The Anxiety of Influence

By Eric Kelsey

Musicians, artists and writers have long since been overburdened by the influence of their elders. Franz Kafka lamented that Goethe was too large of a figure for German literature to flourish after him. Literary critic Harold Bloom devoted an entire book to the subject and how can one listen to pop music without drawing comparisons to those that came before?
The September release of R.E.M.’s I.R.S. Records retrospective, And I Feel Fine…: The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982-1987, brought to light the image R.E.M. had cast over the world of pop-minded indie rock music. It’s not quite on the par of Plato’s influence on Western philosophy, but R.E.M.’s I.R.S. years loom large.

Formed in 1980 R.E.M., along with the B-52’s, turned the music world’s attention to the college town of Athens, Georgia. Although the sound of the times belonged to No Wave bands like Talking Heads and the British post-punk of Wire and The Fall, R.E.M. turned the aforementioned political and economical persuasions on its head through pop music. By the time their “Radio Free Europe” single was released in 1981, R.E.M. took the confections of guitar pop music and fused it with the obtuse and whimsical lyrics of singer Michael Stipe. According to critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine, “R.E.M. marked the point where post-punk turned into alternative rock.”

Living together and playing in an abandoned Episcopal church during their first years, R.E.M. was the driving exponent in the new “back-to-the-garage” movement. While their contemporaries were dabbling in self-affection, R.E.M. gave the D.I.Y. ethics of punk rock a newfound self-consciousness that would later find its way circulating prevalently through the work of Pavement.

Groups that are considered seminal in their influential prowess, like Pavement and Guided By Voices, are forever indebted to R.E.M.’s pop sensibilities and punk inclinations. Those are reasons enough to make the two-disc retrospective listen like a history to the last two decades in rock.

But And I Feel Fine more than suggests that for that people my age. For those of us born after 1981’s Murmur, we can’t listen to R.E.M. in the same way as those who actually lived through the coming of R.E.M. Most all of us heard Peter Buck’s jangling guitar and Michael Stipe’s free-form lyrics before we had ever intentionally listened to an R.E.M. song.
Yet writing about R.E.M. turns into more frustration than a highly derivative band like Pavement. The precise problem is that R.E.M’s widespread influence had already taken root before I was born and has yet to be fully realized 25 years after Murmur.
I started listening to music with R.E.M. hiding behind my favorite bands. Without being a devoted fan, I will never be able to escape the control of R.E.M. over my musical taste.

In other words, for those of us born after R.E.M., we can never grasp contemporary music without R.E.M. playing somewhere in the background. Coming up with a definitive answer to R.E.M.’s influence would be like charting punk rock without the Velvet Underground. The only possible way of our generation to appreciate the transformation of rock music after R.E.M would be to think of R.E.M as a single movement that which nothing else would be the same thereafter.