30 Years of Losing My Religion

There’s a speed trap of a town called Stapleton that I have to drive through every time I leave my hometown to return to the loving embrace of the Classic City. I meander past fields of cotton and cautiously creep past its borders over a train trestle and through kaolin streaked streets on my way to Thomson. The speed limit drops precipitously upon entry, forcing you to reckon with every inch of the tiny town as you drive through. You WILL witness the crumbling buildings, the large church, the post office slash community center and the gas station all at a whopping 25 miles per hour. I know they experience seasons there but in my mind’s eye the air is always a sickly pollen yellow. There are fewer than five hundred souls that call Stapleton home. And this is the place I think of when I hear “Losing My Religion.”

I wouldn’t be able to tell you the precise first time I heard an R.E.M. song. One small benefit of being in my early 30s is never having to have lived in an era when there wasn’t music by Berry, Buck, Mills, and Stipe available. I experienced the band’s heyday moment as a young child, unaware of records being broken by Southern kin. While I am absolutely certain that “Losing My Religion” passed through my ears at some point while Y105 was still a rock station, I can’t say that it made any impression on me until my brain started truly functioning in my teens. We had limited ways of obtaining music at that point in time so when we made a trip to the nearest big city for a dentist appointment, my mother would have the decency to take us by somewhere that we could spend our allowance on video games and cds. One trip I picked up In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003 based solely on the moon on the cover and that was when U2 became my co-favorite band of all time.

I find myself having to explain the South, specifically Georgia, a lot these days. How can a place so full of ugliness and despair can be the most beautiful place on Earth to me? “It’s in my bones,” is the best I can manage. I feel “Losing My Religion” in my bones. It’s as much a part of me as the red clay and unrelenting heat. Being able to point to R.E.M. as a Southern success story was vital during my teen years when the local radio was busy censoring the Dixie Chicks and OutKast but was more than happy to play Toby Keith again lest you forget 9/11. Here was a band I could relate to, clumsily, but still be fully encompassed by. Here’s a group of guys who weren’t masculine stereotypes, who sang about love and loss and dreams you can’t explain, with guitars AND mandolins, whose songs were things I didn’t yet have terms for like “faith deconstructed” and “Southern Gothic” and “queer.” But they rattled around in my rib cage all the same.

“Losing My Religion” was such a big hit that it’s easy to never truly listen to the song. Why bother listening to a song that has already been everywhere? I was overjoyed to see it get the Song Exploder treatment on Netflix because even for all its fame, the song remains a great mystery to most people. Even the great Jason Isbell recently discovered “the amazing melancholy hand claps” that were buried a bit on the mix but are unmissable once you’ve heard them. A minor key marvel that manages to hold your attention on mainstream pop radio with a MANDOLIN. Insanity. The lyrics have often been interpreted to be the narrator’s loss of religious faith, something I attribute to both the word “religion” in the title and chorus and the absolutely stunning music video filled with religious storytelling. But for me it was always about the yearning to love and be loved by the object of your affection, only to trip yourself up with your own insecurities, leading to even more frustration. You end up dropping hints in a language only you speak.

So I end up on that drive through the fields again every time “Losing My Religion” comes on. The association between the rural South of my homeland and the twangs and language of the song are too strong to break. I feel my 13 year old self’s sense of confusion, my young adult self’s longing, my current self’s isolation and struggle to communicate, all of it at once. I always take a breath between the penultimate note and the last one, reminding myself that the song does resolve.

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