Death of an icon
“R.E.M. broke up” isn't the most relevant news to university students in 2011 on the whole. For most here on campus, it probably doesn't prompt any deeper reaction than the realization that all over the world, thousands of devastated dads are sitting in their recliners with the lights off and “Everybody Hurts” on repeat, just weeping, weeping onto their khakis. That's understandable.
It's easy to forget – or to not know in the first place – that R.E.M. weren't always a tepid dad-rock band. From their inception in 1980 through 1987's Document, the group put out five albums of enigmatic pop music that couldn't be further removed from “Shiny Happy People” or whatever later single was likely pissing you off in line at Mr. Sub the other day. Although it feels like they were dull for twice as long as they were great, R.E.M. were an extremely significant band, counting Nirvana and Pavement among their devotees. Their influence was twofold: the music itself, of course, was highly impressionistic and a revelation to many early-'80s ears. But more important were the things they stood for and the way they operated.
A quick primer: R.E.M. were early purveyors of alternative rock (or college rock as it was called at first; both terms gave way to indie rock in the '90s). Born of the do-it-yourself ethos of punk rock, alternative rock wasn't so much a genre as a movement, one that intentionally ran against major labels and commercial radio. Basically, it was and is a system of people playing music not for want of attention or bowls of green M&Ms but for the love of playing music, and creative music at that. And for a time, R.E.M. were at the forefront of independent music, inspiring crowds wherever they toured (on two-dollar per diems, no less).
R.E.M. weren't the most stridently independent band of all time – they ultimately signed to Warner Bros. Records – but they always stayed relatively true to their ethos, even through their “Stand” years. Spin once stated that R.E.M.'s mid-'80s popularity had proven “how far an underground, punk-inspired rock band could go within the industry without whoring out its artistic integrity in any obvious way.” Jon Wurster of Superchunk wrote this week, again for Spin, that seeing the group as a teenager “was the first time [he’d] personally experienced the crumbling of the rock star/rock fan wall at a huge concert. This wasn't some untouchable band like the Rolling Stones or Queen; these were four unassuming guys […] not much older than [himself], who were DOING IT. And most important, a seed was planted that maybe someday [he] could do it too.”
At the very least, R.E.M. was fortunate enough to see the fruits of that labour before calling it quits. The timing of their breakup is sort of curious in that regard: this weekend marked the 20th anniversary of Nevermind, the landmark Nirvana release that introduced an entire generation to alternative rock and largely defined music culture for the '90s. And earlier in 2011, the Grammy for album of the year went to an independent band, Arcade Fire, for the first time in history, which goes to show how much the industry's attitude toward independent music has changed through the last few decades.
But the fact that they stuck around 31 years means they also saw some odd shifts in the culture they helped create. The success of R.E.M. and Nirvana taught major labels and advertisers that it was lucrative to mine the world of alternative music. And now, despite the Internet making it easier than ever to share music and operate successfully on one's own terms, independent bands seem more eager than ever to work inside the very structures alternative rock existed to bypass, which is why so many “indie” bands have signed to major labels, licensed their songs to iPod commercials, or had car companies sponsor their tours. But that's not all R.E.M.’s fault – and plus, that's a thinkpiece for another time.
A friend of mine remarked that despite their downturn in the last twenty years, “It was comforting to know R.E.M. was out there the whole time,” and that seems pretty on-point. I don't think their passing will really affect independent music, considering they've spent the last two decades working outside that context, but while it's not the end of the world as we know it (I'm so sorry), it certainly is a huge, palpable loss. If you've ever caught a small touring band at the Exchange or O'Hanlon's and felt there was something special about the experience, you ought to take a minute to think of those who helped foster the culture that made that possible. Or at least dig up “Gardening at Night” on YouTube.