One fascinating thing about music is that you can never account for people’s tastes. A track that became a hit in one year could likely be a flop if it was released a year before or a year after. This is why achieving what people call cult status is extremely difficult in the music industry. R.E.M. with their hit single “Losing My Religion” went a step further – they reached superstardom with a cult hit. This unconventional track is proof that music can indeed reach far and wide if it resonates with the right people at the right time.
“Losing My Religion” is a 1991 hit from the American rock band R.E.M. composed of vocalist Michael Stipes, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry. The song was the lead single from their seventh studio album “Out of Time”. Upon release, the track was promoted mostly among radio stations that play campus and alternative rock. This was because neither the band nor the record label thought it would be a commercial success or would hit the charts due to the unconventional composition. Stipes in a podcast commented on the unexpected success of “Losing My Religion”, saying:
“We released it as a first single thinking it was going to set up the next song. It’s such a weird song, we had no idea it was going to resonate the way that it did.”
Even though the band did not anticipate the success of “Losing My Religion”, the track remains one of the best produced by the band – going hand-in-hand with the cult status R.E.M stood for. Another reason for the success of the song was its music video, which did justice to the unconventionality of the song itself. Directed by Tarsem Singh, the video has a certain dreamlike quality that paired well with the lyrics and music to come out as a masterpiece of cinematic directing.
Not only is “Losing My Religion” critically acclaimed, but it also performed exceptionally at the commercial level. In terms of chart performance, the track reached the top in many countries such as the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, France, Ireland, Sweden, and New Zealand. In the UK Singles Chart, the song reached #19, whereas on Billboard Hot 100 it was at #4. On the other hand, “Losing My Religion” secured the #1 spot in both Billboard Alternative Airplay and Mainstream Rock charts. Rolling Stone magazine acknowledged the track’s impact by including it in their The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. The record sales are an indication of the commercial success of the song where it has been certified Platinum by both BPI and RIAA.
Listen to “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M.
R.E.M. “Losing My Religion” Lyrics Review and Song Meaning
Though unconventional in many ways, the lyrics of “Losing My Religion” are quite straightforward. In fact, according to Michael Stipes who penned down the lyrics, just saw it simply as another song about unrequited love. Of course, those who listen to it tend to disagree as “Losing My Religion” is anything but simple in terms of the impact it had on the music industry. Looking at the lyrics, it is easy to understand why this song had a lasting impression.
“Oh, life is bigger
It’s bigger than you, and you are not me”
The song starts with a declaration of love. It’s about a man who finally acknowledges both to himself and his love interest that he’s in love. However, it is obvious from the get-go that his love is not returned. Hence, the man is trying to reconcile himself to failure. He attempts to convince himself that his love interest is not the only person in the world and that he might find someone better. He knows that despite his own feelings, his love interest may not feel the same. Yet Stipes managed to portray a man who quietly pines for this love. He talks of someone who attempts to bridge the impossible distance, to approach the unapproachable and hope a little bit. However, by doing this he had set himself up for failure – he had revealed himself just a bit too much and laid his affections bare to the world.
“That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losin’ my religion”
These were the lines that pushed R.E.M. into superstardom. Deceptively simple, the lines have been offered multiple interpretations.
Stipes claimed that it was about an extremely introverted person attempting to confess his love. Moving from being overlooked and into the limelight where all attention is on this individual as he professes his love. He didn’t get to this position naturally; he was forced into it as he was at his wit’s end. This was a last-ditch attempt or a now-or-never moment that Stipes described with a Southern phase.
“Losing My Religion” was the Southern American way of saying that someone is at the rope’s end or that they’re losing faith. Hence, it could be said that this was the point at which the man described in the song saw it to be the moment of truth. He hesitates, but his mind is made up to declare his feelings and be rejected by his love interest so that he can move on.
“I think I thought I saw you try”
Once the confession is out, the man is filled with self-doubt. So he observes every reaction of his love interest, in the hope that he might get some clue as to what the response might be. He is looking for some sign of interest so that he can continue loving this person. Again, Stipes had managed to strip love down to its very basic emotions through his songwriting. Intentionally or not, he had managed to perfectly capture the moments of obsession and delusion that all people are afflicted with when it comes to love.
“Every whisper of every waking hour
I’m choosin’ my confessions”
The lyrics follow how the man’s obsession grows every hour. The feelings intensify as he can no longer hold them back nor control them. Nonetheless, he has to be careful with the words he uses so as not to scare away his love. However, deep down inside, the man is aware that he is merely fooling himself and his love is not returned. But he chooses deliberately to be hurt over and over again like a ‘blind’ fool. This plays into the idea that love is blind and people rarely have a choice when it comes to this particular feeling. The second verse extends to the consequences of his actions
Consider this the hint of the century”
The man believes he can’t make his love more obvious than he had. He had left subtlety on the curb and opted for plain language and gestures. Still, this move has cost him greatly as he was brought to his knees by the rejection. His fantasies were just that – mere fantasies that never came to fruition. But he couldn’t stop himself from nursing that little bit of hope, meaning that the fallout is even harder to deal with.
This leads us to the bridge of “Losing My Religion” which is as equally impactful as the chorus is.
“But that was just a dream
That was just a dream”
The man finally comes to the realization that his love was hopeless from the beginning. It was merely a castle in the air, existing only in his mind. This truth is both painful and bittersweet. It is the failure of love that many had experienced, the feeling of despair is well expressed by Stipes in the outro.
He uses only a few words; “Try, cry, why try?” If attempting to love will eventually lead to such pain, why try at all? This is the question that Stipes asked and it is not just applicable to love, but to all things in life. This is one of the reasons that this song can be considered unconventional. Love is perceived not from the position of a victor, but that of a loser. It just might have been what grasped the fans and raised it from a cult favorite into one of the greatest hits of all time.
On a different note, critics and long-time fans of R.E.M. tend to interpret the song completely differently. They believe that the song is about Stipes himself; his relationship with the fans who had different expectations, the gap between his public and private persona, and his efforts to keep his bisexuality a secret from the public.
While Stipes had denied this take on the meaning behind “Losing My Religion”, one can’t help but wonder whether this was pure self-expression on his part. Whichever way we decide, “Losing My Religion” will always stand apart from other greatest hits due to its unconventionality, yet still, be acknowledged as a G.O.A.T.
Let us hear what you think about this song in the comments below. Check out the complete lyrics on Genius.