Essay: Losing My Religion: The Limits of My New Critical Analysis by Joseph Osmundson
It seems to be an obvious enough statement, but high art struggles to reach into the corners and crevices of this country. It is exclusive, intellectual; it is New York, LA, London, Paris. Understanding high art may require a historical framework, a knowledge of critical theory, a college degree, a developed sense of irony. Art back home meant pretty pictures. When I was in elementary school, our next-door neighbor painted their house a pale pink, with wild horses running against a sunset airbrushed onto their garage door. My parents hated it because their aesthetic sensibilities were more refined. Our family portraits were in black and white and tidily framed; we did not have paintings of men hunting or of dogs playing poker. In my corner of America, we could dislike an image, but it was simply because it wasn’t pleasing to our eye.
I was driving with my father when “Losing My Religion” came on the radio. We were on a country road and in his truck, like always. Because we lived far from Seattle, the radio hissed and spat static under the music. The song had reached cultural saturation a year or two before, and the first few notes were all I needed to hear. The track is all melancholy and longing, minor chord and mandolin. My father played the mandolin, and my parents were probably still in their bluegrass band, but my familiarity with the instrument did not make the song sound less foreign.
REM was gay. REM was Michael Stipe. This had somehow seeped into my world, maybe through TV, or through kids talking shit at school, implying that anyone who liked the band was guilty of that particular sin by association. The early ’90s was a dangerous time to be considered gay. It looked, in those days, too much like a death sentence. Stipe himself, gaunt and white and gay, was death personified, and people assumed the worst for him.
I never got carsick, but the song on the radio that day made me feel off, just slightly sick to my stomach. I did not yet understand myself as gay and did not find comfort, like children sometimes do, in discovering that queerness exists in others. No. That day, driving, my dad and I talked about the minor key, the use of mandolin, the repetitive effect evoked by the guitars. We did not talk about words or meaning or gayness or desire. When I was twelve, any art by a queer artist was infused with their queerness. And so I read Michael’s voice as longing for a touch not to be fulfilled. And he seemed sad but defiant.
Looking back, I can search for an explanation to the feeling in my gut. The title, I learned later from Pop-Up Video, is not a literal loss of religion but rather southern slang for being undone, losing your shit. Michael Stipe was losing his shit: exposed, naked. The song seems to exist in the subtext, in doubt, in memories made and remade, someplace between dream and reality. It seems to be written in the subjunctive tense (“I thought that I heard you laughing”). There are hints at confessions, possible comings out (“Oh no I’ve said too much”). The object of desire is considered in the genderless second person (“And you are not me”). There is the simultaneous isolation and performance of being gay in REM’s south, or in my small town—the souls in the corner, the souls in the spotlight, losing their religion.
And my God, the music video. The medium was part of the magic of early 1990s music. A video could make a hit. From the first images of a man standing behind Stipe, touching his shoulders, disappearing, his obsessive love could clearly be, almost certainly is, a man. And then there are the angel’s wings behind Stipe that I now recognize from every flier for every gay circuit party, ever. The video is full of men. Stipe dances awkwardly. A black angel, hair died blonde, arms wrapped around his neck, moves. An old man lies next to him. The men are shirtless, but never Stipe. The old man falls from heaven, but retains his angel’s wings. Stipe flails. The old man has a hole in his side, and other old men insert their fingers in this hole, in and out, in and out. Stipe wails. A skinny and shirtless boy is shot through with arrows. But that was just a dream.
But none of this matters. This is all an academic exercise. What matters is that at twelve, I understood the song as a literal losing of one’s religion, which is precisely what I thought would be necessary to be gay, to come out, to love that way. When I was twelve, and I knew that the man singing about love and longing was gay, it made me feel something. It made me nauseous and scared and curious. It might have been a different song for you, or maybe a TV show, or a movie, or a book, but for me it was REM. In spite of the presumed vapid nature of low art, rare transcendent works that achieve mass consumption can also manage to disturb the peace. This is the embodiment of far-right paranoia about pop culture: it expanded the world I knew, which did not seem to include queerness as a possibility. And if we’re talking on principle, isn’t that what art is supposed to do? Or maybe all we need is a pretty picture, a pleasing tune: guitars, the mandolin, and a minor key.