Anyone looking for the match-light moment when R.E.M. exploded onto the national scene need to search no further. “Losing My Religion” arrived on Feb. 19, 1991, and nothing was ever the same again.
In many ways, it all happened very organically. Guitarist Peter Buck had been intrigued by the idea of turning a throwback instrument like the mandolin into a vehicle for a rock song. Singer Michael Stipe was ruminating on the idea of unrequited love. Bill Berry just wanted his drums higher in the mix. Then a video director arrived and built everything around a single indelible image.
A decade in, these alt-rock darlings were suddenly actual pop stars. “This song is beloved around the world – it is,” Stipe later enthused. “It wasn’t our fault. It just happened – and it’s one of those freak things, and we’re really proud of it.”
Composing took a matter of minutes, Buck said in the liner notes for 2003’s In Time compilation. “The first time the band played it,” he added, “it fell into place perfectly.”
Next, Stipe settled on a title. “Now, some people still think that it’s a song about religion; it’s not,” he countered. “It’s just a song about having a crush.”
Stipe reached back to his Southern roots for “Losing My Religion,” building the song around an expression “meaning to lose one’s temper or being at the end of your tether,” he told The New York Times. “The song was a romantic expression and is about someone who pines for someone else. It’s about unrequited love. It’s obsessive attraction, that stammering, self-conscious urge to reveal and yet hide feelings that you know are not shared.”
An hour later, Buck said Stipe had completed the lyrics. “While playing the song for the third or fourth time, I found my self incredibly moved to hear the vocals in conjunction with the music,” Buck remembered. “To me, ‘Losing My Religion’ feels like some kind archetype that was floating around in space that we managed to lasso. If only all songwriting was this easy.”
The session, on the other hand, was a meticulous affair.
Joined by Mike Mills on electric bass and Berry on drums, Buck began working out a minor chord progression in keeping with earlier R.E.M. songs like “Driver 8.” The difference was Buck had traded in his electric guitar for the high, lonesome-sounding mandolin. That meant the resulting demo “had a hollow feel to it,” Buck said in the In Time liner notes. “There’s absolutely no midrange on it, just low end and high end, because Mike usually stayed pretty low on the bass.”
To bolster the track, Buck brought in Peter Holsapple, who rose to college-radio fame with the dB’s before sitting in with R.E.M. as a touring guitarist and keyboardist on the preceding Green tour. “He played live acoustic guitar on this one,” confirmed Buck, who also added his entire mandolin part in one take – despite a notable muff. “It was really cool: Peter and I would be in our little booth, sweating away,” Buck noted. “And Bill and Mike would be out there in the other room going at it. It just had a really magical feel.”
Along the way, Stipe had somehow stripped down to his underwear. “I also got really hot because I was all worked up,” Stripe recalled in 2017, “so I took my clothes off and recorded the song almost naked.” Ultimately, that helped him achieve a deeper vulnerability: “It’s this really tearful, heartfelt thing that found its way into one of the best pieces of music the band ever gave me,” Stipe added.
Watch R.E.M.’s Video for ‘Losing My Religion’
Producer Scott Litt said “Losing My Religion” was completed after a key suggestion from Berry. “I had Bill nudging up to me and saying, ‘You know, I think the drums could be louder,’ and he was spot on,” Litt later told Mojo. “The strings and the vocals are maybe more memorable, but the drums are really important. He’s even doubling the mandolin figure at the beginning. The last mix on that song was ‘drums boosted,’ and that became the track.”
Next, they paired the song with another new era-signaling element: a music video from director Tarsem Singh in which Michael Stipe actually lip-synced the words. Prior to “Losing My Religion,” he steadfastly refused.
Singh arrived in R.E.M.’s hometown of Athens, Ga., having previously directed just two earlier clips, including “Tired of Sleeping” by Suzanne Vega. But he had an intriguing, if only half-drawn, idea based on “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,” a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story about an angel who falls from heaven only to be relegated to freak-show status.
“I went and saw Stipe and the guys for probably a day and a half. All I wanted to see was where he stays, where he lives and what he does,” Singh told Rolling Stone in 2016. “Something was missing from the idea, one little piece. I spent a day with him; in the evening, we went clubbing. I saw him dance and I thought, ‘That’s the missing element!'”
There was no set choreography; instead, Stipe moved with unconscious abandon, mashing up David Byrne‘s jerky gyrations from Talking Heads‘ famous “Once in a Lifetime” video with Sinead O’Connor’s in her “The Emperor’s New Clothes” clip. Singh surrounded it all with a series of iconoclastic set pieces – though, over the years, he came to prefer the more stripped-down aesthetics of R.E.M.’s subsequent performance on MTV’s Unplugged.
“All it needed was Stipe in front of a window with a band,” Singh noted, referencing the most straightforward scene from his video. “He didn’t even need the window in Unplugged. He’s sitting on a bloody stool and he’s playing it and he’s singing, and it’s phenomenal. They didn’t need any of this. It was just in the air.”
By then, however, “Losing My Religion” had become one of the era’s most celebrated videos – and R.E.M.’s highest-charting U.S. hit. The No. 4 smash broadly expanded their core fandom, as Out of Time sold more than 4 million copies. “Losing My Religion” won two Grammys and six MTV Video Music Awards, including video of the year.
“If you want to talk about life changing, ‘Losing My Religion’ is the closest it gets,” Mills later told Billboard. At the same time, he added: “It makes no sense at all. It’s five minutes long, it has no chorus and a mandolin is the lead instrument. It’s perfect for R.E.M. because it flouts all the rules.”
Nevertheless, they’d awakened to a whole new world. “We went from selling a few million worldwide with Green to over 10 million,” Buck noted in 2011’s Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage compilation.
That didn’t necessarily sit well with some of the oldest fans from R.E.M.’s intimate early days as an indie act, perhaps because they wanted to keep the band for themselves. Some even talked about boycotting. But Buck, despite his newfound interest in old-timey stringed instruments, wasn’t looking back.
“The people that changed their minds because of ‘Losing My Religion,'” he told Rolling Stone in 1991, “can just kiss my ass.”