R.E.M.'s incredible shrinking legacy
R.E.M. will be inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame tonight, and I feel like I should be happier about it. Or at least feel some kind of emotion. But I feel nothing. How can this be? R.E.M. and U2 were the two most important bands of my teen years. But while I still like to dig out The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby for old times' sake (and can even make an honest case for How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb being a really solid late-period U2 album) most of my old R.E.M. CDs have been sold off or stored away in my "never play anymore" box.
Like a lot of rock fans, I haven't cared about R.E.M. for many years now. When Reveal came out in 2001, I made a conscious decision not to buy it, the first time I did that with an R.E.M. record. I felt the guilt any fan feels when they turn their back on something they once loved. But guilt was the only thing left motivating my R.E.M. fandom, and that's not good enough, is it? Let's be frank: This is a band that should have broken up 10 years ago. You get the feeling the band missed a perfect out when drummer Bill Berry decided keeping his brain intact was more important that the occasional Rolling Stone cover and quit. The rest of R.E.M. could have called it a day and started systematically selling their songs to corporate advertisers, satisfied in the knowledge that they helped define rock 'n' roll for a generation of college students. But for some reason, R.E.M. decided to stick together and release exceedingly underwhelming records into the next century. (Actually, I can think of 80 million reasons why R.E.M. didn't break up, but that's between them and owners of Warner Bros. stock.) Berry had a nice fantasy once upon a time (before he became a farmer) about R.E.M. playing a massive concert on Dec. 31, 1999 and calling it quits afterward. Such a scenario would have fit with the impeccable sense of timing the band had during the first 10 years of their career, and might have helped cinch legendary status a la the Beatles playing their last gig on the rooftop of Apple Records surrounded by cops.
But by not breaking up, Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills have saddled their band with the incredible shrinking legacy. With each passing year, R.E.M.'s piece of rock history real estate grows smaller. So they are first ballot Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame inductees--does anyone really put them up there with the greats? Do they have a single song that ranks among rock's most essential? When you're drunk at your favorite bar at 2 a.m. (the optimum time for the best rock 'n' roll), is this the band you punch up on the jukebox? Are they even on there? Do I hear crickets?
Where did things go wrong for R.E.M.? Is it possible this band (gasp!) was never that good to begin with? I once would have shuddered at the thought, but now I'm left with no other conclusion. R.E.M. has a rep for stylistic invention, but their range always has been incredibly narrow. On the plus side, conservatism has made them consistent; there are no embarrassing trip-hop experiments, no Brazilian jazz indulgences, nothing outside the tastefully melodic, "intelligent" music dripping with integrity that everybody expects from them. But while consistency might make for a better value when you buy a record by an established artist, in the end you're stuck with a bunch of records you don't like listening to anymore. There's no potential for discovery with an R.E.M. album--you own one, you own them all. Plus, how can you relate to a band that never screws up? Nobody in R.E.M. ever overdosed, ever got caught with a 14-year-old girl and the Hell's Angels never killed anyone at one of their concerts. They always seemed to do everything right. Even now, while R.E.M. sells fewer records, it has been a quiet, respectable fade. Even as dinosaurs, they have grace. I guess that's commendable, but it's also pretty cowardly. R.E.M. has never risked looking foolish in public, and that's the key thing separating them from the greatest of the great rock bands. It's not that scandal and failure make an artist more interesting, just that scandal and failure usually means there's some actual life being lived, with risks and rewards and limbs that have been trespassed. It might have been easy to laugh at U2 when they crawled out of that lemon during the PopMart debacle, but at least they put their balls on the line for the sake of taking a risk. (A stupid, pointless, "Who the hell told them that would be awesome?" kind of risk, but a risk just the same.) They took a chance, and when they messed up, at least it made them seem more human.
As the spiritual godfathers of odious Hootie/Matchbox "regular guys in a rock band" shtick, R.E.M. is a profoundly boring band. It's tough to write that, but it rings true for me. Just forget everything you think you know about them and listen to their CDs. (Trust me, they are still there, right under your Pearl Jam and Oasis records.) The music tells the story of a band desperately trying to be "important," which was horribly important for self-important important artists in the Reagan era. I mean, R.E.M.'s fourth album was produced by the guy who did John Cougar Mellencamp's records, for Christ's sakes. Played side by side, do their records honestly sound that different 20 years later? Personally, I think one of them rocks harder. I probably don't have to tell you which one.