Imitation Of Life

June 14, 2008

“Imitation Of Life,” a song trapped in the middle of an album that could not decide whether it wanted to be space-age pop or a sun-soaked vacation in affluence and muted neuroses, is so close to the classic archetype of an R.E.M. composition that it sounds almost as though the band deliberately tried to write something that sounded like themselves. Given the limited commercial potential for the other songs on Reveal, it seems somewhat likely that the band felt the pressure to deliver a sure-fire single. It’s just as likely that they — consciously or not — needed a song that grounded the record, and tied its more experimental moments to their earlier work. It definitely does the trick. If you have any love for IRS-era R.E.M., the song’s jangly guitars and lush harmonies have a sort of Pavlovian effect, making it easy to like, even if you can’t quite connect to it on an emotional level.

Lyrically, the song comes across as late period Michael Stipe boilerplate; another in his series of pep talk songs directed to frightened and confused younger listeners. “Imitation Of Life” has a pleasant sentiment and some nice imagery — I’m particularly fond of the references to literally sweet things in the chorus — but like the rest of the song, it can’t help but feel a bit recycled and overly familiar. (Almost as if to prove my point that the lyrics are Stipe-ish to the point of self-parody, the message of the song has essentially been re-written as “Supernatural Superserious” on Accelerate.)

33 Responses to “Imitation Of Life”

  1. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Wasn’t it Peter that said that the chord progression is the same as Driver 8 ? I noticed the other night how Houston’s beginning acoustic is Half A World Away…..and then those drums kick in and take it to a totally different place.

    I’m just hanging out here trying to look like I don’t even try. Waiting for Alferink’s analysis of how this song ties into The Wasteland……Good Morning.

  2. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I’d love to hear REM cover The Cranberries Zombie

  3. Bruno Says:

    Yup it is bisky. E minor, C, G, D. That progression, in various keys, can be found all through pop music though; it’s gotta be one of the most over-used of ’em all actually (I’ll see if I can think of some). It’s no surprise that REM would have the same progression pop up on a few of their songs over the years.

    I agree with what you’re saying though, and Matthew. This song does have a bit of an REM by numbers feel about it.

    I just posted in Find The River before this and it was like coming back down to earth to arrive here right away.

  4. Bruno Says:

    Google ‘Em C G D’. It’s like gold dust. I’ll take Driver 8 over them all though.

    Cool video they did for this song. It must have been a keyframming nightmare!

  5. Bruno Says:

    OK, I know this is my 3rd post in a row but I just realised what you meant by the Cranberries Zombie – Em C G D.

    Enough about the chords already, Bruno.

  6. Dark Bob Says:

    I’ve always felt that this song seemed like a stereotypical REM song, musically. But that aside, I really like it.

  7. ScottMalobisky Says:

    no Bruno, that was pure coincidence about Zombie (!), I just mentioned that song becuse I was out dancing last night to a live band, and between sets there was this Creole looking women in a bright yellow dress who looked possessed writhing as it was cranking on the jukebox.(That WOULD be a great song for REM to cover.)It was really quite intense and bizarre and it really fit my mood, an excorism of sorts, getting out and dancing in itself was an excorsism of sorts. The band was called West Of Five (as in the interstate), and there was a big REMO on the bass drum. I tried to play Accelerate (the song) on the juke as part of the between sets music, but this mananger guy who was guarding it, playing only his shit–was that part of the contract ?! or was he just being a jag-off?–says,”they’re retired ,Man, we need something rocking between sets.” I started to explain but realized he wouldn’t understand.

    “diggng bare foot Jerry and the CGD* , gather round , gather round children , get down”

    *CDB

  8. Auctioneer69 Says:

    I think you got “Imitation of Life” spot on. REM recycling “Driver 8” and adding affects and production more in keeping with “Reveal”. On the basis of this song “Reveal” was the first REM I hadn’t looked forward to at all. It’s nice to see it dropped for the most part from the American “Accelerate” tour but I think it will rear it’s slightly ugly head again in Europe this summer

  9. maclure Says:

    I always associate this song with the Wimbledon tennis tournament. BBC radio used the bleepy middle 8 bit of this song as their into and ourto to the sports report for a while and all I can hear is somebody in a plum English accent saying something like “Sampras progressed to the next round of Wimbledon with a straight sets win…”. Its oddly appropriate probably. I was at uni at the time enjoying the summertime, strawberries, seminars, sweet drinks, sunburn – it all clocks in quite nicely with Reveal’s overriding motifs.

