A few months ago I posted on Facebook about how I have grown into loving Automatic for the People best of all, despite loving Monster best of all for the majority of my adult life. The ensuing discussion prompted me to wonder why my REM experience seemed so different from everyone else's. I think I eventually got to the bottom of it. REM was not a big part of my life until very recently.
I first became aware of REM when I was in 7th grade, when "Losing My Religion" was absolutely EVERYwhere. Released in February of 1991, it came several months before Nevermind surfaced and was so confusing. Before REM, you had a choice between R&B and "rock music" which was at the time confined to hard rock/hair metal. REM--didn't at all fit. We didn't even have the vocabulary for it at the time. I think I understood this as "college rock," which made intuitive, if not actual sense to me. Labeling music as "alternative" didn't really catch on until after grunge.
I did not know what to think about REM based on "Losing My Religion." I thought it was cool as hell but had no idea what to do with it. They were kind of like U2 who I didn't completely hate but didn't love either (I would, like everyone else, learn to hate them much later, rest assured). They seemed more like Jesus Jones but American? I (quite fairly) failed to make the connection to the B52s who seemed in a freaky class by themselves. I guess to summarize, I was attracted to REM because they seemed smart and interesting but they didn't have that irresistible pull that the later grunge artists had initially. It was rock and roll, but it lacked edge.
I grew up with REM's mainstream success. They were always around, always pleasant, but I never felt strongly about them until c. 2014 when Pete and I immersed ourselves into their post-Out of Time, pre-New Adventures in Hi Fi catalog. This was born out of our music video nights, in which we would watch "What's the Frequency Kenneth?" and "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight" and "Strange Currencies" at first opportunity. One time when driving home from Toledo on an EG tour, Pete put REM on, saying it was in observance of the rainy day. Inspired by the choice, the words "ehhhh man!" came out of my mouth. Ever since then, one of us will put REM on a dreary day and the other will say "ehhhh man!" On new years eve 2014-15, we spent the evening watching the REM by MTV Documentary with our friends Lucas and Emily. We were getting over the stomach flu and had to force ourselves to drink the champagne we'd been saving. Aaaand of course gave the bug to Lucas and Emily for their troubles.
True to form, when "Everybody Hurts" was out, like all Americans with cable television, was aware of it as well as its accompanying iconic music video. At the time, I was 100% baffled by its popularity. It struck me as slow, whiny, and worst of all OBVIOUS. The obviousness was borderline offensive to me as a young teenager. Of course everybody hurts. Stop wasting my time. I heard the stories about this song literally saving lives. "How?!" I wondered. How was it that this simple, obvious message meant so much to people? A very big deal was made of the aforementioned video, which kind of bugged me too because it felt like a ripoff of the opening scene of Falling Down, which was released earlier that year. It won all the awards. I was annoyed.
Fast forward to 2014 when we were in the midst of our personal retrospective. Pete was in the process of recovering from a severe depressive episode. I'm not sure how other couples deal with these kinds of situations, but for us, the episode and the recovery were shared to some extent. Pete bore the brunt of the pain of the depression, but we experienced the whole thing as a unit. Similarly, when he got help and was able to start the healing process, he shared his thoughts, methods, and progress with me. A big part of this process was dialectical behavioral therapy, with which he had a lot of success. A major tenet of this is an emphasis on empathy to build better relationships.
I haven't received DBT personally, nor have I really done much reading on it , but this piece--the value of approaching relationships with empathy at the forefront--has been basically life-changing to me. And ALL AT ONCE, "Everybody Hurts" finally made sense to me. Beyond the knowledge that sure, others have emotions (duh), the important part is that these emotions are meaningful and as important to other people as my emotions are to me. Reading this back, it still feels obvious but I can't think of a better way to explain this without sharing the story of the time I was taking a poop at work. So I'll just stop here.
Edit: I was butting up against a meeting and rushed this conclusion so I gotta add something here. The song's power to most is that being sad is hard and that other people share the experience. This makes the American Sad Teen feel less alone in sadness, which is why it means so much to so many people. Obvious, but super meaningful to your 14 year old kid who's sad all the time. This makes the song genuinely great and important. I wasn't a particularly sad 14 year old kid, which is probably a big reason I shrugged this off as obvious. As a 35+ year old adult, sadness never made me feel alone, but the reminder that sadness exists in others and impacts their relationships made me feel super close to all but the .00001% of humanity who are sociopaths and just can't get it. Shit, man, you've got this too. No wonder you're acting like such an asshole. Let's just not.