What's the frequency, Michael?

Stipe and R.E.M. stand up in front of a new Museum of Radio & Television exhibit, where signature images meet impressionistic words.

Published October 20, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Lurking in my video collection is a tape marked "R.E.M. DO NOT TAPE OVER." The tape is from way back in 1989, when I was a young, rabid R.E.M. fan startled and delighted to discover an MTV "Rockumentary" about them. Madonna specials on TV were commonplace, but R.E.M.'s was rare enough that it seemed like it needed to be saved for posterity.

These days, of course, it's far easier to find R.E.M. on TV, with their "Behind the Music" and "Storytellers" specials on VH1, occasional documentaries and countless music videos. The latest sign of the band's pervasiveness is "Rapid Eye Movement: R.E.M. on Television," an exhibition at the Museum of Television & Radio (in both New York and Los Angeles through November). In total, the exhibit offers three hours of R.E.M. -- more than I could have even hoped for back in '89. There are two programs: One is a 90-minute compilation of clips spanning 1983-1998; the other is the 1998 documentary "This Way Up," about the recording of the band's latest album. The second program also includes "Uptake," a tape of the band in a warehouse performing songs from "Up," live and without an audience.

The program follows the band's evolution from unknowns to megastars, but it doesn't really attempt to explain the phenomenon. There is no voice-over narration to say what has changed in either the band or the music world around them. The breadth of footage and the juxtaposition of the images, however, says more about R.E.M. than any VH1 announcer could.

For one thing, R.E.M. has grown comfortable talking about their music. Early on, the Athens, Ga., quartet was notoriously reluctant to explain anything about their songs. One telling clip shows them after a 1983 "Live Wire" performance, responding to a questioner in the audience who asked them to decipher lyrics. Michael Stipe politely says that he'd rather let the music speak for itself. Things have changed a bit by 1998, when during a VH1 "Storytellers" session the singer explains his fascination with comedian Andy Kaufman, who inspired the song "Man on the Moon."

"Rapid Eye Movement" also illustrates how much more comfortable the band has become with visual presentations. "We hesitate to call them videos," Stipe said on that 1989 "Rockumentary." Pretensions aside, R.E.M. certainly embraced the form as a creative outlet. Instead of MTV staples like dancing babes and live group shots, R.E.M. favored striking visual images that complemented -- rather than completed -- Stipe's impressionistic lyrics. Some of those shots became almost as closely associated with the band as Peter Buck's guitar melodies: the black bars censoring topless male and female dancers in "Pop Song '89," the skateboarder pilfering through an abandoned house in "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)," the fed-up commuters fleeing their cars in "Everybody Hurts" and the wounded angel in "Losing My Religion."

Along with the band's growing mastery of the music-video format, the program also acknowledges Stipe's transformation into a true front man. In 1983, he plays the part of a shoe-gazing singer. Much later, he's shaking his hips to the bombast of "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" The program also reminds viewers about Stipe's stints on the soapbox: public service announcements, the band's involvement in a 1998 Tibetan freedom rally at the White House, Stipe's political sloganeering at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards.

This exhibit's presentation often ignores the cult of celebrity that goes along with being a rock star. Instead it concentrates on R.E.M.'s music and visual creativity. We don't see any Leif Garrett-style teary confessions here. In fact, there's hardly any biographical information. The "This Way Up" documentary avoids revealing specifics, even as it alludes to personal tensions during the recording of the album. Cynics argue that R.E.M.'s celebrity has lately become more important than the band's music, especially after the shift away from the glory days of college rock that lasted from "Murmur" (1983) through "Document" (1987). This three-hour presentation, however, scales back to the essentials, which in its own way allows for revelation -- especially regarding the late-period work. In the end, watching that side of R.E.M. is almost as exhilarating as it was back in the early days.

By Wendy Mitchell

Wendy Mitchell is a writer in New York.

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