Man On The Moon
December 8, 2007
Somehow, “Man on the Moon” seems entirely inexplicable. It’s so hard to imagine someone writing it, it just feels like something that one day came in to being, as though R.E.M. tapped into something far beyond themselves. It’s just a song — a relatively simple, straightforward song — and yet there’s this odd, ineffable feeling in the space between its chords, roughly akin to the sensation of stepping into a grand cathedral. It is mostly gentle and mid-tempo, but there’s a joyous bounce to its beat, as though every time it kicks up into the chorus, it’s a step closer to the heavens, and understanding unknowable things.
There’s a holy buzz in every moment of the tune, and it’s no mistake — “Man on the Moon” is a secular song about faith and belief that mostly swaps out religious imagery for pop cultural detritus. The lyrics are grounded in the trivia and junk of modern life, which helps to provide a context for the singer’s cynicism, but also his sense of wonder. He finds some minor magic in kitsch, and crucially, he understands that his life is just as ephemeral as any passing fad. He acknowledges that everything he knows is ultimately insignificant, but he also understands that it’s not all meaningless, and that we need to believe in something — anything! — to invest our lives with creativity and meaning. There’s obviously a conflict in there, but that’s not really the focus of the song. Instead, it’s a celebration of belief in the face of absurdity, and embracing faith even when you think you know better.