Michael Stipe, the lead singer of R.E.M., says that “Losing My Religions” is a relatively straight-forward song: “It's just a song about having a crush." Impressed by The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” Stipe wanted to write a song about obsessive attraction, that stammering, self-conscious urge to reveal and yet hide feelings that you know are not shared.
The lyrics and universal experience lend support to Stipe’s explanation. We’ve all been boxed in by our feelings (“That's me in the corner”) and felt emotionally exposed by our attraction to someone (“That's me in the spotlight”). We’ve all wrestled with what and how much to say and hoped that our feelings would be understood before we had hung ourselves out there too far (Oh no, I've said too much”). It can be an agonizing experience. As Stipe once explained, “you’re dropping all kinds of hints, and you think that they're responding to these hints but you're not sure.” Until finally, all the uncertainty and emotional risk become too much, and you can’t take it anymore—or as Stipe would say, you reach the point of losing your religion.
This title and tag line have thrown some interpreters, but Georgia-born Stipe explained that it’s a Southern expression used when “something has pushed you so far that you would lose your faith over it. Something has pushed you to the nth degree.” In other words, losing your religion is being at your rope’s end; it’s being on the brink. The phrase and the song, therefore, are not really about religion at all, which Stipe is emphatic about. “Some people still think that it's a song about religion; it's not. It's just a song about having a crush."
OK, Stipe ought to know, right? Although the band does not individualize its writing credits, Stipe is the R.E.M’s principal lyricist, so if he says that the song is about a crush, then it’s about a crush, right? Right?!?
Well, maybe. R.E.M is a complex band, and Stipe is a complex guy. Guitarist Peter Buck’s liner notes hint at the possibility that the song took form almost too quickly to be understood. The creative process for “Losing My Religion” was “dream-like and effortless.” The music was written in just minutes; Stipe finished the lyrics in less than an hour and recorded his vocals in one take. It was not an elaborately conceived and executed concept piece. Instead, it emerged like “some kind of archetype that was floating around in space that we managed to lasso.”
Is it possible that within this creative rodeo even the artists didn’t fully grasp what they were “lassoing”? Is it possible that a work of art could have a life of its own and possess even deeper meaning than that intended or recognized by its creators?
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Tarsem Singh apparently thought so. The video he produced for the R.E.M. song explored more than just a simple unrequited crush. By mixing together a more complex set of themes and images (including religious), it won the award for Best Short Form Music Video at the 1992 Grammys and took six awards, including Music Video of the Year, at the MTV Video Music Awards. Perhaps the most powerful of these themes and images are those drawn from a short story by Columbian writer Gabriel García Márquez, A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings. The story revolves around a poor couple—Pelayo and Elisenda—who discover an old man with wings floundering in the mud outside their home. A neighbor suggests that he is an angel come to carry off their sick child, but despite the old man’s wings and unknown language, despite the fact that the child miraculously recovers, and despite the old man’s saint-like patience through all the ordeals that follow, the couple can’t believe that he is an angel. They lock him up in a chicken coop and charge their neighbors admission to see the winged freak.
Márquez’s messages are complex; the doubt-filled response of the couple and their neighbors is not wholly indefensible. The old man’s wings are more buzzard-like than angelic, he is awfully frail for something divine, and he smells horrible. Moreover, the “miracles” that seem to follow in the angel’s wake are more confusing than convincing: a blind man does not recover his eyesight, but he does grow three new teeth; a cripple does not regain the ability to walk, but he does win the lottery; a leper is not cured, but he does sprout flowers from his sores. Yet even if rendered ambiguous by these details, the story is really about a community’s loss of faith, their inability to recognize the miraculous even when it literally—it’s literature, get it?—falls into their own front yard.
Singh’s references to Márquez suggest that “losing my religion” means more to him than just being at your wits’ ends. The video also borrows heavily from the works of Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio to tap into other religious themes. The tableau at 4:33 into the video is drawn after Caravaggio’s Deposition, a painting depicting the preparation of Jesus for burial. The probing of the angel’s wounds at 2:25 follows Caravaggio’s masterpiece, The Incredulity of St. Thomas, a painting based on the gospel assertion that the disciple Thomas refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead until he touched the gash in his side (that’s where the phrase “doubting Thomas” came from). This latter painting in particular re-enforces the larger themes of spiritual doubt: to lose your religion is to lose your faith.
Other religious imagery within the video introduces other themes, too. For example, a character modeled after Saint Sebastian appears frequently in the video. Sebastian was a member of the Roman army trusted so much by the Emperor Diocletian that he was appointed to his imperial guard. Sebastian secretly converted to Christianity and quietly strengthened the faith of Christians who had been arrested and sentenced to death, and when Diocletian discovered this betrayal, he had Sebastian tied to a tree and shot with arrows.
Sebastian actually survived this punishment; he did not die until he was beaten with clubs when he persisted in his faith. Yikes. Most representations of Sebastian depict his arrow pierced body tied to a tree, though, and most of these representations were painted during the Renaissance, after Europe suffered through the plague. Centuries earlier, prayers to Sebastian had supposedly ended a plague in a region within what would become Italy. Now that the Black Death had passed, Sebastian’s intercession was acknowledged by a generation of grateful artists.
Sebastian offered more to these artists than just another tired old saint, however. As a tortured soldier—a decorated member of the imperial guard, no less—, Sebastian provided Renaissance artists with a male torso that could be idealized and explored. Some scholars even argue that their interest extended further. Even at this early date, Sebastian had begun to acquire homoerotic significance. By the 19th century, Sebastian had been adopted as a paradigm of homoerotic male beauty.
We know, we know: “That’s all well and good, Shmoop, but what on earth does that have to do with R.E.M.?” Well, the inclusion of a very youthful Sebastian within this video raises some interesting thematic questions, some of which analysts say point back to Michael Stipe. Stipe’s own sexuality had been a subject of speculation long before “Losing My Religion” was released in 1991. In 1992, the speculation gained intensity, as it was rumored that Stipe suffered from AIDs. When Stipe refused to explicitly address his sexuality or his rumored illness, some concluded that “Losing My Religion” was an autobiographical account of his anxieties about coming out. It was Stipe who was trapped “in the spotlight,” trying to decide what to reveal and at what time, “choosing [his] confessions.” Fearing that he had “said too much,” realizing that he hadn’t “said enough,” tormented by fears of exposure, fears stirred by “every whisper of every waking hour.”
Stipe never addressed these interpretations. He broadly insisted that he did not write songs that were narrowly autobiographical. Instead, he said, he tried “to write about things I may or may not have experienced from different points of view." In other words, according to Stipe, “Losing My Religion” was still about nothing more than a crush. Fans and analysts could spin all of the theories they wanted, but this was still just a simple song about being attracted to someone and the agony surrounding exposure and rejection.
Still though, art is a complex thing, and Peter Buck said that, in writing the song, the band lassoed some ideas “floating around in space.” Perhaps the song is about a crush and the all-too human fear of laying one’s feelings on the line, about exposing oneself to rejection and humiliation. But perhaps it is also about a deeper type of fear: fear of revealing one’s sexuality, fear of exposing oneself to the judgments of others and being rejected by friends and family. And perhaps the song is about a still more profound type of human frailty: a weakness of the spirit and imagination—an inability to preserve faith in something larger than oneself like an idea, a purpose, or a belief. Perhaps “Losing My Religion” is about a lot more than just a simple crush, but Stipe—like Pelayo and Elisenda—is unable to see life’s more sublime possibilities even when they fall from the sky into his studio.