  10. maclure Says:

    Sorry to be absurdly pedantic but I think driver 8 and Imitation of life are Em, Am, G, D as opposed to Zombie which is Em, C, G, D (as is Disarm by Smashing Pumpkins or as Bruno says any number of songs). C and Am are extremely similar, though, it has to be said…

  11. Bruno Says:

    Ha, okay bisky, a happy coincidence. You’re right about a Zombie cover but then again, Stipe could sing the Yellow Pages (or, say, the text on the sleeve of a gospel album) and chances are it would come out great. In fact, it would be more difficult finding a song that REM would sound bad covering (but we tried this before if I remember correctly).

    Possessed and writhing to the music from the jukebox? So where exactly was this club? To say nothing of a manager who wants something ‘rocking’ (Accelerate?) and not from a band that has retired!

    By the way, that wording on the bass drum might not help us to better identify the band; REMO is the name of a drum manufacturer!

    Just saying.

  12. Bruno Says:

    Damn! To follow this chord thing way too much further, you’re absolutely right, maclure. For both songs it is Am, not C. After all these years! A little revelation over here. I stand corrected.

    But back to the matter at hand. Sugarcane, Cinnamon, Hollywood.

  13. jim jos Says:

    funny this song should be brought up today, as I just picked up the cd single today. I bought it at a record store that is going out of business. Everything was 70% off and I simply had to go as the feeling of walking into a music store, thumbing through the bins, is just about ready to become extinct.

    Everything had just about been picked over, I mean, there was nothing there really by any major or mildly respected minor artist.

    But they did have THREE copies of Monster in the used cd racks. Jeez, some things never change.

    It may be R.E.M. by numbers, but I still think it is a very good song. I am hard pressed to think off the top of my head of another R.E.M. song that uses similes the way this one does, and to such a good effect.

    “Like a Friday fashion show teenager, freezing in the corner, trying to look like you don’t try”. “Like a goldfish in a bowl.” Good stuff, dang good stuff.
    Ba bum ba bum.

    One of the other few cds there was Beethoven Was Deaf. Interesting.

  14. milesy Says:

    I like this song. It’s always reminded me of Sidewinder, which I also like, in feel and tone. ‘Trying to look like you don’t try’ is a great line, even if it took me ages to realise that it wasn’t ‘like a Friday fashion show TV…’ (no idea why such an appliance would freeze in a corner).

    The most obviously radio-friendly songs on REM albums rarely end up being my favourites in the long-term, although I usually do enjoy them a lot. But this has always been my favourite on Reveal (along with Saturn), which may or may not say more about Reveal than about Imitation itself.

  15. milesy Says:

    I’m getting worried at the speed with which this blog is now heading to a conclusion. From tomorrow I’m going to be without an internet connection for up to two weeks while I move house: after all this time, what if I miss the end…?
    [and why does my isp need 10-15 days to move my connection? Tell me that!]

  16. ADB Says:

    Have to agree with the consensus – REM by numbers, but definitely feels more essential than it actually is because of the context of Reveal / Around The Sun. Playing it at Live 8 was a strange decision mind…

    All that said, a big shout out for the video – very clever and genuinely innovative.

