Twenty-five years ago, R.E.M. were the darlings of MTV’s Video Music Awards. At the ceremony, the band’s dazzling video for “Losing My Religion” won six of the nine VMAs it was nominated for, including Video of the Year, Best Group Video, Breakthrough Video, Best Direction (for Tarsem), Best Art Direction (José Montaño), and Best Editing (Robert Duffy). (The band’s 1990 concert collection, Tourfilm, was also up for Best Long Form video, but it lost to Madonna’s The Immaculate Collection).
The quartet, hailing from the college town of Athens, Georgia, had built a healthy following rising from college radio favorites to popular mainstream rockers over nearly a dozen years, but it was at the 1991 VMAs where the band reached critical mass. The onetime underground favorites had crossed over to the mainstream with their integrity intact, but they were still coming to grips with success and the glitz and glamour that accompanies it — including awards shows.
Mike Mills, the bassist, keyboardist, and backing vocalist in the group that disbanded in 2011, looks back at that night with mixed emotions.
“The thing about awards of any sort is that you have to take them with a shaker of salt,” Mills tells Yahoo Music. “I enjoyed the pomp and circumstance of it. The whole over-the-top-ness of people congratulating themselves on tiny films about music. It was way more grandiose than it really should be, but it was fun to go along with it and enjoy it for what it is. You just can’t take it too seriously.”
Some of the words Mills uses to describe the VMAs could also apply to “Losing My Religion,” a tiny film with music that was indeed quite grandiose. Prior to the release of that clip, R.E.M.’s video catalog included a mix of videos that came off as art projects or goofs.
Some of the band’s notable pre-“Losing My Religion” videos included “Pop Song 89,” a black-and-white clip accompanying a single from the 1988 album Green, which featured singer Michael Stipe and three female dancers, topless, shaking their moneymakers. For MTV play, a black bar was placed in front of the chests of the three dancers and Stipe. In “Stand,” a song from the same album, no one appeared topless, but it did feature its own dance performed by a co-ed quartet of dancers on a compass-like stage. Another notable clip, “Fall on Me,” a track from the 1986 album Lifes Rich Pageant, featured scenes of quarries shot in black-and-white and shown upside-down, with the song’s lyrics about gravity and acid rain superimposed on top.
But for “Losing My Religion,” a song frontman Michael Stipe said was titled after an old Southern saying and inspired by the Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” the band called on an Indian-American director known only as Tarsem, who had previously directed the video “Hold On” for female R&B quartet En Vogue and singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega’s “Tired of Sleeping.”
“We let Michael run the show on the videos,” Mills recalls. “That was one of the things we were luckiest about was that we had someone in the band who enjoyed the visual side of things and not only that, was extremely good at it. So we were able to create video presentations of the band that were not only unique, but were our own, not just the ideas of the record company — which weren’t all bad, but they had their own agenda, and we had our own agenda, which was presenting images of the band that we approved of and we liked.”
Initially, the band and Tarsem, then attending film school at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, had quite different visions for the video. “We had the idea of strictly a performance video, which would just have had the band in it,” Stipe said on the syndicated radio show Rockline. “And he, being a fan of the band, expected the band not even to appear in the video, much less lip-sync. He had come up with this whole idea, and what we did when we talked was kind of grafting the two together and that’s what you see now.”
Tarsem’s initial thought that the band wouldn’t appear in the video wasn’t too far off base — at least with three-quarters of the band. “[Guitarist] Peter [Buck] and [drummer] Bill [Berry] and I were never big video fans in the first place,” Mills says. “So we said, ‘Just don’t make us act.’ So we didn’t. It was pretty great. Tarsem was pretty great about finding ways for us to be in without actually having to do anything and that was fine with us. We stayed within our areas of ability.”
