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Search for the Best Pop Song of the 1990s: “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M.

This is one blog’s search for the definitive “Best Pop Song of the 1990s.” Ground rules can be found here. This will be done by analyzing these songs far more than any song, or thing, deserves to be analyzed. You can find similar posts here.

Now a guest post by Zack:

“Losing My Religion” by R.E.M
Released February 19, 1991
Reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100

If there is a “dark horse” for best pop song of the ‘90s, it has to be R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.”

The tune by the Athens, Georgia, band was a surprise Grammy-scoring smash of 1991. Surprising not because the band wasn’t talented, but rather because the song seemed just so unconventional and had such a dramatic tone.

It actually could be considered a great example of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. No, really. Think about it. Have you a better example?

Parts, parts, parts.

Pop music is all about parts, and none of which is more important than the hook. The hook, which is more often than not a catchy chorus, can be the difference between making millions and making rent. Because really, if you think about it, Marcy Playground is definitely not a great band, but does anyone who grew up in the ‘90s not know the lyrics to “Sex and Candy”? Exactly. That group of Minnesota clown shoes raked in dollars hand over fist, all because of that little six-word (I smell sex and candy here) hook.

Parts, parts, parts.

Something else the usual hit pop single has is a “relatability.” For the sake of argument I’ll just reference Marcy Playground again. Who can’t relate to sex? No one, that’s who. Even virgins relate, and maybe to even a more extreme degree than your average slut, because not having sex to a virgin is much more important than getting laid to the average skeez.  And candy? Well, if you don’t like candy, or can’t relate to it, then you suck at life. Period.

Parts?

Another quality often indicative of a hit pop song is its length. I know this criteria is not nearly as sexy or as interesting, but it’s the truth. Alas, what would this third bit of criteria be without a mere mention of those Minneapolis “disco lemonade” drinkers? That’s right. “Sex and Candy” almost nailed the perfect length for a major pop hit: three minutes. (Their song actually clocks in at 2:53. And it needs mentioning that there is flexibility in this criteria, but it’s common that major pop songs are under four minutes).

So now that we have that resolved, let’s take a look at why “Losing My Religion” is not only pop music gold, but also a sort of anomaly.

First, let’s look at why the second track from 1991’s “Out of Time” was so successful. Upon listening to the jam over and over, I first found myself in awe over the production quality and mixing. Everything is in perfect balance with everything else. From the mandolin to the drums and bass to the strings, everything fits harmoniously. Nothing too loud or overpowering, nothing underwhelming or out of place. Everything is harnessed perfectly amid the tempo that seems fast and slow at the same time. Frantic. Soothing. Steady. Perfect. How did they do it?

Then, there’s Michael Stipe. Every word Stipe sings is done so with an energy that has qualities of a desperate argument or testimonial. His singing style is one thing that cannot be disregarded when considering the success of the song. That kind of passion can hardly be overlooked.

R.E.M.’s ability to create something novel during the early ‘90s also contributed to its success. The mighty Nirvana is often given much of, if not all, the credit for destroying “hair bands” with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But consider this: “Losing My Religion” was released about seven months earlier. What I’m getting at is this: If “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the nail in the coffin of Poison, Motley Crue and Def Leppard, then “Losing My Religion” was the cause of death.

There was nothing that sounded remotely close to what R.E.M. released on that cold February day. Plus, the music video that accompanied it is still one of the coolest of all time. It has a certain avant garde quality to it, which was no doubt a breath of fresh air compared to the preceding decade full of big hair and neon spandex. It was dark – figuratively and literally – symbolic and provocative.

For all of these reasons and more, the song made a monstrous impact on the musical status quo, but there is also a number of reasons why it could never have been.

Go back in time 21 years and be a fly on the wall in the room where R.E.M. is making its case for the choice of debut single off the album. Now imagine you’re the record exec that has to make a decision for “Losing My Religion” as the one. It’s a tough call. The song is most likely not what Warner Bros. expected or wanted, especially as a follow-up to the catchy “It’s the End of the World as We Know it (And I Feel Fine)” or pop-friendly “Stand.” I’m sure the “suits” thought the song was morose, confusing, weird, etc.

Also, where’s the hook? There are a few stanzas that could be considered a chorus of sorts (ya know, beginning with, “I thought that I heard you laughing”), but there is no chord change, so it is difficult to differentiate from the rest of the lyrics. Thus, it’s not a true chorus/refrain.

Stipe’s lyrics are difficult to follow and relate to the average person, which doesn’t really matter in pop music, as long as there is a hook. Well, there’s not, as was mentioned already. The only conclusion made about the lyrics is that he’s describing a dream, or perhaps a fantasy. As we all know, dreams can be quite difficult to describe and often are unusual. So, no, or very few, points are awarded for relatability.

As far as length of the song, it lands just outside the boundary of what’s common for pop songs, falling just short of 4.5 minutes. As mentioned earlier, this criteria is a smidge flimsier, but to ensure frequent radio play – which is key for hit songs – 4.5 minutes teeters on being too long. No matter, the song garnered plenty of radio attention on pop and rock stations alike.

So, let’s recap. A song with no chorus, that’s a bit too long for radio play, features a mandolin playing the main riff and is comprised of peculiar subject matter becomes one of the decade’s biggest hits. Improbable, but perhaps R.E.M. knew something no one else did.  Or maybe they got lucky.

Whatever the case, “Losing My Religion” is a spectacular song that transcends time and genre. R.E.M. made an indelible impression on the course of music during its nearly three-decade run, and this gem should be considered its greatest contribution.

It also should be considered among the best pop songs of the 1990s.

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One thought on “Search for the Best Pop Song of the 1990s: “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M.

  1. Pingback: Search for the Best Pop Song of the 1990s: Ground Rules « Thin Line Between Stupid and Clever

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