“Losing My Religion” is so much more than an iconic mandolin-led tune and an award-winning music video…although it’s both of those things too…
A bit like Slash messing around in the studio and ending up with the intro to “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, Peter Buck was experimenting with a recently-acquired mandolin when he stumbled across the riff that underpins “Losing My Religion”.
A title like “Losing My Religion” could easily stir up some controversy. Thank goodness Twitter hadn’t been invented back in the early 1990s or one of R.E.M.’s greatest songs might never have seen the light of day.
But I don’t take the title too literally, myself.
I’ve always taken it to mean something more like losing faith or trust in a set of strongly-held beliefs rather than the more narrow definition of organised religion. Although it could obviously apply to that too.
Instead of “Losing My Religion”, perhaps imagine R.E.M. are singing about “losing my faith and trust in things that really matter in my life, and which I used to believe with every fibre of my being”….although I’ll grant you that title isn’t nearly as snappy as “Losing My Religion”…
You see, we’re at a bit of a crossroads in most Western democracies.
Whole societies have been structured around a fairly widely-held set of values and beliefs which served us at least reasonably well for hundreds of years, but which are proving less true than they used to be.
What things do you and the people around you…friends, family and workmates, the person sitting next to you on a bus or a train, the person serving you your morning coffee on the way into work…believe in that might not be borne out by modern-day experiences?
And how many of those deeply-held shared beliefs which underpin society can be taken away before society itself starts to crumble?
“Work hard and the company you work for will look after you.”
“The government has your best interests at heart.”
“The system of justice treats everyone equally.”
“Going to college is a good economic decision.”
“Good people always win in the end.”
And many more…
You’ll have your own views on this, of course, and I’m not about to impose my views on you.
But society is fragile. The only thing that keeps us from becoming a lawless, dystopian state is having a shared system of beliefs and values we all experience as being true, at least the vast majority of the time (we know there will always be a few rogues who mess things up, but as long as they are caught and brought to justice, we accept that some people are just built that way).
In the short-term, the powerful have ways of enforcing their will over the less-powerful — members of their workforce or subjects of their government. Even as the underpinning beliefs of society are dismantled, in the short-term they can keep things moving broadly to their advantage.
In the long run, the people always win…the French Revolution, the Boston Tea Party, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and many others…
I’m not advocating revolution for a moment. I’d much prefer that society tacked back to the values of decency, fairness and justice that used to be most people’s experience of living in a major Western democracy. I don’t think it’s too late, but the threats to society as we know it are already in plain sight.
If you’re a tech billionaire in Silicon Valley, the world might look like a pretty good place.
But their perception is not my perception. And my perception isn’t your perception…
Oh, life is bigger
Than you and you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
Renowned computer scientist, Alan Kay, has a great saying — “a change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points”. When you consider that IQ tests are designed so that 100 points is the population average, an extra 80 points takes an average person to Einstein-level.
In my professional life, I’ve always found this to be true. I’m not that smart, but I’m really good at searching out possible alternative perspectives, which makes people think I’m a lot smarter than I really am.
So “you are not me” is one of the most fundamental positions any of us can take.
The person we are dealing with isn’t necessarily a bad person, or a fool, they just have a different perspective to ours. That’s why any process of change has to start with a change in perspective, otherwise you just argue out your own position and never move forward.
For plenty of evidence of that, see any major political issue in the world at the moment…politicians are generally much more interested in arguing their own vested position than in understanding what anyone with a different view might believe and why. That’s why none of the big issues facing the world at the moment get resolved.
Which brings us back to the values society believes in…the values which hold us together…the values which protect us from a lawless “every man for himself” mentality…
If our faith is shattered too often…if the beliefs we’ve been taught by our parents, our school and our church aren’t delivered on as we’ve been promised…if we see too many people breaking the rules and not having to pay the price…then society is on a slippery slope…
That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it
Oh, no I’ve said too much
I haven’t said enough
It’s uncomfortable to stand up and call out this behaviour. The people trying to mould society to their own preferences have plenty of ways to make it look like you’re the troublemaker, and heap the blame on you.
