The Most Important Song in the World
The first song I remember having a lasting effect on me was Mouth for War, by Pantera. I was nine or ten years old. The life-affirming guitar riffs, the gruffy howls of Phil Anselmo and the video's aggressive portrayal of masculinity changed my life to some degree. And I couldn't even speak English then. I'm sure you can imagine my connection to Mouth for War only strengthened when learned what it was about. It's funny because now that I look back on the video, Phil Anselmo looks little goofy in it, like a guy protesting against Obamacare because all his friends are there. Mouth for War is still a meaningful song to me nonetheless.
Everyone (or almost) has songs that are meaningful to them. Music they loved and continuously listened to during a difficult or transforming time in their lives. But everyone also has music they were exposed to during these key moments which they didn't choose to listen to at all. This idea dawned upon me at the grocery store the other day. A song came up on the speaker and I started bobbing my head and muttering the words instinctively, like my reptilian brain ordered it. I realized that I loved this song and knew its lyrics by heart despite never consciously learning them or even owning an album by the band. That song is Losing My Religion, by R.E.M.
How did that happen? How did Losing My Religion became the most important song in my life without having any clear meaning to me?
An important song is a song that's been assimilated by mainstream culture during the formative years of your life and that you've constantly been exposed to ever since. Everybody has one or two. It has been playing consistently wherever you went: in different city, in different countries, in places that spoke different languages. It became ubiquitous to your life without you ever consciously deciding to play it once for your own enjoyment, but you always kind of liked it anyway. As meaningful as Mouth for War is to me, Losing My Religion would be far more on point to make a highlight reel of my life because it's always been a part of my life and a part of the society I lived in.
The song was recorded in September of 1990, I was seven years old. It sounds unique because the lead instrument is a mandolin, which gives it a distinct southern feel without feeling cliché or borrowed. I wouldn't say it "felt like an R.E.M song" because no other R.E.M songs feel quite like this, but it had a powerful sense of identity. It was neither a traditional southern song or a conventional R.E.M song. The legend wants that vocals were recorded in a single take and that everyone in the room knew it was going to be something special.
The title is a southern euphemism for losing your temper. Frontman Michael Stipe claimed in interview that it's a love song. Someone allowing himself a moment of weakness and pining over an unrequited love. Someone "losing his religion" for four and a half immortal minutes. The beautiful thing about that claim is that it's completely lost on the people who love Losing My Religion. The lyrics are so vague and poetic, most people figured it had something to do with religious guilt. The religious iconography used in the video might have something to do with it. The catchy mandolin riff, the vagueness or the lyrics and the slightly tormented feeling of Losing My Religion is why it became so popular in the first place, though. It felt meaningful, inscrutable and impossibly catchy at the same time. These things usually don't go together. Writing a profound by catchy song is difficult. Name ten. I'll wait.
I remember the first time I've listened to Losing My Religion. It was maybe a year before I was exposed to Mouth for War. The video had just come out and was named "Buzzclip" in Musique Plus (French-Canadian MTV), which was an honor awarded to the most alluring new video of the week. The song had just come out and I was just starting to take interest in music. I was seven years old then. I remember feeling no emotion whatsoever except that I vaguely liked it.
I didn't understand the lyrics then and the emotions it evoked were too sophisticated for a child to truly appreciate, but the moment was important anyway: the song was just being released and I was beginning to take interest in music. The other song I can remember from the pre-Pantera era of my life is Spending my Time, by Roxette, which did NOT survive the test of time at all. But Losing My Religion did. Not only it survived time, but it lived through my love of metal, hip-hop and it's still as relevant and universal to me and the society I live in today.
Losing My Religion is like the brother I never had. It was just kind of there for many years. It dropped in on me unannounced all the time and I eventually became quite fond of it. I never owned an R.E.M album. I could name you five songs * if I racked my brain but not ten. That's why Losing My Religion is important. It transcended my own consciousness in order to become important to me.
And you? What is the most important song in the world for you? Tell me in the comments.
* Losing My Religion, What's the Frequency Kenneth?, Crush with Eyeliner, It's the End of the World and Man on the Moon.