Learning R.E.M.

Donny Osmond

I had a rather sheltered childhood. 

I grew up listening to K-Tel Goofy Greats and Wacky Westerns albums, along with a few Kristy & Jimmy McNichol records and a rather extensive Osmonds collection. For me, “Crazy Horses” was just about as intense as it got. *weeooowwwww* *weeooowwwww*

The Osmonds brothers/crazy horses

Eventually, in a period of angsty rebellion, I turned to local rock radio and discovered Supertramp, Foreigner, and Fleetwood Mac. Once again, I thought I’d peaked in ‘whoah.’ I owned Pink Floyd’s The Wall on vinyl, cassette, and 8-track; to this day can probably sing every line, badly and melodramatically, while waiting for the worms to come.

When the 80’s struck, music got weird. Driving around hearing “Safety Dance” and “She Blinded Me With Science” proved beyond any doubt I lived in an age of wonders and limitless possibilities. MTV introduced me to The Cure, Hunters & Collectors, The Bolshoi, and Mojo Nixon. I was as alternative as an immature, overly-sheltered geek could be without leaving his bedroom in the days before internet.

Devo - "Through Being Cool"

And then I met Sandra. We worked part-time at the same department store, although she sold ladies’ undergarments while I vacuumed and emptied trash. Sandra was the single coolest most knowledgeable underground alterna-chick I’d ever seen. I wanted more than anything to have some sort of cred with her.

She’d lived on her own for years and frequented the local music scene, while I lived at home and practiced the bass. When she asked what kind of music I liked, I took it as the highest form flattery and perhaps - oh hell, was this some sort of test? An initiation ritual?!

“Um… the Go-Gos, I guess…” (I knew a total of two Go-Gos songs, which I did genuinely like. Mostly, though, they were an all-girl group – not so common then - and I was playing the odds this might work in my favor.)

Early Go-Gos“Yeah!” she said with what seemed to be not-entirely-forced enthusiasm. “I loved them before they were signed. Have you heard their indie stuff?”

I didn’t know there was ‘indie stuff’. 

I later learned that while in this case Sandra was being completely sincere, this basic assertion was a great fallback for discussing any artist in mixed company…

“So, you into Death Cab For Cutie?”

“Sure – although I loved their early stuff better.”

Velvet UndergoundThis could be varied in intensity, depending on what you were going for…

“You like Cold War Kids?”

“Yeah, but they were so much better before the big record deal. Have you heard their indie stuff?”

Or, if you’re feeling particularly feisty…

“Have you heard the latest One Direction?”

“Bah. They were better before they sold out to the machine and signed with that big label. Their indie stuff was awesome.”

Ultimate dis. Automatic indie music cred. 

Sandra’s favorite band was, she insisted, The. Best. Band. Ever. OhmygodseriouslyhowcanyounotLOVEthem?!

Also known as R.E.M.

Fables of the Reconstruction

Needless to say, it was off to the local record store to grab some new cassettes. Life’s Rich Pageant and Fables of the Reconstruction played in my car for two days straight. I was committed. 

The problem was... I didn’t get it.

At all.

I didn’t hate it – but I didn’t really understand this… this... strange new music

The lyrics never seemed to actually MEAN anything, even on those rare occasions I could tell what the hell Michael Stipe was singing. And I was COMPLETELY lost as to what they were going for musically. I didn’t… I mean… it’s just…

I didn’t really like it very much.

At the same time, I’d never had anyone so worldly, so knowledgeable, so damn cool, take a real interest in my thoughts and opinions about ANY music before. Even my guitar teacher when I was a kid shook his head in patient dismay every time I’d bring a recording of some Shaun Cassidy tune I wanted to learn – and my parents were PAYING him to like me. 

So I listened, and I tried to ‘get it’. Enough to say something intelligent about it to Sandra, at least. 

R.E.M. - Life And How To Live It

Eventually I realized there were tracks I liked more than others. I came to accept that they called on a ridiculous variety of emotions, conveyed by strings of words I didn’t fully understand on a literal level - and that this was all apparently quite intentional. 

Go figure. 

And I remember when it registered that some of the most intense tracks were, well… slow. And pretty. But NOT ballads. I didn’t know that was even possible. I thought “slow and pretty” equaled “ballad” by definition. But not here. Not these. 

R.E.M. Cover R.E.M. was writing about strangely familiar experiences in enigmatic ways and with a more complex humanity than I was prepared to understand. They used their words and their instruments very differently from either ‘classic rock’ OR the Osmonds, and it wasn’t easy to get my brain around. 

Partly I simply lacked the exposure and intellect to be easily reached by their art; mostly I lacked the motivation - until other considerations nudged me through. 

I don’t know when it stopped being for Sandra and started being because I genuinely loved it, but it happened. By the time R.E.M. was scoring radio time and having ‘hits’, I was almost developed enough to be mildly disappointed they’d be remembered for “The One I Love” rather than, you know – the cool stuff.

“R.E.M.? Yeah, ‘Stand’ is catchy… fun video – but I really like their older material, before they got popular…” 

R.E.M. - Stand (Video)

There’s nothing wrong with choice, or some degree of autonomy, even for the young and uninformed. And, to be fair, those of us in academia have a reputation for sometimes being a bit… elitist about the things we think are important and the knowledge we consider, well... legit. 




But even setting pretense aside, SOME STUFF IS BETTER THAN OTHER STUFF. We can debate specifics, but the idea that some history is more essential than other history, some science more useful than other science, etc., isn’t so very controversial, is it?  

Two BooksYou’re welcome to enjoy Twilight, but it’s not great literature. Lord of the Flies IS, even if you don’t fully ‘get it’ or like it right away. The History of Alien Sex-Abduction may be a legitimate topic to pursue, but with all due respect to the History Channel, a basic understanding of the Progressive Era is probably a better use of time and resources. Even math is -

Well, I’m sure math is good, too. Right?

How #amazeballs would it be if we could be Sandras? Validate our students’ understanding of the world, accept their paradigms regarding what is or isn’t worth knowing about it, or pursuing in it, and yet… find non-punitive ways to woo them towards parts of OUR canon as well? The stuff WE KNOW is... bigger? Valuable? Essential? Worthy?

They may need help learning the language of new subjects, the logic of new ideas, but they’re quite capable. I'd like to think they may occasionally discover they like some of it – maybe even want more. 

First, though, we must somehow earn their interest – to persuade them it’s worth the struggle. We must give them a reason to try our R.E.M. - whatever that may be. 

R.E.M. - Fall On Me

R.E.M. - Pilgrimage

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You said Amazeballs...

What can I say? You inspire me :-)


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