Michael Stipe, lead singer of R.E.M., has given us the soundtrack to our lives. He’s given us songs like Losing My Religion, Imitation of Life, and Everybody Hurts that define our emotions and experience as we grow up in a chaotic world where anything can happen at any time, and often does.
R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe has been one of rock music’s most prolific lyricists over his decades-long career. He’s won Grammys for writing songs and been included in many lists of top lyricists, including Rolling Stone’s list of greatest songwriters ever and VH1’s Top Musical Muses. Writing lyrics is not only an art but also a science; as is true with any art form, there are some secrets to creating great lyrics that you may not have realized.
This is part of what made him such an enigmatic figure to me as a kid. Stipe found enough energy to rally around other people when it mattered—at political events and fundraisers in support of homeless veterans and advocacy groups that oppose AIDS stigma and discrimination. Even then, however, it often felt like he had something else on his mind.
When I first listened to the song South Central Rain (I’m Sorry), I knew that society had just changed in some inexplicable way. We were aware, as teenagers, as misfits and loners with limited musical options for entertainment — we had an idea what music meant to us. We needed our lyrics to be meaningful and inspiring, not materialistic or vapid; political and cutting edge; reflective of how we saw ourselves against forces outside of us but still open enough for us to see ourselves within them. Lyrics needed to be relatable because they had to feel like something we wanted to believe about ourselves.
The song Blue, was inspired by Stipe’s close personal working relationship with Allen Ginsberg, and contains a spoken poem reminiscent of the beat generation. I too was influenced, and personally mentored by Ginsberg, whom I knew simply as Allen during the last decade of his life, until his untimely passing in 1997.
Young, passionate, honest and wanting to change the world, Stipe was a humanist who questioned everything: politics, religion and philosophy. His honesty about his flaws and his vulnerabilities allows him to connect with people from all walks of life. His influence on me was not just as an artist, but as a person as well; he inspired me in my personal life with how open he was about everything.
While Stipe was home-schooled during his early teenage years, he showed an interest in music. He taught himself how to play guitar, and began spending hours in his room with his headphones on, creating songs and writing lyrics.
Stipe explained to MTV in 2001 that each song was rooted in personal experience, some of it his own. For example, Man on The Moon is about Andy Kaufman, who became famous for his role on Taxi and for doing things like wrestling women and getting hit in the face with cream pies. But, most people thought he was just being a wacky comedian. That fascinated Stipe, who had been watching Kaufman since he was 15 years old: “I started seeing all these accolades from media outlets as to how great and how funny he was, but I knew better… I always felt he was making fun of us… He’s laughing at me.”
In songs, in interviews, and even during public appearances, Michael Stipe is an open book who never shied away from sharing his true thoughts. He had no problem discussing his political opinions, telling reporters what he thought about issues like war and terrorism. At one point he even apologized to his fans in Europe for being so outspoken—but he didn’t back down once it was all said and done. An American who felt European: Born in Germany, but raised throughout Europe, Stipe showed us how easy it is to feel like an outsider but how hard it can be to really fit in anywhere.
Stipe was regarded by his peers as being unafraid to speak his mind and break rules, traits they identified with. Bono, lead singer of U2, calls Stipe, “one of those people whose music defies time.”
Michael Stipe was always available for his fans; but, at the same time, he seemed so aloof. He often looked as if he wasn’t fully there and in his element, as if an invisible shield were keeping him from fully connecting with others.
As R.E.M.’s popularity grew throughout their career, Stipe became more of a recluse from society. A fan told him once that they’d always looked up to him because of how he fought against the system—sticking to your guns when no one else believed in you or your art is something we can all relate to; we know that feeling of being misunderstood by society and fighting for what we believe in despite others’ judgments.
Former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck said, “Michael wrote about stuff that mattered to him. This may be why fans perceived their relationship with Stipe as one of mutual respect and solidarity; fans knew there was someone out there who felt like they did and felt compelled to write songs about it.”
Stipe is neither fearful of exploring new territories, nor content to remain in safe territory. He is unafraid to be vulnerable and not afraid to make you think. Stipe calls himself an artist because he makes art out of everything—even boredom and disappointment. Unlike many artists, though, he knew how to feed his soul, but not starve his mind. He put work into play and play into work; nothing was ever off-limits for his imagination or for yours.
Michael Stipe | R.E.M. Koffee Klub, 1:45 PM, Clayton Street downtown Athens GA | R.E.M. 4/1/89 Atlanta, GA | R.E.M. (November 13, 1989, Fox Theater, Atlanta) | Top 11 R.E.M. Songs | 100 Greatest Songs of the 90’s #20 R.E.M. – Man On The Moon | A Little Ghost For The Offering | Lyrics That Influenced A Generation | It’s Been Awhile Since I’ve Dreamed This Much | Belong | Here’s A Truck Stop Instead Of Saint Peter’s | Shaken With The Cracks And Crevices