious wink at Michael’s sexuality and openess. I also enjoy Mike’s backing vocals. They blend well with Michael’s part. A gem, a pretty gem.

  8. Rich Says:

    “Pretty Persuasion” is a great example of Mike Mills’ vocal quality used to brilliantly contrast Stipe — something that occurred often and with great success in those early days, and not nearly enough lately.

  9. narcizo Says:

    Arguably the best guitar intro throughout their whole discography.
    I guess that the “makeout” discussion you folks had in “Talk About The Passion” fits in here.
    At least for me, the image is two people in their early twenties, gorgeous yet immature, perhaps in love with each other yet too stubborn to say “I want you” first; they sit back to back somewhere, waiting for the first step, but it’s uncertain if this ends well, or even if it ends at all.
    … perhaps it’s all too personal for me.

  10. Andy Says:

    An entirely unscientific observation: it seems like Matthew’s posts for IRS-era songs are typically much shorter than the posts for Warner Bros.-era songs. What gives?

  11. Kirsten Says:

    I always thought this song was a dig at the advertising world using sexuality as “Pretty Persuasion” to sell their product. But I do totally see your point of view now it’s been pointed out to me.

    Also, I’ve had an on-going argument with my little brother since he was about 8 about the words. Is it “God Damn Your Confusion” or “Got To Have Your Confusion”. Both seem to work, but it would end a 14 year arguement….

  12. baldgent Says:

    kirsten – on the live version it’s “God damn” not “Got to have” – well to my ears anyway – totally agree with the earlier comments that the guitar intro is up there with Buck’s best

  13. Paul Alferink Says:

    God Damn your confusion are the Lyrics.

    I have a bootleg of this song and the Lyrics appear to be “shaky Shaky shaky Heat
    It’s all Wrong
    You cannot shuffle in the beat”

    The Boot appears to be circa Murmur, as this is the only Reckoning song on it and Body Count, Wait and “All the Right Friends,” “and Mystery to me” are still being played.

  14. 2fs Says:

    James: The similarity between Buck’s opening guitar part and the Rundgren song is that both rely on an open E-string with a melody that prominently features both that E doubled on the B string and the clash between a D# on the B string (4th fret) and the open E string. Both songs, I think, might have stolen the idea from the opening lick to the Beatles’ “Please Please Me” (which does the same thing).

  15. Kirsten Says:

    God Damn MY Confusion. Now I owe him $5 from 14 years ago – I wonder what the interest on that would be???

    Thanks Paul.

  16. Scott Malobisky Says:

    I’ve always taken the “god damn your confusion” to be referring to the way one sometmes feels–well, at least I do at times–when trying to carry on a normal conversation with a very attractive female …you can get all flustered and confused ‘cuz of her pretty persuasion and end up giving her the house if you’re not careful, not to mention stuttering foolishly over your own insignificant words !!!:)….Musically , the guitar/vocal line meshing with the drums/bass line –especially when the last verse comes in—-is really remarkable, rivals in eloquence of mesmerizing effect the same sort of intertwining but yet seperate guitar line and bass/drum line effect on Wolves, Lower ……..but not quite though ….not quite that eloquent and mesmerizing, though close.AND SWEET

  17. Paul Alferink Says:

    There’s a theory in English Lit called Reader Response theory. One of the points is that basically you get out of something what you put into it. Which is why REM lyrics resonate so well. There ambiguity and the fact that pre- Life Rich Pageant were so garble meant you could make anything out of them that you wanted, and they would have more meaning to you then something that was more straight forward.

    It also allows for a sort of Freudian thing. Some people might think “Up to par and Katie bar the kitchen door, but not me in” is about homosexuality, others that it’s about having trouble getting girls to like them, when it’s obviously about the fact that my Mother wants to cut off my penis. . . 🙂

  18. Kirsten Says:

    Paul – That’s what I love most about REM. If I mixed up the words to make a song mean something deep and meaningful to me, then I’m happy to keep hearing the wrong words and have something special that’s just for me. One song can be life-changing to one person and just be a fun song about nothing to someone else. I’m often disappointed when I hear the right words or the real meaning of the song, but whilst I take them on board, I always make sure I never lose whatever it was that made that song magic to me.

  19. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Love this song, sort of the first real REM rocker. Funny, but I never considered that the changing pronouns could be coming from the same protaganist. I always just thought that Stipe was commenting that either sex could have “pretty persuasion” and never picked up on the homosexuality theme that I now think is obviously there. However, I actually also agree with the advertising angle and think I even read an old interview (way back) when one of the guys, Bill I think, said the song had an anti-ad message for him. I think many old REM fans like this song partially because it was one of the few times I could feel like you were pretty sure you actually knew some of the lyrics and could confidantly sing along.

