By: Anthony Isaac Bradley
While browsing the supermarket snack aisle, I was told that the members of R.E.M., a band at its peak during my adolescence in 1997, were gay.
My high school peers declared this in the IGA supermarket. They meant both identity-wise and musically, which raised questions: Did this mean they all slept together? Or were they individually queer, with individual queer activities?
Side note: Imagine Michael Stipe and Mike Mills as lovers. Bill Berry and Peter Buck? How would this change the band dynamic? My mind turns in on itself.
These same acquaintances would later decree—in the same store—that one of our classmates was decidedly “queer.” With my ass still firmly in the closet, I had nothing to add, for or against. I listened, pretended to search for those Hostess carrot cakes that would cease production during my twenties. Still, I felt an interior ping. Their homophobia jumpstarted my awareness. I left the IGA with carrot cakes and my very own queer band.
Michael Stipe and Co. are My Queer Band (MQB), the first significant lifeline I was offered concerning my sexual repression, before I knew Bowie, before I understood why I was very into Tori Amos (“I just really like redheads,” I’d say, oblivious). Despite Stipe being cryptic in the media about his sexuality, I clung to MQB for years like no one else could encapsulate my wants. I flip-flopped from straight to gay, from gay to straight to bi to pan (currently!), but I kept songs like “Falls to Climb” or “Nightswimming” with me, despite my evolution. MQB is my through-line.
Even now, I find Stipe’s mumbly-before-Mumblecore, cynical-yet-hopeful lyrics relevant. Growing up in Stoutland, Missouri (population 155) required that you stare at your shoes. As Ice-T said, “Talk shit, get hit,” Or just be present, get hit. Being queer on a gravel road could end badly. Or at the Jack in the Box, where one local was beaten into a coma for his perceived sexuality after placing a take-out order (an oft-discussed story around my high school). Being cynical was my reliable illusion of control. Being hopeful about my future? Difficult, but just the hint of possibility in Stipe’s voice went a long way, as opposed to the nihilism of my other obsession, Nine Inch Nails. In hindsight, I think there was a good amount of hopefulness coming from Mr. Reznor, but that’s not what I needed from him.
A straight ally once told me that “Nightswimming” is the worst song he’s ever heard. Hates it. I’ve never asked for specifics, but he’s usually better at offering a motive for dislike, which leads me to detect a built-in revulsion of what could be defined as a “wuss song” (piano plus earnest yearning).
I just think an ally would automatically understand MQB, but rainbow bumper stickers on cars belonging to friends and teachers can’t solve every problem.
Though the subtext of “Nightswimming” might sail over the heads of some hetero listeners, the song’s merging of male body intimacy (in a queer-reading sense) and the anxiety of exposure/consequences (“The fear of getting caught/Of recklessness and water”[i]) is an earnest call that LGBTQ+ listeners will certainly recognize.
Getting caught wasn’t an option. Cruising in my hometown pre-Grindr was a thing to keep secret. Draping clothes across the bushes with someone of the same sex was never to be shouted about, or whispered as a melody, and certainly not understood unless you’ve done it (two straights caught in a pond or parked car doesn’t carry the same repercussions). Why take the risk, unless you have a death wish? My friends and neighbors were hunters who added camouflage instead of trying to lose it. Nature was for facing death, not love. My father shot deer. I shot glances. Either could end with a fatality.
Side note: I was (am?) possibly the last human being to accept the sincerity of “Everybody Hurts.” I cried. I still do. This isn’t my problem. I’ll stand on a car during a traffic jam and sing, “Don’t let yourself go,” without irony.[ii]
And with a Midwestern accent, of course.
Georgia-born Stipe can’t hide his accent either. In “Country Feedback,” it’s seduced into the open by the song’s musical arrangement. Being sensitive about my low-in-the-mouth delivery, I’m drawn to artists who can’t hide their authentic selves. Imagine my joy at the song “Falls to Climb,”[iii] where Stipe sings with earnest, “My accent makes me beautiful.” Except he doesn’t. I confess this essay was born from a mishearing of these lyrics. I mistook “actions” for “accents,” and I thought, Ah! There it is. Yet another reason why R.E.M. is MQB. Michael Stipe knows the weight of his accent, its history and signals.
