R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe Reveals ‘Losing My Religion’ True Meaning, Says It Wasn’t About Him
You've likely heard R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" hundreds or thousands of times in your lifetime and almost always naturally assumed it was an autobiographical tale penned by singer Michael Stipe. But it's amazing how a single word can change perspective, and during a chat with producer Rick Rubin for the Broken Record Podcast, Michael Stipe reveals that a simple word flip made listeners think the song was about him.
"I changed one lyric, I remember... [Instead of] 'that's me in a corner, that's me in the spotlight,' [it previously was] 'that's me in the corner, that's me in the kitchen,'" stated Stipe.
He continued, "So, what I was pulling from was being the shy wallflower who hangs back at the party, or at the dance, and doesn't go up to the person that you're madly in love with and say, 'I've kind of got a crush on you. How do you feel about me?' So there's this whole relationship that's happening only in the person's mind. And he doesn't know whether he's said too much or hasn't said enough. So he's like, in the corner of the dance floor, watching everyone dancing, watching the love of his life, on the dance floor dancing with everyone, 'cause that's the most exciting person. Or he's in the kitchen, behind the refrigerator."
It appears as though Stipe was more basing the wording around a character idea, but as he reveals, "I changed the 'kitchen' to 'spotlight' and instantly, of course, the song became about me, which it never was, I don't think. I mean, I'm pretty self-aware. But the video with Tarsem [Singh] is what really pushed it over the edge. And that was probably the queerest video of all time. And that was kind of nice."
Though R.E.M. had toiled as college radio favorites for years in the '80s and were starting to see some mainstream attention over their two previous albums, it was "Losing My Religion" from Out of Time that catapulted them to the biggest success of their career.
"When 'Losing My Religion' hit - you know, I'm not a person who has ambitions; if they're there, they are unconscious or subconscious, but I did always want to be really famous," said Stipe. "And I didn't realize what that really entailed. Looking at it from the other side, it's nice to be anonymous again - I'm on the subway and nobody knows who I am. They don't look at me, anyone under the age of 30 does not even look at me because they just register old. And I'm fine with that. It's totally amazing."
"But 'Losing My Religion' was when I went from being someone that was recognized by people in my age group who love a certain type of music to being universally, wildly, insanely famous. And on the street, I couldn't go anywhere. And I was okay. It was kind of charming... But 'Losing My Religion' really changed it for me. And the one thing - if I ever had an ambition, it might be to have a song of the summer, and 'Losing My Religion' became R.E.M.'s song of the summer. And that was thrilling."
"Losing My Religion" first appeared on R.E.M.'s 1991 album, Out of Time and was the winner of two Grammy Awards (out of the band's seven nominations that year). The song hit No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped both the Mainstream Rock and Alternative Airplay charts. It's also been certified as a platinum digital single and a gold physical single in the U.S.