  20. Scott Malobisky Says:

    An old stoner friend of mine who is very astute and schooled in his rock and roll always thought when we were kids that Blue Oyster Cult was singing , “don’t fear the reefer” , he truly thought this !! And I –and this is REALLY stupid –used to think that KISS was singing , “I want to rock and roll all night and part of every day..”..(!) , really now ? which part would that be ?…that said, I’m assuming everyone else is hearing, “cannot put that on your sleeve, it’s all wrong , all wrong” ?……..

  21. Scott Malobisky Says:

    looked it up , oh , it’s “god damn, PURE confusion”…

  22. huub Says:

    Lol @ Paul Alferink

    But you’re wrong. It’s about Mike Mills wanting to cut off your penis..

    About the song: It’s really a sweets song, it’s rocking, but not in the nowadays popular, bombastic way, but in a gentle manner, based on drums and bass. A real little gem…

  23. David T Says:

    > That’s what I love most about REM. If I mixed up the words to make a song mean something deep and meaningful to me, then I’m happy to keep hearing the wrong words and have something special that’s just for me. One song can be life-changing to one person and just be a fun song about nothing to someone else.

    I feel that way, too, Kirsten. I remember reading an interview in Rolling Stone during the Green era in which Michael mentions that a hard-to-understand lyric in “Laughing” is actually “We could gather/Throw a fit” (rather than “We could gather/Throw up beer”). When the interviewer then tells him, “I always thought it was, ‘We could gather through our fear,'” Michael says, in essence, “Oh. Gosh. I actually like that better–I might start singing it that way!”

    From the outside (i.e., I don’t know the guy), it seems that one of Stipe’s great strengths as a writer is that he loves the English language sonically as well as semantically–and, boy, he really can use his voice to convey and evoke emotion (as has been stated so eloquently time and again in this blog). The sound of his voice during the bridge of Pretty Persuasion, combined with the instrumental parts and the energy with which they’re played, give me a huge feeling of longing…even though I really can’t say I know what Michael is singing there.

  24. Bandwagon03 Says:

    As many others have said, perhaps the best intro of ANY REM song. The only other one i can think of is “Begin the Begin”

  25. Don Says:

    It’s hard to explain the effect of this song. At the time, the jangling guitars were such a new/forgotten sound that they just grabbed a listener and demanded their attention. There was really nothing else like this on the radio. For me it had the same impact as I imagine “I Want To Hold Your Hand” had in 1964. (Go and listen to that, as if you’ve never heard it before…) I’d already gotten the IRS Radio Free Europe single, but this song was something more.

    Pretty Persuasion IMO was responsible for the whole college radio exsplosion that would follow – bands getting back to the classic guitar sounds without requiring a seventeen-minute solo or a disco backbeat. Early-80s radio was horrid.

    It also began years of my tracking down every obscure b-side, finding shops that sold British imports and mags so that I could know everything about them, even though they are from Georgia. (I regret passing on the “Peter Buck – Guitar Hero” comic book I saw once…) My friend & I were so close to putting together a book of every clipping we have ever found, and issuing it to the cooler record stores, but it was not to be.

  26. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I LOVE the intro to “Begin The Begin”! I kind of have always like the start of “Texarkana” with the little bass line really well too.

  27. Scott Malobisky Says:

    I now at this moment officially induct Texarkana into the Most Underated REM Songs category, it is done , I deemed it:)

  28. 2d Says:

    my fav intros: “laughing”, “monty got a raw deal” & “lotus”


  29. Hey Don — When I originally planned on writing about this song a few months ago, it was going to be about how I think that every band that tried to emulate R.E.M. in the 80s was basically just trying to rewrite this particular song.

  30. Dark Bob Says:

    The intro to The One I Love is right up there with Begin the Begin and Pretty Persuasion. This is one of thier best early songs.


  31. […] several strong hooks and a cascading guitar part that seems to anticipate the generally superior “Pretty Persuasion.”  Weirdly, “Ages Of You” would probably be a lot more enjoyable if it were actually […]


  32. […] awed by the songs, and so when I finally heard “Camera,” “Harborcoat” and “Pretty Persuasion” for myself, I was acutely aware of their legendary status, at least in the mind of the guy from […]

  33. Kevin B Says:

    R.E.M show, Raleigh, 6/10/08: Michael intros the song, saying: “this song’s about growing up queer in the South”


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