Side note: MQB had to be R.E.M. It could never be Queen, because nearly everyone at the pontoon factory (my first job) would blast “We are the Champions” while asking me how much “sugar” I had in my gas tank. If you don’t speak the language, that means defective if queer. A busted engine. Funny or fruity.
Nearly everyone I spent time with back then let those slurs roll out on the regular. I did, on occasion. I had to blend in, and I had to consider that telling the truth to a close acquaintance could result in a parking lot fight. That’s how our fathers raised us, how the hundreds of nearby towns built on the same blueprints expected us to act. Tradition. That’s the word.
Oh, there’s an accent here, too. I hear slander with an accent no matter where the state line lies, even if there isn’t really a trace of one. When I paraphrase a slur, the accent comes with it. The rush of speech, a forcefulness with the opening enunciation—f-f-f—before the low rumble.
The accent sticks in my ear (only my left—the right is a poor receiver). My occasional dropped-down words and—let’s be honest—my whiteness, often made me a safe space for bigots and the like, an invitation for some to roll up and share. I like to think it was the tolerated intolerance of my small town, not necessarily anything I was giving off. Here’s a bit of cowardice: I often code-switched from sounding slightly rural to very rural so I wouldn’t get the shit beat out of me. Remember those gravel roads? I was told how so-and-so might be, you know (accompanied with exaggerated wrist bend).
Such-and-such was caught with another guy, therefore watch out. The agenda is real. My classmates confided in me, and so did my factory coworkers. Sometimes my family. My accent was proof of good old boy, but one way to make them think otherwise was to play MQB whenever possible. At work, parties, wherever.
Wuss. Queerbait. My accent makes me beautiful.
I hated it for years. I wanted to tear my vocal chords out and wreck them in a garbage disposal. Not all that surprising, as I was a devotee of self-hate before I began teaching. My students now chuckle at my pronunciation of certain words, the way they roll off my tongue in a barrel and land flat.
My accent makes me beautiful.
Side note: Stipe used to make out with his straight bandmates on stage to get a rise out of homophobes in the live crowd. Big points for that.
MQB was a way to say I’m queer long before I could in the literal sense. Stipe’s own sexual preferences didn’t become known to the public until years later, so I couldn’t know at the time if I was just projecting onto the band’s catalogue, but it was easier than trying to hunt down queer-ish materials at the local library. Most of the attendants wore camo or a cross around their necks, and besides, friends remain within earshot in a town this size. As much as these boys had my back, fear could’ve informed their decision to accept, or not to accept. If I couldn’t carry a book out, I could hide a song.
R.E.M.’s intent doesn’t matter, really, as they left enough space for my own interpretations and insecurities, open to every age (like a good MQB should). I wear lipstick with my Forever 21 jacket and hum “Near Wild Heaven.” On the lyric, “House made of heart, break it,”[iv] my accent says, Hello. This is when I message people that matter and spill, “I’m sorry, but I’ve been listening to MQB so I’m intensely emotional right now, and I just wanted to say I love you.” It’s important that they know not just how I sound, but where I stand.
[i] R.E.M., “Nightswimming,” 1992, track #11 on Automatic for the People, Warner Bros., 1993.
[ii] R.E.M., “Everybody Hurts,” 1992, track #4 on Automatic for the People, Warner Bros., 1993.
[iii] R.E.M., “Falls to Climb,” track #14 on Up, Warner Bros., 1998.
[iv] R.E.M., “Near Wild Heaven,” 1990, track #4 on Out of Time, Warner Bros., 1991.
Anthony Isaac Bradley is an MFA candidate at Texas State University. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Cimarron Review, and other lovely places. He’s a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. He lives with his cat and the ghost of another.