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28 October 2023

REM’s soundtrack to the end of history

The album Up captured the dehumanisation and sexless ennui that defined the late Nineties.

By Yo Zushi

No one f***s to REM. The music critic Ann Powers once called them a group “that made introspection not just a sideline but the whole game”, and she was broadly right. Even at their horniest, their songs drew you inward, penetrating the heart but no lower. They could exhilarate, as on 1987’s Gen X anthem “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” or the crunchy “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” (1994), but in their invocations of US popular culture in all its breadth, their music was mostly too expansive, too ambitious to take full possession of your body like Elvis intended rock ’n’ roll to do. A rush of blood to the brain, then, but nowhere more… sensitive. 

REM were a state-of-the-nation band that peaked when America had just become the world’s sole superpower. They crossed over from college-radio cult status to the mainstream with “Losing My Religion” in February 1991, as the USSR was stumbling towards dissolution. By the time they confirmed their position as one of the era’s defining rock groups with 1992’s multi-platinum album Automatic for the People, the Cold War was for the history books and George HW Bush had declared a “new world order” held together by US leadership.

REM’s members – singer Michael Stipe, drummer Bill Berry, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills – spent the early Eighties exploring a murky American-gothic aesthetic on Murmur and Fables of the Reconstruction, before gradually moving into spikier, more political territory. But when history ended along with the USSR, and Western liberalism revealed itself to be the ideology towards which all humankind had been tending – at least, according to the writer Francis Fukuyama – the band’s concerns grew more diffuse. Their deceptively pretty 1986 song “The Flowers of Guatemala” invoked those killed by that nation’s US-backed military regime; by 1993, they were climbing the Billboard Hot 100 with the observation that “everybody hurts sometimes”.

[See also: Madonna’s greatest hits tour shows why she is still the Queen of Pop]

The “exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism” that Fukuyama diagnosed in his 1989 essay “The End of History” was accompanied by new anxieties. He warned it would be “a very sad time”, largely because it was doomed to be boring: “In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.” But what seemed like an end point was just another bend in humanity’s blind march down the road to nowhere, soon to be replaced by an age of fracture. Fukuyama’s predictions that hegemonic Western liberalism would be the death of art were way off, too. The “end of history” merely became a flavour, an aesthetic adopted by some, but not all, artists. Among its defining features was a sort of sexless ennui, libido obviated by the iron cage of micromanaged comfort: no alarms and no surprises, and no boners either.

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In pop music, the exemplars of this style were the consistently boner-free Radiohead and REM. The latter’s 1998 album, Up, which gets the box-set treatment in November to celebrate its 25th anniversary, was its apotheosis: a shimmering, self-consciously modern record that fused Krautrock drum loops with Beach Boys harmonies and lyrics about bored academics, corporate receiving departments, juries and legal precedents. The collection’s electronic sound was partly the result of the early retirement of Berry, the band’s drummer. The sedated digital sonic palette, however, was perfectly suited to the material, which captured the vague feelings of foreboding and dehumanisation that – for the West’s comfortable, tech-savvy, largely white middle classes – characterised the late Nineties.

“Airportman” is a mood piece about breathing “recycled air” and edging towards an unspecified “great opportunity”, while “At My Most Beautiful” is a romance mediated by answering machines. “Hope” is a postmodern sci-fi about gene splicing and space travel – the preoccupations of an early X-Files episode. “Daysleeper”, the album’s masterpiece, is a dramatic monologue from the perspective of a night-shift worker manning a computer station in a regional office of an international company, set to a tune that evokes Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’”. All are humane and generous accounts of the era’s First World problems.

A few years ago, Douglas Coupland, the author of Generation X, recounted a conversation he’d had with a radio DJ in 1992, at the opening of the Mall of America in Minneapolis. Asked if he found the sight of people “brainlessly shopping like capitalist robots” distasteful, Coupland replied that “future generations are going to look at images of today here in Minnesota and see them as a sort of golden age of American culture. The peace. The calm. The abundance… I’m unsure if it’s going to last much longer and I think we should appreciate it while it’s here.” Listening to Up today, it’s hard not to feel the loss of that so-called golden age. In many ways it was bogus, and the Nineties helped to set the stage for all the horrors that followed – but what a beautiful thing the American century once seemed.

[See also: Britney Spears’s American horror story]

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This article appears in the 01 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour Revolts