Radio Free Europe
I listened to Radio Free Europe by REM tonight for maybe the 10,000th time, but really I listened to it for the first time, as opposed to listening to it for the suggestions it made to me in which I filled in long stories of symbol and significance.
No, I listened to it this time for what it was, along with internet searches for its written lyrics (or what fans think they are). And… it was gibberish. Only the three words of the title really made sense. There was a Radio Free Europe, this much we know of history.
The rest of what that song means to me, which is no small amount of meaning, I made up myself as a teenager.
Listening for one
It’s natural I suppose at a certain age to go back to the songs of your youth to try better to understand the music that influenced you.
In my case, the songs of my youth include much “shoegaze” music, from REM to Lush on down.
Shoegaze loosely refers to an anti-performance style, exemplified by pop stars who just stared down at their shoelaces on stage. Instead of engaging their audience, they just swayed there, isolated and (some might say superiorly) disaffected, mumbling to themselves into a muffled mic as though they didn’t hear or did not care about the music.
We didn’t even understand what the Cocteau Twins were singing about, and, like my recent experience with an REM song, when you do read the “official” lyrics, you are left thinking, “What? That’s not at all what that song means to me.”
And maybe that is what the shoegaze music of the 1980s and 1990s was about – letting you be you, letting you blather along with the imperfect, spontaneous, off-tune, personal lyrics of your choosing.
We didn’t know it at the time, but we were being coddled, encouraged. Let off the hook.
Earlier and later generations had to do a specific dance, memorize actual words in order, stay in key! We just were let … to be. We didn’t have to do or learn anything. We swayed and bobbed our heads along, but there was at times not even a definite beat. It was musical expressionism.
My generation’s first music in the cradle was “Free To Be You And Me” and maybe that was an apt metaphor for everything after. In singing along we were unleashing spontaneous and unfettered gushes of personal creativity. And not much more, apparently.
There have been resurgences of Shoegazer on and off for the last few years. It was barely dead before there was revival “Nu-gazer” music and I still hear influences in current pop songs today.
I always made fun of those Classic Radio stations that kept baby-boomers permanently looping in the aural backdrop of their adolescence. But now, I’m the grandpa-aged old man swaying in place and reliving an inner landscape, wondering how I ever debased myself to something so limiting as actual lyrics.