On my way to pick up my daughter from her karate dojo tonight I heard a song on the local college radio station that sounded familiar. It recalled early R.E.M., and my own youth, and a stab of nostalgia sliced through me, sweet and tangy and old-school indie-rock jangly. Then I blinked -- there could be no doubt: that was R.E.M. I had to laugh: R.E.M? On KALX? How the worm does turn. Back in the day -- when R.E.M. was minting platinum albums -- college radio dropped R.E.M. like a hot sell-out rock.
I guessed I was hearing a tune from the new R.E.M. album, "Accelerate." I only even know there is a new R.E.M. album because econoblogger Barry Ritholtz recently referenced a Wall Street Journal article about how the band's record sales have precipitously declined over the last decade and a half. 1991's "Out of Time" sold 4.5 million copies in the U.S. The band's 2004 release, "Around the Sun," has sold only 234,000 to date..
No need to feel sorry for Michael Stipe et al. I'm sure that even in these days of rampant music piracy, the royalties on R.E.M.'s back catalog will keep the band and all their descendants in high style for generations to come. But to hear Stipe's voice on KALX was to hear a life-cycle metaphor. The band is back where it started -- no longer a staple of hit radio, no longer in high rotation on MTV, no longer selling out stadiums. Nope, back to blessed obscurity, back to college radio, back to singing unintelligibly about... Houston?
I am deeply pleased. For a generation of alt-rock hipsters, R.E.M. posed a litmus test that can't be passed: How do you stay cool once you've cashed in? We all understand: underground cachet is the most fragile of commodities -- as soon as everybody else likes what you like, where's the fun? R.E.M. gave it their best shot, but the more they saturated the air-waves the less interested I became. It was way more fun to turn a friend on to "Murmur" or "Reckoning" than to see "Losing My Religion" for the umpteenth billionth time. And of course, the guardians of college radio, whose standards were and are far more censorious than mine, shied away from the putrid corpse of international mass popularity super-stardom as if merely cracking open a jewel-case would transmit some horrible indie-cred-killing plague.
I tried telling all this to my daughter as we drove home. I stumbled a bit as I explained how it was kind of neat that I had just heard a song by a band that she knew nothing of, that I once liked that got really popular but was no longer commercially relevant in the here-and-now, on a radio station that wouldn't have dared to play their music a decade ago but was now letting them back into the fold. She nodded, and said: "They completed the circle."
Would that we all be so lucky.