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R.E.M. and the Psychology of Musical Relevance
R.E.M.’s announcement last year that they had “decided to call it a day as a band” elicited immediate analyses, retrospectives, and personal reflections in newspapers, music and entertainment magazines, and websites. In fact, articles about R.E.M.’s music and legacy continue today, almost one year after they announced their retirement. Just this past July, Stereogum published an analysis of R.E.M.’s albums and, a month earlier, A.V. Club ran the last of a six-part story about the band.
Regardless of how laudatory these remembrances, many of them shared an uncomplimentary opinion: The authors said that R.E.M. was once a great and influential band but had been neither for almost two decades. In other words, R.E.M.’s legacy began with 1982’s Chronic Town EP, peaked with 1992’s Automatic For The People, and then faded through 1996’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi. Following this album, which was also the last album with drummer Bill Berry, many critics said that R.E.M. ceased to matter.
When evaluating an artist’s work, it is important to consider two broad contexts: the artist’s and the audience’s. The outcome of a creative process, whether a song, critique, recipe, scientific discovery, cure for a disease, business strategy, or birdhouse, does not materialize from a vacuum. All behavior – including thoughts, preferences, choices, biases, and sensitivities – is the result of someone’s genes, his physiology, and his experiences, all of which are constrained by the environment. In simplified form, whether a dog can retrieve a duck (a behavior) depends on the dog’s physiology; a Labrador retriever can do it, a chihuahua can’t. A dog’s physiology depends on its genes, the expression of which depends on certain environmental conditions. Additionally, whether a Lab becomes a gun dog depends on its experiences (e.g., only those trained to retrieve ducks on command can do it) and its genes (not all Labs are equally trainable or physically suited for the task). These three factors (genes, physiology, and experiences) are constrained by the present environment; even a well-trained and physically able Lab cannot retrieve a duck its owner is not hunting (an environmental constraint).
When R.E.M. created Murmur (1983) the music was necessarily the outcome of the genes, physiology, and experiences of its creators up to that time, constrained by their environment. Some of the experiences and the constraints included how much money was available to record the album, the influences of the music and arts scene in Athens, Georgia, audiences’ responses during concerts, the physical structure and capabilities of the recording studio, record company executives, the band’s manager, studio engineers, the mixer, and the producer. This last person is especially important because, outside of the band, he or she is often given the most credit or blame for how an album turns out. In short, R.E.M.’s widely acclaimed first full-length album was the result of an interrelated system of biological, physical, and social variables. So too were critics’ and other people’s evaluations of Murmur.
As Daniel Levitin describes in This Is Your Brain On Music, what someone thinks about a piece of music is the result of a network of biological (such as someone’s ability to discern pitch, rhythm, sound), psychological (such as changes in what someone thinks about a song after hearing it many times), and social variables (such as what someone’s friends are listening to) whose effects change over time. What someone thinks about a song she first heard at age 20 while in college may be quite different from what this person thinks of the same song when she’s 50 years old, married, and has college-aged children of her own. A myriad of biological changes and experiences in the intervening 30 years have produced a person who literally hears the song differently, thinks about it differently, and feels differently about it.
When a band creates a new album, it does so necessarily in a context that is different from the one during the recording of a previous album. On the surface, the members of R.E.M. who created Reckoning (1984) were the same as those who created Murmur. But this obvious similarity hides the fact that Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Michael Stipe were one year older when they made Reckoning, as were the individuals who worked on the album such as producer Mitch Easter. That means one year of experiences that did not exist when Murmur was created and one year of physiological changes or maturation. What sounded pleasing when Murmur was made may have sounded less pleasing while Reckoning was being made. What sounded new before Murmur may have sounded old after it. Physiological changes and experiences change people’s preferences. Children prefer sweet tasting foods; many adults prefer salty and spicy foods. Children like “The Barney Song,” adults don’t.
For these and other reasons, it is natural for a new album to sound different from the one before it. If the time between albums is relatively brief, such as one year, then the differences between albums is likely to be small. This may be especially true if the same studio personnel such as the engineer and producer worked on successive albums. If the time between albums is long, such as five years, then the differences between albums is likely to be large, especially if the band records the album in a new setting, uses a new producer, replaces band members, relocates to a new city, and the like. But even when the differences from one album to the next are small, these differences accumulate over many albums. The result is that a band’s tenth album is likely to be very different from its first album, even when a band tries to return to its roots. In music as in life, you can never go home again.
Given that it is natural for the outcome of creative activity to change over time, it is unnatural for anyone to have expected R.E.M. to create the same music in 1991 as they did in 1982, in 2001 as they did in 1991, in 2011 as they did in 2001. The music must change, and R.E.M.’s did in a normal way from album to album. For some critics and critical fans, the music changed into something that led them to opine that R.E.M. stopped being relevant around 1996. In their retrospectives about R.E.M., many authors stated that Bill Berry’s departure was the calamitous event that changed the band forever. That could be, though the relationship between Berry’s leaving the band after a brain aneurysm and the music that followed may be more correlational than causal. Berry was not R.E.M.’s major songwriter or lyricist. He was not the band’s singer. He was not the band’s visual focal point during a concert. Berry was, however, an important voice in the creative processes of R.E.M. He was also a talented and versatile drummer. He was a vote in a band that made many business and creative decisions unanimously.
