R.E.M.‘s first single “Radio Free Europe” came out less than a month before MTV’s first broadcast, and since then their videos have been by turns innovative, fun, and artistic, in ways that were often uncommon at the time but totally normalized as the band (and MTV and VH1) grew old together. Their decision to call it quits is, for people of a certain age, the end of an era. To commemorate the band’s long and successful run, we went back through their music video catalog and selected their five best.
5. “Electrolite” (1996)
R.E.M. worked with basically every major music video director in the 1990s—most notably for the singles from Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi. (In the case of “Electrolite” it was Spike Jonze.) It’s easy to think of this as the band catching up after a decade of making music videos on their own or with Athens friends like Jim Herbert, but in retrospect what’s most striking about any of the videos from this period is how much they still feel like R.E.M. videos. The voice of a director like Jonze (or Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who gave their 1970s nostalgia a dry run in R.E.M.’s underrated “Tongue” video a year before perfecting it with the Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979”) can easily overpower an artist’s own visual aesthetic, but despite R.E.M.’s seemingly gentle touch, that never happened. The inflatable deer inhabiting “Electrolite” should make clear, though, that this was not due to too much reverence for the band. Bonus points for Mike Mills plays an accordion and a keytar.
4. “Imitation of Life” (2001)
The poolside tableau of “Imitation of Life” is the sort of immediately striking video concept that leads one to wonder why it hasn’t been done before—or if it has, why it hasn’t been executed nearly as well. Hammer & Tongs have done plenty of videos but this one may be their best, though it doesn’t immediately anounce itself as such. It’s also got two frequent R.E.M. video tropes: other people singing their songs, and Michael Stipe dancing. The song’s title spells out a third such trope: an almost Technicolor lushness.
3. “Stand” (1989)
R.E.M.’s early videos are oftentimes a bit dull in retrospect, because what they brought to the table has since been so thoroughly absorbed into music video culture that it’s easy to forget that the band’s clips were among the first with such influences. “Stand,” from Green, happens to feature a lot of them: non-narrative editing that is simultaneously art-house and Sesame Street; high school and college kids (sometimes, but not always, with an erotic tinge à la Larry Clark circa Tulsa); implements of school (e.g. globes, compasses); goofy dancing that riffed on, while intentionally failing to measure up to, professional music video choreography (despite the capability of making “professional” videos—as early as “Cant Get There from Here” they were using blue-screen technology). All of these added up to a deeply dorky vibe that somehow still felt very cool.
2. “Everybody Hurts” (1993)
Umberto Eco famously wrote (regarding Casablanca), “Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us.” That’s a pretty apt descriptor for the internal monologues of the now-iconic “Everybody Hurts” video. Presented as subtitles, each is a familiar mantra of anxiety, as the travelers become one in their despair. Not often mentioned: how much this video captures the extent to which R.E.M. have always presented themselves as not being from New York City or Los Angeles. How angry would these drivers be in either of those cities? (Watch the Pop-Up Video version here.)
1. “Losing My Religion” (1991)
We actually talked about this video just a month ago: it’s one of the ten most-lauded videos at the Video Music Awards. We were a little hard on the clip there because of our love for “Freedom ’90.” We’d forgotten, when writing, that half of the rock videos that came out over the next year cribbed something from “Losing My Religion” (a tradition that continues to this day). Having a lush Tarsem video as the biggest of the band’s surprising number of breakthrough moments sort of tarnished R.E.M.’s image—the band got tagged as humorless because of the ambition on display here. But every gamble here pays off tenfold. One of the smallest big videos of all time, from one of the smallest big bands of all time. Rest in peace, R.E.M.