That’s you in the spotlight.
They make you feel uncomfortable…doubt yourself…wonder if you’ve just misunderstood what’s going on somehow…bully you into complying with their wishes. Whatever it takes to get you to go along with them.
Have you said too much…or haven’t you said enough?
When it’s you in the spotlight, you’re on the stage alone. Nobody is there beside you. Nobody is standing shoulder to shoulder with you. Nobody has your back.
Your choice is stark — conform and give up your soul…or refuse and be outcast, like when people the king didn’t like were thrown outside the city gates to look after themselves in medieval times, leaving them to the mercy of bandits, outlaws and wild animals.
“Losing My Religion” captures the internal debate which goes round your head in moments like that perfectly…
Of every waking hour
I’m choosing my confessions
Trying to keep an eye on you
Like a hurt, lost and blinded fool, fool
Oh, no I’ve said too much
I’ve set it up
After a while, this internal dialogue nearly drives you crazy. You don’t know what to do. You don’t know where to turn.
Those are the moments in which our faith is tested.
Those are the moments in which our faith is lost.
Those are the moments in which, one way or another, we lose everything.
If we conform, we lose our soul. It we refuse, we’re ostracised by our employers, family, friends and maybe society as a whole.
Whatever we decide, we lose our religion…our faith…our hopes…our stake in a decent, just, fair world.
Our only choice is whether to pretend to go along with what we’re being told to protect ourselves as best we can, or to take a stand for what we truly believe, no matter the personal cost to ourselves and the people around us.
Whatever you decide, none of us have the right to criticise. You’ve got to do what you think is right in those situations, whatever you think is in the best interests of yourself and your family, whatever the psychological cost to you personally.
But either way, your previously deeply-held faith has gone. And it’s never going to come back. You’ll just get better at dealing with the fall-out…
The slip that brought me
To my knees failed
In response to life’s major traumas, people often say “you’ll emerge stronger for it”.
At some level that’s true. If you survive, you’ll have a level of resolve and determination you never had before. But you may not survive.
In medieval times, if the king threw you outside the castle to fend for yourself, or the church declared that you were some sort of heretic, your chances of survival, unprotected and alone, in the face of the bandits, outlaws and wild animals prowling around outside the city walls, were slim.
Nowadays, it’s more likely you’ll survive…in your physical form, at least.
But, if anything, it’s less likely your soul will survive.
Which is why “Losing My Religion” is such a great metaphor for what it feels like to have your deeply-held beliefs destroyed.
They don’t need to be religious beliefs. Just any set of beliefs which are fundamental to your view of the world and how it operates. Anything that gives you the confidence that, at least most of the time, the world is decent, just, fair and true.
Without that you’re lost.
When too many people lose their trust in the beliefs which hold society together, we’ve all lost.
“Losing My Religion” was the launch track for “Out Of Time”, the album that took R.E.M. from moderately-successful alternative rock band to global superstars.
Some people, including the record company, thought “Losing My Religion” was a strange choice for the lead single. As R.E.M.’s Peter Buck pointed out, it’s five minutes long, has no chorus and features a lead mandolin…none of those are obvious qualities for a record that was going to rule the airwaves in the early 1990s.
R.E.M. picked up two Grammys for “Losing My Religion” — one for the iconic video as well as one for the song itself.
Seldom has a Grammy been so well-deserved.
Here’s the track that made R.E.M. superstars…and a considerably more thought-provoking track than it’s often given credit for amongst the plaudits for the mandolin playing and iconic music video.
I am not you and you are not me. But I hope you’ll share my perspective that this is one of the best tracks of the 1990s…it’s R.E.M. with “Losing My Religion”…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/31AOj9sFz2gM0O3hMARRBx