I grew up listening to R.E.M. It was the song “Don’t Go Back to Rockville” that first grabbed my attention. To me, Michael Stipe’s lyrics where bizarre, political, angry, poetic, and inspiring. Peter Buck’s guitar playing had a whimsical spirit to it that carried a great melody. Somehow it all came together beautifully. Now as an adult, while I still listen to R.E.M., it’s often for the nostalgia, to bring back wonderful memories of hours spent with my friends when this music was both the central reason for hanging out, or just the background sound to a road trip. On the surface, maybe it’s strange to write about how a song’s lyrics are applied to my job, but they’re stuck in my head. They come back to me when some odd connection is made. Somehow it just works.
Below are four R.E.M. lyrics that drift into my consciousness from time to time:
“If wishes were leaves, the trees would be fallen. Listen to reason, the season is calling.”
The song “Stand” is corny, but it’s still stuck in my head. It was on the radio so often that you couldn’t get away from it. All of that aside, these lyrics come to mind when my colleagues or I start to go off on wish lists of new features, new projects, reports, or anything, I guess, that seems unrealistic, at least for the present. To me, it’s mental shorthand. When they come to mind, I know it’s time to come back to reality.
“Practice, practice makes perfect. Perfect is a fault and fault lines change.”
The song “I believe” from Life’s Rich Pageant is a top five R.E.M. song for me. This song held some magical powers that were unleashed each time I listened to it. I hear these lyrics in my head a lot. I can’t say that I understand them entirely and that in a way makes them even more powerful. That said, I think it’s mostly a way of saying, “Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.” Like the lyrics from “Stand,” it’s a way of keeping me grounded and not getting stuck on every Oxford comma that is missing in our newsletter. At a certain point, you need to move on to other work.
“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”
This song continues to have a life long after its release in 1987 on the album Document. It seems to make the wasteland of media and pop culture into a happy place with its fast-paced rant. I’m far from alone in finding social media, the news, text messages, volumes of emails sometimes just blurring into one insane cacophony of senseless noise. During a recent communications training in which I participated, I learned that it takes 11 engagements with someone for a message to be received. That’s a lot of communicating. When I’m feeling particularly pessimistic about successfully conveying a message, I’m fine…fine.
“When the world is a monster. Bad to swallow you whole.”
“Can’t Get There from Here” from Fables of the Reconstruction works for me when big projects feel even bigger because I haven’t started them yet. If I start on it, the scope becomes manageable and I can sink into the act of doing the work. Again, I don’t pretend to understand what the lyrics meant, if anything, to R.E.M., but they just pop into my head. Also depending on the size and scope of a project, sometimes the work is more like a marathon and not a sprint. Taking small steps is a great way to a get started.
Music is fundamental to me and my understanding of our world. I listen to music throughout the day. Often, particularly at work, it’s Baroque or contemporary minimalism that’s playing in the background. Even so, R.E.M.’s music introduced me to political discourse/discord, lyrics as poetry, and new ways of sharing with others. It’s no surprise that they’re still with me after all these years, still winding their way into my day-to-day work routine, and not diminishing as powerful and wonderful memories of my youth.