Tuned In

R.E.M. TV: They Stood in the Place Where They Lived

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Word of warning: for the next day or two, those of us who attended college in the ’80s and ’90s are going to be insufferable. The news has come out that R.E.M., after a three-decade run, are breaking up. Get ready for the reminiscences: this is an unprovable thesis, but R.E.M.’s music was especially intimate and inward-looking for a supergroup’s (compare U2, for a contemporary), so it feels to me like my generational peers will feel this one especially personally.

I will save for the unfortunate Tuned In Jrs. the reminiscences of Daddy learning the intro to “Driver 8″ on his first guitar in high school, or seeing them (with the dBs opening!) on the Document tour. But for the purposes of this blog, it’s worth noting that there was a period, around the band’s peak of popularity, that it was not just an omnipresence in music but also a presence on TV.

The first thing that comes to mind is “Stand,” which became perhaps the best repurposed pop-song-as-TV-theme when it was adopted by Chris Elliott’s Get a Life. I know there’s a lot of competition in that category: “Rock Around the Clock” for Happy Days, “Bad Reputation” for Freaks and Geeks, and I’m sure you have many other candidates. But this felt like a particularly fitting pairing of band and TV show. The series launched in 1990, when R.E.M. was a major success but was still at the cusp of indie and mainstream success (at a time, a year before Nirvana’s Nevermind, when that boundary was more pronounced).

There isn’t, and wasn’t then, exactly a TV equivalent to indie music, but you could argue that the weird, brilliant Get a Life was the closest thing to it in audience and sensibility. It aired on Fox, which was just breaking out with The Simpsons and was making its reputation by putting things on the air that other networks wouldn’t. It starred Elliott, who was known from Late Show with David Letterman, which established the genre of the late-night talk-show with an experimental, not-quite-broadcast sensibility. Getting R.E.M.’s “Stand” as its theme—a poppy tune as upbeat as any TV theme, yet that didn’t quite sound like a TV theme—lent the show a kind of indie cred. (Getting cancelled after 35 episodes cemented it.)

It also underscored something about R.E.M.: that for a band that wrote cryptic songs that referenced falling skies and Joseph McCarthy, they had a sense of humor. Another bit of TV trivia that underscores that is Michael Stipe’s appearance on Nickelodeon’s Adventures of Pete & Pete as salty ice-cream man Capt. Scrummy (a kind of spiritual predecessor to Yo Gabba Gabba’s parade of indie musicians).

Stipe was evidently also a voice in the J. Otto Seibold holiday special Olive, the Other Reindeer, a special I remember, though I’d forgotten Stipe’s role. Update: Here’s the video, courtesy of Bill Goodykoontz of the Arizona Republic:

But I suspect the R.E.M./TV intersection that’s embedded most deeply in my generation’s subconscious is the central use of “Everybody Hurts” in the pilot of the other ’90s pop-culture work that we all took deeply and personally, My So-Called Life. It comes around 3:50 in the clip below, and it’s so beautiful, it hurts to look at it:

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