24. R.E.M. - Everybody Hurts (1992)
(File Under: You Broke My Heart, Fredo: When Our Musical Heroes Betray Us)
If you didn't come of age in the '80s, it's nearly impossible to understand how important R.E.M. was to "alternative" (we called it "college") rock - believe it or not, there was a time their music was considered weird and uncommercial (I have many memories of putting their songs on mixtapes for friends and receiving "What is this shit?" reactions, with Michael Stipe's voice singled out for special abuse). But they, along with Husker Du and The Replacements, carried the torch for the American indie movement that Nirvana (as well as R.E.M. themselves) would take to the top of the charts. They were certainly part of the holy trinity for me, personally, so it is not with joy but with sadness that I proclaim this song to be on a par, entertainment-wise, with slipping in the shower and shattering your pelvis.
It starts off pleasantly enough, with an Otis Redding/non-bluesified "Love In Vain" riff - and then the lyrics start, which is generally when the nausea sets in (there are no coincidences, kemosabe), and you wonder if this is Stipe's revenge on all of those fans who'd been wishing for years that he'd enunciate. John Paul Jones's string arrangement only adds to the overall gloppy sentimentality of the track; I swear, if I'd had any way of knowing there'd be a massive earthquake in Haiti nearly 20 years later, I'd have been able to predict this song would be used on the benefit album. It's that sappy - in fact, it sounds like it was written expressly to appeal to emo 13-year-olds (redundant, I know) who agonize for weeks over whether the schoolmates they heard laughing when they passed them in the hall that day were laughing at them. Sure, the band had made missteps before, but they always managed to shroud even their most earnest heart-tuggers in some kind of mystery, a quality painfully lacking on this effort. Hell, even "Shiny Happy People" held out the possibility that it was ironic.
Which is to say: The ballad form isn't the problem - the album it was featured on, Automatic For The People, was, with very few exceptions (the paint-by-numbers rock of "Ignoreland"; the goof "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite"; the chorus to "Man On The Moon"), an album of ballads. But they were ballads that worked for the very reasons this one failed: they expressed adult (as opposed to adolescent) concerns (lotsa references to death - and not in any romanticized way), conveyed real emotions rather than settling for schmaltzy melodrama, and made statements without beating you over the head with their obviousness ( "Drive" may be about rock music's failure as a force of rebellion in the modern world, but it took me about 10 years to get it). There's nothing to "get" about "Everybody Hurts" - or, rather, nothing not to get. With this band, that equals unequivocal failure. But then, this song would have been a failure coming from Celine Dion. And if she's the yardstick by which your work is to be judged, you know it's time to seriously re-evaluate your priorities. Which usually doesn't mean putting out two more worthwhile albums, losing your drummer, and continuing on with a string of mostly forgettable easy-listening bland-outs. This is the kind of thing I dreaded the first time I saw "Adult Alternative" listed as a genre.