  17. ScottMalobisky Says:

    ADB ,another chord progression

    Funny, I keep getting Rolling Stone magazine in the mail although I never ordered it (??) unless it was some small print somewhere in conjunction with something else that I didn’t read because I couldn’t see it….If I get a bill I’m gonna be so disgusted; it wouldn’t surprise me , the new American Entrepreneurial Spirit in action…….Anyway, article “REM Take Hollywood”, the Hollywood Bowl show, a pic of Stipe flipping the bird over his shoulder to his friend in the dressing room with his right hand while drawing with his left–I guess he’s a southpaw. During soundcheck there’s a big whiteboard wobbling in the wind with about 75 REM songs listed on it; Stipe calls an audible, “I’ve Been High”, to which Buck says, “Third day of the tour and we’re adding a song we didn’t rehearse!”.Later as showtime approaches MS is idly sketching a wine bottle label he’s designing for the Food Bank Of New York City (I guess that’s when he flipped his friend the bird , his friend had been teasing him about his ludicrously large sunglasses that he wore to soundcheck); many afternoons he opens his laptop and spends time between soundcheck and the show messing around on the web..no doubt he occasionally–VERY RARELY BUT occasionally I would guess– reads our crap:)Probably thinks, “damn, don’t these people have anything better to do!” He gave up coffee and wine for the first two dates of the tour to “ground myself”..On the wall there’s a pic of Ella Fitzgerald performing at the bowl and MS speaks of how the first time he performed here he was all nervous and “got all puffed out {?} and walked out with this faux confidence” proceeding to fall off the stage and cut himself, still got the scar to prove it. So, I guess they played I’ve Been High that night ? Might Saturn Return be next ?

    Bruno, he was just like a manager/helper guy with the band. He was kinda ripped, just trying to create and maintain a certain flow between sets I guess……They were just a 70’s/80’s guitar rock sorta cover band, kinda perplexed as to how Zombie got past his narrow minded parameters as to what was appropriate between sets. Probably some hot chick; she gave him the look.

  18. ScottMalobisky Says:

    By the way thanx to Ignis for inspiring me to go out dancing ; it was just what I needed.

  19. Ignis Sol Says:

    So, “Imitation of Life” is an imitation of past R.E.M. songs? I like the line about the teenage freezing in the corner – been there. I like the breakdown in the song, Michael’s voice it up front and real. Maybe I will try this at karaoke instead of my miserable attempt at “The Great Beyond.”

    Imitation, indeed.

  20. Mr Cup Says:

    File under facsimile?

    Despite the freezing rain, avalanches and hurricanes mentioned it is hard not to hear this as a ‘sun-soaked vacation in affluence’. It’s hard to dislike too.

    And on this rain soaked day, I might just slip it on.

  21. Brian Says:

    @ADB – I love the video for this song. I kind of wish they’d start playing it again because it’s a lot of fun.

    @ScottMalobisky My friend and I sing the first line or two over “Try Not to Breathe” over Houston

  22. Brian Says:

    …first line or two OF “Try Not to Breathe” over “Houston” is what I meant to say. Still in euphoria after singing along to everything at Jones Beach tonight.

  23. ScottMalobisky Says:

    guy mentioned late on Try Not To Breathe post about the uncanny similiarity of TNTB to Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck OF The Edmund Fitzgerald

  24. Paul Alferink Says:

    Okay, here is The Wasteland and this song:

    The first word is “Charades.” The subject is simply going throw the motions of life and is trapped in this fake existance they’ve created for themselves. The goldfish is trapped and detached from the rest of the world, as is the koi in a frozen pond.

    The lyric that ties it to the Wasteland is:
    “Water Hyacinth, named by the poet “Imitation of Life”

    The poet in question there is T.S. Eliot. And the Hycinth is from the poem, the Wasteland.

    “You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;”. “They called me the hyacinth girl.” Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden, Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither living nor dead, and I knew nothing . . . ”

    Much of the wasteland has to do with an imiation of life of sorts. Eliots has more to do with a sort of dying land were nothing is born, or even reborn. Its is all desert. Even the water, which should be a source of rebirth, either spiritually, through baptism, or physical, (April showers and all that), water in the Wasteland drowns the sailor, and he is not reborn.