Although Berry’s absence on Up (1998) was salient, there were other notable changes between it and New Adventures In Hi-Fi. The first album without Berry was also the first album since Document (1987) without producer Scott Litt. Pat McCarthy oversaw the recording of Up, which was the band’s most produced album to date. Many of its songs included prominent studio effects: voice treatments, electronic percussion loops, and other studio wizardry – the sorts of effects available on GarageBand. Before Up, the greatest departure in the studio from R.E.M.’s live sound was the occasional use of string ensembles. Up was a long album, about 65 minutes of music; only New Adventures in Hi-Fi was anywhere near as long. Up was also the first album released after R.E.M. renegotiated a reported $80M contract with Warner Bros. Records. Even Up ’s cover art, which was more like that of a generic textbook, was a departure from the imaginative and open-to-interpretation collages, paintings, sketches, and photographs that introduced previous R.E.M. albums.
R.E.M.’s music changed over the years because they changed over the years. It could not have been otherwise. For critics and fans who ask, “Why didn’t their music change for the better?” the answer requires us to circle back to the fact that anyone who listens to a new album does so in a context that is different from the one when he evaluated a band’s previous album. Among other differences, new music released by a band can be compared to what they did previously, it can be compared to music created by the band’s peers, and it can be compared to current fads and fashions. It is obvious that someone can love or hate an album for many reasons. It is less obvious that one of those reasons is, as Nick Hornby wrote in Songbook, that the listener changed over the years. The new music – its lyrics, its rhythm, its tone, its mix, and everything else – may simply not fit well with who the listener is now. The changes that members of a band undergo are probably different from those that its fans and critics undergo; different people mean different physiologies, different environments, and different experiences. R.E.M. changed over the years in ways that were different from how their fans changed. Like two waves that are slightly out of phase, their asynchrony becomes exaggerated over time. The result is a loss of fans and critical acclaim.
The same has happened to countless musical acts, writers, painters, and other artists. There are U2 fans who say, depending on which cohort of fans you ask, that the band hasn’t made a proper album since 1983’s War, 1987’s Joshua Tree, 1991’s Achtung Baby, or 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Similar comments have been made about Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam. Even the once universally acclaimed Radiohead now has a vocal pool of critics: The Bends (1995) was a fluke; they’ve become self-indulgent and irrelevant since O.K. Computer (1997). It’s hard to say what counts as “remaining relevant” or “driving conversations about music,” but it’s likely that album sales are a part of the criteria. For any veteran artist, staying relevant means selling increasingly more albums or, at least, holding sales steady with each new release. These sorts of sales patterns occur only when a band acquires new fans to offset the loss of fans that is inevitable over the years.
The radio- and MTV-friendly songs on R.E.M.’s Out Of Time (1991) and Automatic For The People attracted the largest number of new fans, potentially helped by these albums containing two hit songs that embraced two large groups of people, the happy (“Shiny Happy People”) and the sad (“Everybody Hurts”). These two songs alone made R.E.M.’s music the most inclusive in America. But Monster (1994) was different. The plinking mandolins and catchy folk songs of the two previous albums were replaced by crunching guitars, riffs, and general loudness. That sort of change in direction shook fans off the bandwagon, resulting in Monster selling fewer copies than Out Of Time and Automatic For The People. The sprawling, diverse, long, and loud New Adventures in Hi-Fi did not recapture fans who didn’t like Monster, resulting in New Adventures In Hi-Fi selling even fewer copies than its predecessor. Significantly, Bill Berry was still a member of R.E.M. when both of these albums were recorded.
The fact is that after 1992, R.E.M.’s album sales suggest that they lost more fans than they gained. Why their music after Automatic For The People did not attract hoards of new fans or why some critics and fans gave up on R.E.M.’s music is anyone’s guess. Familiarity sometimes breeds contempt. In an industry where the next big thing is always a new thing, R.E.M. wasn’t. In an interview for USA Today in 2007, Michael Stipe said that he did not blame the band, its fans, or the music industry for R.E.M.’s changed status from that of a great American rock band to something else. He was right not to point fingers. The reality is that people change over time, which results in artists making different music and their fans having different musical preferences. Even if R.E.M.’s music hadn’t changed over the years, their fans would have and many of them would have outgrown the band’s music. By changing as they did, R.E.M. insured that their music would remain relevant long after they retired, and that past fans and critics, who themselves continue to change, will one day discover the appeal and relevance of an R.E.M. album they once ignored.
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