R.E.M.'s legacy: 6 ways the band changed American music

The alt-rock pioneer behind hits like "Everybody Hurts" calls it quits — after 31 years of influential innovation

With Michael Stipe at the head, R.E.M. paved the way for alternative rock while keeping their sound unique in the mainstream.
(Image credit: Facebook/R.E.M.)

After 31 years, R.E.M., the band behind iconic songs like "Everybody Hurts," "Stand," "The One I Love," "Losing My Religion," and "It's the End of the World as We Know It," announced it would "call it a day." R.E.M. has released 15 albums, including alt-rock milestones Murmur and Automatic for the People, and sold more than 75 million albums worldwide. The band secured a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, and is widely considered one of the greatest rock acts of the last three decades. Here's what the group will be remembered for:

1. R.E.M. "invented" alternative rock

When it comes to alternative music and indie rock, says Charles Aaron at Spin, R.E.M. "created the model." The band's sound was an "artsy mix of punk-band energy, airy guitar hooks and mumbled, introspective lyrics," says James. C. McKinley, Jr. at The New York Times. R.E.M. didn't play power chords, and were unafraid to write about weird, sometimes angsty things, says Rob Sheffield at Rolling Stone. "It was R.E.M. who showed other eighties bands how to get away with ignoring the rules."

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2. The group brought alt-rock to the mainstream

Unlike bands like The Replacements and Sonic Youth, R.E.M. successfully navigated the move "out of the charmingly disorganized and fertile American underground rock scene to confront the fractious major-label system," says Sasha Frere-Jones at The New Yorker. With frontman Michael Stipe's off-kilter stage presence and "wide, slightly burred, crimson sound," the band successfully answered the question: "How do you stay weird if you also like singable songs?"

3. R.E.M. balanced commercial success and creativity

Other than U2, Nirvana, and Radiohead, no band in the last 30 years was more successful than R.E.M. at "balancing commercial success with critical acclaim," says Greg Kot at the Chicago Tribune. "At a time when MTV was playing million-dollar videos by assembly-line rock and pop acts," R.E.M. carved out an important place in the industry with "personal, cutting-edge music." The band was unafraid to take risks, even when that wasn't in its best interest, says Dorian Lynskey at the U.K.'s Guardian. Look at "Losing My Religion," released at a key point in R.E.M.'s ascent. "If you're a rising rock band looking for a breakthrough hit, you don't immediately pick up a mandolin."

4. The band avoided drama

While its contemporaries flamed out on overdoses and trashed hotel rooms around the world, R.E.M. "managed to get the job done without succumbing to the usual occupation hazards," says Michel Weiss at the U.K.'s Telegraph. Ego trips, backstabbing, ostentatious contract riders, and creative differences were either non-existent or unreported. It makes the matter-of-fact manner in which the group announced its disbandment all the more fitting.

5. R.E.M.'s devoted fan base was unparalleled

"Hardly anyone liked R.E.M. who didn't like them way too much," says Sheffield. These are the people who lament that the group didn't break up sooner, at the height of its career in the 1980s. "Part of being an R.E.M. fan meant getting wildly overinvested and then feeling vaguely disappointed by whatever they did next."

6. The group was a music video pioneer

R.E.M.'s music videos "became staples of MTV in the 1990s," sayys Nekesa Mumbi Moody for the Associated Press. "Losing My Religion" ranks in the Top 20 of VH1's list of Greatest Music Videos of All Time. "Everybody Hurts" was an aching, simple video, featuring Stipe walking through a highway traffic jam. Their videography will be as important to R.E.M.'s legacy as the band's impressive song catalog.

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