What type of blessed musical alchemy was being conjured in late May of 1984? During the third week of the month I heard Prince’s When Doves Cry for the first time and almost imploded with joy. And then, the very next week, I heard the song that would begin a 30 year relationship with what would become my favorite band of all time.
Although R.E.M. released their debut album, Murmur, a year earlier – they were not at all on my radar. I think I had heard of the band and thought their name was clever, I knew they were from the South and I had possibly heard “Radio Free Europe,” but didn’t think much of it (I know – BLASPHEMY! It actually hurt me to write that last sentence. But have no fear – I have since come to my senses). I was happy listening to a steady diet of 30% Rap, 20% R&B, 35% British New Wave, and 15% American pop. I believed R.E.M. was a country band and I didn’t need any country music on my radio or in my cassette player.
I’m pretty sure that was my first thought when I heard the first few bars of “Pretty Persuasion”. The radio station WLIR was holding its weekly Screamer of the Week competition and one of the DJ’s entered “Pretty Persuasion,” from R.E.M.’s just released second album, Reckoning.
First the jangly guitar, followed by a harmonica, and then that twangy, sad vocal harmony. Yep – this is country music. Country music, but . . . .
Country music, but . . . one of the prettiest harmonies I’ve heard all year. Country music, but . . . also rock n roll – and also pop. Country music, but . . . something else I can’t put my finger on – but I know it’s making a connection.
Michael Stipe has recently shared the fact that Pretty Persuasion is about growing up queer. I’d love to be able to re-write history and talk about how I connected to the very subtle gay/queer narrative Stipe was telegraphing. But that wasn’t the case. Stipe wasn’t ready to directly speak or write or sing about being gay and I didn’t feel the particular need to seek out and enjoy gay overtones in my music (Bronski Beat and Frankie Goes to Hollywood would change that in a couple of months).
But I did connect to the song’s evocation of vulnerability. And although I didn’t understand all of the lyrics I knew it felt cathartic and empowering to sing along to lines like “Goddamn your confusion,” and “It’s all wrong/it’s all wrong!”. Those lyrics seemed perfectly designed for this 16-year-old to sing along to while sitting alone in his bedroom. And the perfection of that song inspired this 16-year-old to put down his reservations about liking country music and pick up his phone to cast his vote for “Pretty Persuasion” to be Screamer of the Week.
When I turned 40 I created a mix of my top 40 songs of all time. The list started changing almost as soon as I burned the CD (life before Spotify) but R.E.M.’s “Pretty Persuasion” has remained a constant. It’s a great song. A perfect song. And it’s a marker. It reminds me of a time when I cautiously (very cautiously) began to open up, receptive to the notion that I could be a slightly different person today, than I had been the day before.
Additional Screamer of the Week posts: