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Rock Rewind: R.E.M. “Losing My Religion”

Sometimes, the band is right and the label is wrong.

When alternative rockers R.E.M. were preparing to release their seventh studio album Out of Time, their choice for a first single off the album was “Losing My Religion,” a wandering, rambling, minor-key song that basically emerged out of guitarist Peter Buck’s recorded attempts to learn to play the mandolin. Lacking anything that Warner Bros. Records could consider to be a “hook,” the suits at the label resisted for a long time. Finally, they gave in.

The song became R.E.M.’s biggest hit, ever.

Even without tour support.

That’s right. In keeping with the band’s mainstream-resistant persona, in addition to insisting on “Losing My Religion” as a single, R.E.M. decided not to tour in support of the new album, opting instead to promote it through interviews and visits to radio and MTV. In some respects, this was tantamount to promoting the record with the metaphorical one-hand-tied-behind-their-back. The label went along with it, strategically promoting the single in places where it was most likely to find a sympathetic audience—namely, college radio, alternative and album-oriented rock stations, as well as with a solidly produced music video for MTV rotation. The strategy worked; heavy MTV rotation and good response at radio propelled “Losing My Religion” into the Top 40, peaking at No. 4 and remaining for 21 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100. The song also went on to win two Grammys.

The moral of the story? No musical formula is 100 percent sure. By the numbers, “Losing My Religion” was a huge risk because it ticked none of the boxes the industry would associate with a good radio single. But R.E.M. felt it was the song that best expressed who they were on the album, and as a result, audiences found other reasons to resonate with the song. To this date, “Losing My Religion” is by far the band’s best-selling and best-remembered song.

Sometimes, the band is right. Take a listen.

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About the Author


Tim Ferrar's interest in pop and rock started as a child, listening to Top-40 radio for hours on end while playing air guitar in his bedroom. Eventually air guitar led to electric guitar, and Tim began playing in bands and writing his own songs. With an admitted weakness for "a great hook or a great guitar riff," Tim's musical tastes are broad and varied, ranging from Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga on the pop side to Bon Jovi and Foo Fighters on the rock side- making him the ideal guy to cover our Rock and Pop categories. By day, Tim is a mild-mannered accountant in Chicago. By night, he rocks out on electric guitar in a cover band in various clubs around town- much to the surprise of some of his clients.

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Posted in: Rock Music


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