The Number Ones

The Number Ones Bonus Tracks: R.E.M.’s “Supernatural Superserious”

Welcome to the Number Ones Bonus Tracks, the addendum to our regular Number Ones column. We at Stereogum recently wrapped up our fundraising campaign, and we’d like to thank everyone who donated to support this site and keep it going. To those All Access donors who pledged $1,000, I promised that I’d write a Number Ones-style column on a song of their choosing, as long as that song charted on the Billboard Hot 100.

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R.E.M. – “Supernatural Superserious”

PEAKED: #85 on April 19, 2008

SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Mariah Carey – “Touch My Body”

This column is at the request of Stereogum donor Mark Pitcock. Here’s what he wrote about his pick:

Mark Pitcock requested R.E.M.’s “Supernatural Superserious” in honor of his late husband, Donald F. Ayers III. Mark and Don became a couple in the spring of 2008, around the same time that R.E.M.’s Accelerate was released. “Supernatural Superserious” immediately became “their song.” As two middle-aged gay men who started out in straight relationships and had never found “the one” after coming out as adults, they identified with the line about realizing “your fantasies are dressed up in travesties,” and celebrated the encouragement to “enjoy yourself with no regrets.” Mark and Don were married at Old South Church in Boston on March 21, 2009. Tragically, Don was diagnosed with esophageal cancer the week before their second wedding anniversary, and he passed away on September 24, 2011. They were married for only 30 months but it was “sweet, delirious, supernatural, superserious,” and an absolute gift.

In June of 1989, R.E.M. performed their single “Orange Crush” on the long-running BBC show Top Of The Pops. They didn’t really play it, though. Nobody on Top Of The Pops played anything. This was house policy. Every week on the show, hosts would count down the top 40 singles in the UK that week, and the artists behind some of those singles would mime and lip-sync their way through their hits. R.E.M. hated the idea of lip-syncing their records — at the time, they wouldn’t even do it in music videos — so they made a big show out of their disdain for the ritual.

Michael Stipe did lip-sync “Orange Crush,” but he did it through a megaphone, while dancing spasmodically, like the proto-Thom Yorke that he was. Stipe also worked hard to make himself look goofy as hell: Baggy suit, no shirt, braided ponytail spilling down his back. The other guys in the band stoically did their jobs, but Stipe put on a ridiculous show — his own way of breaking this particular fourth wall.

I was watching when this happened. Top Of The Pops was my favorite show. That year, I was nine years old, and my family was living in London. (My dad, a history professor, had gone on sabbatical that year to write a book that he never ended up finishing.) In London, I couldn’t really follow baseball anymore, but I had Top Of The Pops, which lined up the entire musical landscape in a way that made some kind of numerical sense. This column only exists because Top Of The Pops, at a crucial formative moment, made me a pop-music dork.

Top Of The Pops had a stage set that looked like a B-movie spaceship. Every week, I’d watch a throughly random assortment of artists — De La Soul, Soul II Soul, Robert Palmer, Donna Summer, various one-hit acid-house entities, a whole lot of Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan — mime their way through whatever new single they were pushing. It didn’t occur to me that the performances were lip-synced or that the artists might not be into participating in the whole charade. When R.E.M. played, I just thought, “Huh. Megaphone. That’s interesting. Maybe more people should use megaphones, since it looks cool and sounds just the same as a microphone.”

The megaphone stunt wasn’t necessarily a big moment in R.E.M.’s career, but it was a sort of emblematic one. For the first decade-plus of their existence, R.E.M. made a big point out of resisting the mainstream stardom that a lot of people wanted them to assume. R.E.M. might’ve been the first truly big and important band in American college-rock. That category, college-rock, would come to be known as alternative and indie rock — genre names that have always been frustratingly inexact. R.E.M. weren’t punk or new wave or heartland rock or whatever else. Instead, they developed a record-collector twinkle-drone that set them apart and opened up a whole new lane.