    Stipe seems to take the metaphor and run with it. He changes it’s meaning slightly; whereas Eliot was concerned with death and no rebirth, or even birth that really gives false hope, Stipe concern himself instead with people who aren’t really living because they are wallflowers, they detached themselves. Like the persona of the Wasteland poem, although in a different way, they are also “Neither Living nor Dead.”

  25. Justin Says:

    I love how Stipe always prefaces this live as “Our first #1 single…in Japan.”

    They played this at the show I saw on this tour. I went with my boyfriend’s sister, and their dad’s girlfriend, who is from Spain. She was all about it. At one point, these three drunken, rowdy Mexicans showed up in the row in front of us, and they were also pretty into it. I lean over to sister, and I say “I don’t know why, but foreigners love R.E.M.”. She giggled. The next song they played was “Imitation of Life”, and the cholos went apeshit, dancing and singing every fucking word. Kinda hilarious.

  26. ScottMalobisky Says:

    WOW

  27. Kirsten Says:

    Agree that it’s a bit REM by numbers, but also admit that it’s a hard one not to like. Nothing exceptional about it, but not bad either. Great clip. Aparently they filmed it in 30 seconds with a bunch of different cameras and then just edited it. Always fun to dance to (especially if you try to emulate Michael!)

  28. Mr Cup Says:

    Are they the hollow men? The stuffed men?

    Justin, that would be such a cool tshirt:

    “Foreigners love REM”.

  29. Paul Alferink Says:

    Yeah, you have no idea how I tried to tie that song to that poem. Other than the title, there’s nothing there.

  30. Paul Alferink Says:

    “This is the way the world ends
    “This is the way the world ends
    “This is the way the world ends
    Not with a bang, but a whimper”

  31. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Hey , it began with a whimper…

  32. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Wow, I am coming in late here again, but this song does little for me. It is Driver 8 made all shiny. It is Driver 8 without the mystery. It is Driver 8 without the magic. And it is exactly what is wrong with Reveal – still my least favorite REM album by far. About the only thing I can say positive here is that after being banned from the radio here in my neck of the woods for Hi-Fi and Up, Imitation of Life did get a little radio play, although come to think of it The Great Beyond came out before this and it got radio play so it could be residue from that.

    Hey! My CD was in the bin! You should have bought it!

  33. jd66 Says:

    OK – I’ve waited for this one to be posted because I truly believe I know precisely what this song is about.
    “Imitation of Life” is a movie from 1959 – I’ve never seen it but the gist, as I understand it, is that it’s about a black person trying to “pass” as white.
    So the title clearly references passing.
    I think the song is all about Douglas A. Martin who wrote the book “Outline of My Lover” – a thinly disguised roman a clef about his relationship with Michael Stipe. My guess is that Stipe was ripshit pissed off about the book and this was his comeback. Stipe was a little obsessed at the time by Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” and this song is his version of that.
    The lyric supports this harsh view – it begins with:
    Charades, pop skill
    Water hyacinth, named by a poet.
    Martin was a poet according to the bio on the back of the book. I see charades as this fake art that Stipe believed the book to be.
    Later he sings:
    You want the greatest thing
    The greatest thing since bread came sliced.
    Youve got it all, youve got it sized.
    Like a friday fashion show teenager
    Freezing in the corner
    Trying to look like you dont try
    The “Friday Fashion Show Teenager” line is particularly harsh – someone who is not committed to art, but who is participating in a “show” as a hobby. “The Corner” is a reference to REM’s biggest hit “Losing My Religion.” You think you’re great – greatest thing since sliced bread, but you’re not. The official lyrics say “sized” but I hear the British expression “sussed” (figured out).. Again, I hear a Dylan connection in those mean lyrics.
    Next he sings:
    This sugarcane
    This lemonade
    This hurricane, Im not afraid.
    A group of fake subsitutes.
    “Sugarcane” – a version of sugar.
    Lemonade – a version of real lemons.
    “Hurricane” – a scary rain storm (ok, I’m stretching here)
    The whole thing to me is about this guy who kissed and told, but is also trying to “pass” and pretending it’s not a big issue.
    Musically, it is a bit “REM by numbers” but those lyrics sting.


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