Song Exploder - REM
Sam Burnham, Curator
“...kind of a mistake. It’s a song that should have never been a hit single.” Michael Stipe
”Think about it. You’ve got a five minute song with no discernible chorus and the lead instrument is a mandolin. Why would anyone play that on the radio?” - Mike Mills
This is how two members of REM introduce a show featuring the creation of their 1991 single Losing My Religion. Yet this is the song that, after it was recorded, was the band’s consensus choice for the first single from their album Out of Time.
The new Netflix series Song Exploder offers a look behind the scenes into how these four men created one of the greatest songs ever released by a Georgia band. Seeing the magic of the creative process just added to the greatness and the mystique of the song.
Peter Buck teaching himself to play the mandolin and just building that iconic riff in the process booked the band a date with destiny. From there the show meanders through the creativity of Stipe, Mills, Buck, and Berry as each one made their mark. REM collectively decided to do something different. That’s what they did. It was different than anything they had done before and much different than anything else in the radio at that time. Stipe choosing an old Southern phrase is indicative of Georgia as an anchor for the music.
One of the greatest parts of the show is to see how they talk about the band and each other. So many bands out there that have the years together that these men have are burned out or even hate each other. These four are still very much friends and obviously love each other the way long time friends should. It’s refreshing.
I remember this song so vividly. Even on such a great album this one stood out to me. It was one that I listened to over and over. For me in 1991 that meant rewinding a cassette over and over, which I did. Whether it was on my stereo in my room or on my Walkman on the bus headed to a football road game, this song was never far away. In 2020, I find it just as enjoyable as I did in 1991. In fact, I’ve been through it 6 or 7 times while writing this piece.
I would have thought that the samples, those that were singled out in the show would have been detrimental. Such a mechanical separation of vocals, or percussion, or strings should peel back some of the magic and cost the song it’s soul. But it didn’t. It gave me chills, made me take notice. It proved to me, even more than I already knew, that this is just a truly great song.
If you are a fan of REM or even just enjoyed Losing My Religion then this is 25 minutes well spent. It is well worth your time.
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Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire