R.E.M.'s Losing My Religion: The Story Behind One of the 90s' Biggest Hits

R.E.M. is one of the most influential alternative rock bands of all time, with a career spanning over three decades and a legacy that inspired countless artists. Among their many songs, one stands out as their most successful and iconic: Losing My Religion. Losing My Religion was released as a single in February 1991, in advance of R.E.M.'s album, Out of Time, where it appeared as the second track. It became R.E.M's biggest hit, reaching #4 on the Billboard pop chart, and #1 on the Mainstream Rock and Modern Rock charts. 

But what is the song about? What does losing my religion mean? And how did it become such a phenomenon? 

The Meaning of Losing My Religion 

Contrary to popular belief, Losing My Religion is not about losing faith or becoming an atheist. In fact, the phrase "losing my religion" is an old Southern expression that means "losing one's temper" or "being at the end of one's rope". As lead singer Michael Stipe explained in an interview: > "It's just a classic obsession pop song. I've always felt the best kinds of songs are ones where anybody can listen to it, put themselves in it and say, 'Yeah, that's me.'" The song is about unrequited love and the frustration and desperation that comes with it. The narrator is obsessed with someone who doesn't reciprocate his feelings, and he feels like he has said too much or not enough to win them over. He imagines hearing them laugh or sing or try to reach out to him, but he knows it's all in his head. He is losing his grip on reality and his sense of self. 

The Music of Losing My Religion 

One of the most distinctive features of Losing My Religion is its mandolin riff, played by guitarist Peter Buck. Buck had bought a mandolin at a local music store and taught himself how to play it by listening to records. He came up with the riff while watching TV one day and recorded it on a cassette tape. He brought it to the band's rehearsal studio and played it for Stipe, who immediately liked it. The rest of the song was built around Buck's mandolin part, with bassist Mike Mills adding piano chords and drummer Bill Berry playing tambourine instead of drums. The band wanted to create a folk-rock sound that was different from their previous work. They also added some strings arranged by John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin. The result was a unique blend of acoustic instruments and electric guitars that created a rich and atmospheric sound. The song also showcased Stipe's expressive vocals.
Giovanni Gagliano

Passionate about music I wrote my first article for "Given To Rock" in 2012, reaching now 30K global followers. I am also a musician, gigging around London.

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