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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

On "Losing My Religion," obsession, and self-reflection

R.E.M. portray a man whose hindsight reminds him of painful mistakes in love and trust.


Today's Senior Year Soundtrack selection is a song I've always thought of as sounding and feeling 'different' in some way.


Of course, one could say that about many a track that emerged from the alt and indie boom of the 1990s. A vast increase in musical experimentation and more personal lyrical narratives understandably lead to many of the era's songs having a much greater weight to them. Through that weight, many listeners have found meaning as they hear parallels between these tracks and their own life.


When it comes to R.E.M.'s unlikely 1991 hit "Losing My Religion," I most definitely have such a reaction. As Michael Stipe sings of saying too much and making his feelings far too clear, I can only think of times when I myself have done so — and there are many. As both I and the song age, "Losing My Religion" has continued to have a profound personal meaning; today, I endeavor to examine what aspects of the track lead to my strong feelings about it.

To my ears — and like to many others as well — "Losing My Religion" instantly sounds different from other tracks of its genre and time thanks to its prominent use of the mandolin, played by Peter Buck. A guitar-like instrument, but smaller, higher in range and with four doubled strings rather than the six single-coursed strings of a guitar, the mandolin distinctly and brightly sounds above the rest of the song's elements, including Stipe's vocals once he enters. The mandolin is the first and last element heard on the song, distinguishing it from the get-go and then leaving the listener with its sound in their head as the track concludes. In between, it combines with an acoustic guitar to create a prominent high end which governs the rest of the track.


R.E.M.'s instrumentation choices also leave the backing's middle range unoccupied, creating an unusual tone and texture for popular music. Normally, the middle range would be the most prominent in a verse, with the low and high ends supplementing but not fully being used until the chorus. "Losing My Religion" entirely reverses that idea, and with the backing rarely deviating from its initial form, Stipe's low-mid vocals resonate in a largely empty part of the sonic spectrum. Even with minimal reverb placed on them, the vocals resonate by virtue of being in an otherwise hollow part of the song's soundscape.


Stipe’s lyrics display a similar hollowness to that heard in the instrumental. In his forlorn refrains, Stipe sings as a man who knows he’s in the wrong, having lost himself and his temper through obsession and ill-guided idolatry. In hindsight, he knows "life... is bigger than" the person with whom he was obsessed, and that he needs to center himself. At the same time, he can't help but remember the other person, to the point where he falls right back into his previous traps. "Oh no, I've said too much / I've set it up," Stipe mournfully sings once he realizes what he's done.


Holy cow, is this first verse relatable for me. With my loquaciousness, I'm often the last one to realize I should stop talking, and I tend to damage many aspects of my social life by speaking when I shouldn't. I try to stop myself, but old habits die hard, and even with anxiety therapy and medication I very rarely do the right thing. It makes my 20/20 hindsight all the more painful, and it often leads to me losing my temper about matters I should have under control. In the end, "Losing My Religion" is about just that: loss of self-control; the titular phrase is a Southern expression for doing so, and the Athens, Georgia-based band was all too keen to adopt it for their tune.


Of course, the word "religion" being in the title also leads to the track being interpreted as Stipe's questioning of his faith, especially when considering his status as a queer artist. Between the song's title and the second verse speaking of "choosing my confessions" and "the hint of the century," it's understandable to hear a secondary if not co-primary focus of Stipe grappling with seemingly incompatible parts of his identity.


Thinking of the 'religion' reading of the song complicates how the final line, "But that was just a dream," is understood. In the 'obsession' reading, the last line is a reply to all of Stipe's visions of the object of his ill-thought affection. They didn't really do all those things — laugh, sing, or try — for his sake, if at all. Meanwhile, the 'religion' reading may suggest that the different parts of Stipe's identity can indeed be reconciled, and that he doesn't have to lose his faith because of it... or, perhaps, the opposite is the case. I'm unclear on how exactly I hear the dream talk in terms of the 'religion' reading, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing; leaving things open for interpretation tends to breed greater discussion, and there's poetic power to be found in ambiguity.


...so yes, "Losing My Religion" is definitely a different sort of song, between R.E.M.'s instrumental choices and Michael Stipe's painful retrospective narrative. Both the musical and lyrical attributes resonate with me as I seek out the track for semi-frequent listening as I grapple with my own, obsessive inner demons and issues.

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