The Most Earnest Song of the Nineties

I was in my English 10 advanced class last week watching the pilot episode of My So-Called Life.  Toward the very end of the show, Angela gets home from Let’s Bolt (courtesy of a police officer) and as she’s talking to Brian Krakow, she spots her father, who was supposed to be shooting pool with his brother, talking to another woman.  It’s a gut punch of a moment and as she stumbles toward her house, “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M. begins to play.

When I heard snide remarks from some people in the class, including, “I can’t take this song seriously,” I had to stop myself from blurting out what I was thinking–“Uh, you think making stupid noises is hilarious.  It’s kind of hard to take you seriously as well”–and eventually made the comment that very few things are more early ’90s than “Everybody Hurts” playing at the end of an episode of My So-Called Life.  And honestly, that fits Angela Chase and that moment because the song itself is incredibly earnest.  In fact, there’s probably no pop song more earnest than “Everybody Hurts.”  It hit at the right time and the right part of the decade and holds up way more than the bombastic seriousness of later Nineties acts such as Live, who got tired incredibly quickly.

I’m going to give my class a little more credit here, however, because there were a number of students who seemed to really enjoy the episode and understood what the scene was trying to convey, an “everything is just now way too real” moment where you, as a person, cannot possibly process everything and yet finding yourself having to figure out what’s going on and somehow react.  The song is there to reassure Angela, and probably the audience, and by the time we see Angela on Monday morning, she’s happier, and can even admit that … “We did.  We had a time.”

Now, if this were the only time anyone in the Nineties ever heard “Everybody Hurts” in any context, I could write a more thorough examination of this scene (Claire Danes’ reaction to seeing her father in the scene is perfect–she’s stunned in a way that is so real that it’s almost uncomfortable.  Later episodes would follow up on this moment), but by the time MSCL premiered in August 1994, R.E.M.’s song had already been a top 40 hit and took its place in the pantheon of 1990s songs, especially with its video that, won four awards at the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards and featured an almost surreal traffic jam*.

Subtle, the video is not.  But then again, subtlety was never the point of the song, either.  In fact, Peter Buck said of the lyrics, “the reason the lyrics are so atypically straightforward is because it was aimed at teenagers,” which is odd for a song that in 1993 was almost an anomaly on the pop charts.  In fact, a look at the Billboard Hot 100 for November 6, 1993 (the week it peaked at number 29) shows the top 40 full of R&B acts with a few exceptions such as “I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That),” which stood at number one and is nothing like this simple mid-tempo piece from an album that is filled with similar pieces (and is easily one of the best albums of the decade).

Then again, what was on the Billboard Hot 100 or playing on Top 40 radio was never exactly the measurement of what I liked when I was in high school, or what any of the cool kids liked, either.  Oh, people I went to school with surely had their nights listening to Z-100 but to my knowledge little or nothing by Nine Inch Nails was charting at the time and the guys I hung around definitely weren’t hearing “Master of Puppets” on the radio.  It was an age of discovering the difference between what was popular and what you liked, and that led me in a much more interesting path than listening to Ace of Base on repeat (I could have, btw … my sister had the CD).

r-e-m-_-_everybody_hurtsI will take a moment to admit here that I wasn’t really listening to R.E.M. that often in 1993.  I didn’t own any of the albums and while I may have checked the CD out of the library at one point, I wasn’t what you could call a huge fan.  I honestly have no reasonable explanation for this except that my musical tastes were way too geared toward what my friends were listening to at that moment and I already took enough shit for listening to Queen that I didn’t want to attract anymore negative attention (I’m serious–I was very insecure in my musical likes).  College wound up being different and in time, I compiled a small collection of R.E.M. songs, including “Everybody Hurts.”

I suppose a number of fans of “Everybody Hurts” would be offended by the student who said he couldn’t take the song seriously, but despite my snarky thoughts when I gave his comment more consideration I remember that I probably thought the same way at one point because the song serves as a reminder of how cool I wanted to be back then. There’s something about being a teenage boy and thinking that being cynical and sarcastic and acting as if you’re above it all comes off as mature when it really comes off as obnoxious.  Being earnest is not intelligent and is definitely weak.

10,000 Maniacs’ Our Time in Eden would be the album that helped change me in that particular way (and that is another story for another post), but I came to appreciate all of Automatic for the People and “Everybody Hurts” stands, at the moment, as a beautiful piece of nostalgia and a reminder of those moments of my teenage years when I was a raw nerve who had no idea where he was going or what he was doing.  Because when the strings swell at the end and Michael Stipe starts singing “Hold on,” I honestly can’t help but smile.


*A footnote here because I couldn’t find anywhere to put it into the main text, but there is a moment on an episode of Daria entitled “Road Worriers” that parodies the “Everybody Hurts” video perfectly.  I tried to find a YouTube clip but couldn’t.


  1. As usual for Tom, this is pretty much spot on. As you noted, this was so completely out of step with popular music at the time, it’s almost an proto-typical REM by being a atypical REM song. Stipe had never been as blatant in his lyrics before or after (with the possible exception of Ignoreland) and whilst its easy to mock now, true sentiment always is. Hearing this on the radio in 1993 was like somebody had thrown cold water over your head.

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