So R.E.M . announced today that they're breaking up. It seems like a respectable decision. The band has been around for a long, long time, but they still have some artistic integrity and, not wanting to eventually become caricatures of their former selves, they're choosing to break up the band. I can respect the decision to end an artistic project- especially such a long running one- if you no longer feel that you have new, meaningful, interesting contributions to make. It's always better to leave your audience wanting more.
Still, I fee a little sad about the end of the REM era. One of the first concerts that I ever went to (and maybe the first one where I just got dropped off and got to see a show with no parental supervision) was REM's Green tour back in 1989. My friend Tim Choy was with me at this show, and I'm pretty sure that Ryan was there, too. I remember that Michael Stype didn't talk much between songs, and the rumor was that REM had come through Austin on one of their last tours and the crowd had rushed the stage. A couple of fans had supposedly been injured, and after that Michael Stype (and maybe the rest of the band) had decided that they weren't big fans of Austin, TX.
Anyway, I have good memories of that concert, anyway. I had been listening to the album a lot, and I was really intrigued by the sound of Stype's voice, the trippy, ambiguous lyrics, and the way that the songs did such a good job of creating mood and atmosphere without resorting to a lot of solos or self indulgent riffing. REM wrote songs for people who wanted music that they could actually think about a little bit. The rock scene had the booze, drugs, and sex covered, and the pop stars had a good grasp on disposable dance singles. With REM, the songs had a range of topics, but there was a slightly deeper attempt to match music to mood and lyrics. REM was band that wrote their own songs and played their own music, but they were (or seemed) more interested in writing interesting songs than in just being celebrities.
In today's musical climate this seems like a more fairly obvious concept, but REM was gaining popularity at a time when most of the stuff on the radio or MTV (yes, MTV still played music videos back then) involved disposable, danceable tracks that were mostly meant to just be a pretty background for attractive pop stars to dance (e.g., Bobby Brown, New Kids on the Block, Paula Abdul, Debbie Gibson, Milli Vanilli, etc.). And the bands that actually played rock music seemed to mostly be clowns in tight clothes (often leather), sporting big hair and a compulsive desire to flex their musical muscles in front of anyone who would listen (Poison, Great White, Aerosmith, etc.). REM helped usher in an era of alternative music in which the songs themselves were meant to be more important than the celebrities performing them.
Or at least that's the way it started.
Eventually, of course, alternative music became co opted. REM and other college radio/alternative bands led the way, and Nirvana, almost inadvertantly, broke down the wall between mainstream and alternative music. All of the wanna-be celebrities found their way into a new genre that had initially been developed to avoid their influence.
The thing that made REM and some of the earlier "alternative" rock bands great was the originality and imagination that they brought to the music. They didn't necessarily rely on prodigious musicianship in order to create songs (mileage sort of varied in terms of technical ability from one band to the next), but they were really good at conveying ideas. Once alternative music got co opted though, you found people with very little creative energy cranking out extremely simple and often boring songs that just tried to imitate the sounds that other people had created.
And alternative music, unfortunately, is a good genre for hiding poseurs. The music doesn't have to be technically demanding. Alternative music bands, often wanting to differentiate themselves from the glitz and phoniness of glam rock and top 40 teenie bopper music, had often attempted to dress and act a lot more like "normal people" than mainstream rock or pop stars (okay, maybe the alternative bands wore a lot of flannel or looked like they needed a nap or shower, but at least they weren't wearing tight leather leggings and sporting long, quaffed hairdos with ridiculous amounts of hairspray).
Annnnyway, all of this to say.... Yeah, I get it. In a lot of ways the alternative movement led to an army of hipsters who don't have an original sound, only know three chords, wear black glasses, skinny jeans, and plaid, and sound whiney on every song.
I've been to SXSW. I know this happens.
But at the beginning, alternative music had a lot of creatve energy, and it was a major departure from the plastic, artificial, ridculosity that was going on at the time. At the beginning, the various sounds that made up alternative music were really something different, and some creative people were really attracted to working within alternative rock as an independent genre.
In some sense this is still a very good, healthy thing. On the whole, the alternative music movement reminded people that you didn't need to be able to play hypertechnical guitar solos, be able to hip hop dance, or dress like a glam rocker in order to make interesting music. The alternative music scene, at its core, was a reminder that anyone with an interesting sound or good song should be worthy of a listen.
REM were right at the forefront of this movement.
They had good ideas, an interesting sound, and enough drive and determination to claw their way out of the underground college radio scene and into the mainstream (wayyy into the mainstream- when I lived in San Antonio during college they shut down one of our major highways for the day and tied up the city's traffic so REM could shoot a video for "Everybody Hurts".).
I still like REM. I saw them for the last time at ACL Fest in 2003 (jeez, was that in 2003?!), and they put on a really good, fun show. They seemed like they were really enjoying themselves. It was cool because my memory of them from high school involved a much more sullen, sulky band.
Anyway, I gotta wrap this up, but I like R.E.M. and I'll miss them. They had some great lyrics (lots of great imagery, metaphor, and even humor), cool tunes, and they're an important part of the musical landscape in my life.