R.E.M. famously started out in Athens, Georgia in 1980, when University Of Georgia student Michael Stipe got to be friends with record-store clerk Peter Buck. (The #1 song in America when Stipe was born: Marty Robbins’ “El Paso.”) A mutual friend connected Stipe and Buck with bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry, and the new band spent time rehearsing at a deconsecrated church. Stipe chose the band name by searching a dictionary at random, but there’s a certain divine kismet in his selection. Rapid eye movement is the dream stage of sleep, and R.E.M.’s music was blurry and mysterious enough that it might’ve come out of that dream state.

After a whole lot of Southern college-town touring and the small-indie release of the 1981 single “Radio Free Europe,” R.E.M. signed to IRS Records, the A&M imprint that had made big successes out of the Police and the Go-Go’s. Both of those bands had underground-rock pedigrees that never conflicted with their mass appeal. That was also the case with R.E.M., who first hit the Billboard Hot 100 in 1983, when IRS released a re-recorded “Radio Free Europe.” (It peaked at #78.) But even as they kept cranking out records through the ’80s, R.E.M. resisted all of their label’s attempts to turn them into commercial stars. Their music was often dour and insular, and Stipe blurred his own inscrutable lyrics, keeping people at arm’s length. In 1987, R.E.M. made the top 10 for the first time with “The One I Love,” a tortured-obsession lament that plenty of people heard as a straight-up love song. (“The One I Love” peaked at #9. It’s a 9.)

Viewed in retrospect, a pattern emerges over R.E.M.’s career. They would do the things that were expected of them, like appearing on Top Of The Pops in the first place, but they would make sure to point out the artifice and absurdity along the way. This approach did not hurt them commercially. R.E.M. grew and grew. In 1988, the band jumped from IRS to Warner Bros., as their sound gradually evolved into something more concrete and inviting. They made the top 10 again with 1989’s “Stand,” a tongue-in-cheek ’60s-bubblegum pastiche that worked just fine as both parody and as straight-up pop music. (“Stand” peaked at #6. It’s an 8.)

R.E.M.’s real golden pop moment was 1991’s Out Of Time, which really wasn’t a huge departure from what they’d been doing but which still hit the zeitgeist in a huge way. Even more than Nevermind and Ten, which both came out months later, Out Of Time was the real alt-rock success story of year — a band that had spent a solid decade building an underground fanbase going over the top, becoming inescapable on radio, and selling millions of records. But Nirvana and Pearl Jam felt new and different. R.E.M. had been around. They didn’t bash or growl. Instead, their sound was a refined jangle that wouldn’t alienate adult-contemporary listeners.

Two of the singles from Out Of Time made it into the top 10. “Losing My Religion,” the band’s highest-charting single, made it up to #4. (It’s an 8.) Meanwhile, “Shiny Happy People,” a collaboration with the B-52’s’ Kate Pierson, made it up to #10. (It’s a 7. The two highest-charting singles from B-52’s, R.E.M.’s fellow Athens-scene veterans, were 1989’s “Love Shack” and 1990’s “Roam.” Both singles peaked at #3. They’re both 10s.)

R.E.M. never made it into the top 10 after “Shiny Happy People,” and they didn’t tour behind Out Of Time or the huge follow-up Automatic For The People. But all through the ’90s, R.E.M. were part of the firmament. Conflicted newly minted rock stars like Kurt Cobain and Thom Yorke looked to them as an example of how to transition gracefully into mass popularity. When I started listening to alt-rock radio in the ’90s, R.E.M. were the Zeppelin of the format, and their whole catalog of singles never left rotation. They weren’t U2 — a band who will eventually appear in The Number Ones — but they were one step down.

As the ’90s went on, R.E.M.’s music grew a little more insular, and they stopped being a dominant presence. Drummer Bill Berry left the band, and the other three continued on without him. The albums grew spottier and more ponderous, and the stretches of time between albums grew longer. In the 21st century, R.E.M. only had two singles in the Hot 100: 2001’s “Imitation Of Life,” which peaked at #83, and 2008’s “Supernatural Superserious,” the song we’re here to talk about today.