The video opens in a dimly lit room with Stipe seated in a chair, with his back to the camera, and Mills standing near an open window with a pitcher of milk on the windowsill. Mills walks away as Buck and Berry come running into the picture, glasses rattle, an angel carrying wings walks by, and the pitcher of milk comes crashing down as the song’s opening drum beat and mandolin riff kicks in. During the clip, Buck is the only one seen playing an instrument — his mandolin. Stipe gets his wings, lip-syncs, and dances passionately in scenes intercut with images from Tarsem’s vision, including a shirtless, heavily made-up man tied to a tree, and a blond African-American man with angelic wings.
“We thought, ‘Let’s write a story that involved three or four influences from painters, from posters, Russian Constructivism posters or whatever, that don’t necessarily go together and the only thing that will put them together is Michael Stipe,’” Tarsem explained in an interview with MTV. Other inspirations included Gabriel García Márquez’s short story A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, French photographers/artists Pierrre et Gilles, Italian painter Caravaggio, and propaganda posters.
The finished project pleased the band. “I enjoyed it, because it was very cinematic,” says Mills. “It was kind of over-the-top in several ways, which I really enjoyed. It was visually beautiful. Michael did an incredible job being the frontman for it. I thought as far as videos go, it was one of the best ones I’ve seen.”
Not everyone approved of the clip. While it was a huge hit on MTV in the U.S., the clip was banned in Ireland because of the religious imagery. “That is really tilting at windmills, but they were still conservative at that time. But of course, all that does is get you more publicity, which you think they’d realize that, but never seem to,” Mills says.
Those who cast ballots for the VMAs, however, loved the clip, as R.E.M. made multiple trips to the podium in 1991 to collect Moonmen awards, beating out such videos as C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now),” Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is in the Heart,” the Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself,” Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” and Queensryche’s “Silent Lucidity.” (Its three losses came in the Best Alternative Video category to “Been Caught Stealing” by Jane’s Addiction; in Best Cinematography, which went to “Wicked Game”; and Viewer’s Choice, which was won by “Silent Lucidity”).
The band accepted the awards graciously from a diverse cast of presenters that included Linda Hamilton and Steven Tyler, Lenny Kravitz, and Dennis Hopper. Rather than giving the usual speech thanking their family, record company, God, and the like, R.E.M. used their time in the spotlight to share messages on various issues, with Stipe wearing several slogan T-shirts and stripping one off each time he went onstage to accept an award.
“I made one shirt for each award, but I didn’t expect to win each award,” Stipe revealed in a post-show MTV interview. “So I thought I’d put them all on at once and take them off.” When the band accepted the night’s final award, for Video of the Year from George Michael and Cindy Crawford, he removed all the remaining T-shirts, one at a time, as he was flanked by Mills, Berry, and Tarsem. The messages included “WEAR A CONDOM,” “CHOICE,” “ALTERNATIVE ENERGY NOW,” “THE RIGHT TO VOTE,” and “HANDGUN CONTROL.”
Mills’s memory of the night is blurry, but he thinks that Stipe mentioned the T-shirt stunt to his bandmates prior to the show. “He probably mentioned it and we said, ‘Of course. That’s fine.’ Those are all subjects that we are in agreement on, and we decided pretty early on and if you have a platform there’s nothing wrong with using it as long as you’re careful with it and don’t overdo it,” he says. “And also, it was visually really cool to have him reveal a new issue with every award. I really enjoyed it.”
In a backstage interview after the show, an ecstatic Stipe noted that the band was no overnight success story. “All of a sudden it’s 12 years. Twelve years is enough time to think about things and say, ‘You know what? I don’t mind getting a few awards and selling a few records.‘” He also seemed to savor rubbing shoulders with the mainstream stars. “I saw the whole show,” he told MTV’s Kurt Loder. “I’m a big Prince fan. I like Metallica. I thought that Mariah Carey was a great performer.” He went on to enthuse, “MC Hammer said congratulations. Cher looked at me!”
At that moment in time, everyone was looking at R.E.M.