In a way, it’s an unlikely victory that R.E.M. were able to land a Hot 100 single in 2008 — but then, it’s an unlikely victory that R.E.M. ever became pop stars in the first place. By the time they recorded the 2008 album Accelerate, R.E.M. were already in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and they were looking to make up for 2004’s Around The Sun, an album they weren’t very proud of. Even in indie rock, the world had kind of moved on from the band. R.E.M. had helped will American indie rock to existence, but the big indie bands of 2008 — Fleet Foxes, Vampire Weekend, TV On The Radio — only vaguely resembled them.

Accelerate is, on the whole, the kind of album where a long-established legacy act seeks to recapture old glories. It’s one of the better examples of that trope. On the advice of U2, R.E.M. went to work with producer Jacknife Lee. Musically, they found a tasteful middle ground between their old ancestral jangle and the tasteful crunch of the glam-rock flirtations from their 1994 album Monster. Accelerate is a pretty good album that I ignored completely when it came out. “Supernatural Superserious,” its lead single, is an absolute gem.

Michael Stipe wrote the “Supernatural Superserious” lyrics about a teenage experience that he remembered from his time working as a counselor at a summer camp. He’s described it as a “séance gone horribly wrong,” though he’s never quite said what went wrong. Singing to himself, he says, “You cried and you cried/ He’s alive, he’s alive.” So Stipe evidently freaked the fuck out, and he was so crushingly embarrassed that he could still feel the visceral shame decades later: “You don’t have to explain/ Humiliation of your teenage station.”

But “Supernatural Superserious” isn’t just about that. It’s about hiding yourself, then cringing when little bits of your actual self bubble up to the surface. Stipe’s sexuality had never really been a matter of public record during R.E.M.’s peak years, though he gradually became more and more comfortable being publicly queer when he’d already been famous for years. Through that lens, “Supernatural Superserious” might be a song about the process of coming out, of accepting who you are: “You realized your fantasies are dressed up in travesties/ Enjoy yourself with no regrets.” It’s good advice!

Musically, “Supernatural Superserious” is a big, bracing, exciting song, one that’s a lot more direct and visceral than what most of us had come to expect from R.E.M. at the time. Some of its pleasures are old ones, like the intricate winding of Peter Buck’s guitar or Mike Mills’ soaring backup harmonies. But there’s also a real garage-rock crunch to the central riff, and there’s some hip-shaking strut to the beat. It’s an urgent rocker from a time when nobody had any right to expect urgent rockers from R.E.M.

R.E.M. warmed up for their Accelerate sessions by playing a run of shows at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre, and they played “Supernatural Superserious” at those shows. At the time, they were calling the song “Disguised.” They changed the title on the advice of Chris Martin, whose band Coldplay will eventually appear in The Number Ones. R.E.M. released “Supernatural Superserious” as a Record Store Day single, backing it up with a cover of Beat Happening’s “Red Head Walking.” For the video, they got Vincent Moon, the French director whose lo-fi Take Away Shows videos were the toast of the indie rock internet, to film Stipe walking around Lower Manhattan. It’s a pretty boring video, so you can’t pin the song’s success on that.

Instead, “Supernatural Superserious” is just a good song, one that makes a great final chart moment for R.E.M. It’s a forceful, direct, energetic piece of music from a band who didn’t always prioritize force or directness or energy. The song wasn’t a smash or anything, but it made it up to #85, the exact same chart position where “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” had peaked 24 years earlier.

Three years later, R.E.M. released one more album and then amicably broke up without much fanfare. Since then, Peter Buck and Mike Mills have turned their quiet indie side projects into their quiet indie main projects, and Michael Stipe has shown up at whatever New York events he’s felt like showing up at. They all seem like they’re having a great time in semi-retirement. Good for them.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: “Supernatural Superserious” is apparently on the soundtrack of the 2009 movie He’s Just Not That Into You, but I can’t find video of that scene online. So instead, let’s go with the best R.E.M. needledrop I’ve seen in a recent movie. Here’s an extremely high Andrew Garfield dancing to 1994’s “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” with Grace Van Patten in 2019’s Under The Silver Lake:

(“What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” peaked at #21.)

Thank you, Mark!