Today is the birthday of Michael Stipe, lead singer for R.E.M. Welcome to 54, dude. In his honor, I picked the song from the first album of theirs I heard (their second LP, Reckoning, 1984) that best characterizes, for me, the effect of Stipe’s singing voice. For me, Stipe, before we all turned 30, was “the voice of our generation”—not in the way that, supposedly, Bobby Dylan was for his, but in the way any crooner was for some generation previous to that. In other words, not “voice,” as in spokesman, but “voice” as in the vocal character that sounded the way we wanted to sound.
|Stipe, Berry, Buck, Mills|
I have to admit I don’t know what Stipe is singing about a good deal of the time, particularly on those first two LPs. First of all, back then, in the days before the internet, you had to figure out lyrics by listening, not by Googling them. And so a lot of times, you were just not getting the right words anyway. The words to early R.E.M. songs have a very elusive quality, more so even than their later songs. It all seemed rather murky and associative. Sometimes a phrase that would resonate greatly would turn out to be something else on another listening. Slippery. But no matter. The mix of Stipe’s baritone and the higher harmonies from Mike Mills creates a Byrdish sound all the more arresting because so many Sixties bands preferred lead voices closer to tenors. There’s a heaviness to Stipe’s voice, not so much manliness as melancholy. It’s quintessentially “moody.”
“Camera” is very repetitive and doesn’t seem to follow a normal verse/chorus form. It sprawls. Though actually it does have two verses, each with refrains, a guitar break, a third verse with refrain and a final repetition, which peaks just when you think the song never will. And that peak is really a matter of how Stipe draws—or drawls—out the line “a bartered lantern bor-row-ho-ed” after singing it “straight” three times previous. There’s something amazingly satisfying about that little spike, just as there is in the surprisingly clear line before the two refrains: “I still like you, can you remember?”The song is about memory, but the line that most people probably catch and relate to is the “hook” that announces each refrain: “alone in a crowd.” We’ve all been there, certainly. And much of the rest of the lyric is too uncertain to be easily identified with, except for the reiterations: “will you be remembered, will she be remembered?” And the palpable sadness in “it was simple then.” As soon as you start with “then and now” comparisons, you're fucked.
It’s easy enough to imagine some kind of scenario of parting in which “you” and “she” wonder whether either will remember the other. Which is what gives the nakedness of “I still like you, can you remember” its poignancy. The singer, it seems, remembers and suspects he won’t be remembered. The line “I should keep myself in between the pages” always struck me as the kind of thing a sensitive, poetic sort might say. Y’know, the kind who prefers fiction to real life.
The key line, of course, is the title line: “if I’m to be
your/a camera, then who will be your face.” This is the line that resonated
most with me as I was always particular about faces—as in liking to draw them,
even sometimes trying (mostly failing) to do so from memory. The camera is a
means to record faces, to assert an attachment to a face that time must alter. “That’s
how she/he looked then,” we say. But the face, while still there if the person
is still there, is gone, in a manner of speaking. Only the image, and maybe our
In the song, I take it that the singer knows he has to replace faces. The end of the affair means the face he has been recording—I’m rather vested in memorizing looks (or as we say, aspects) myself—will give way to someone else’s. But whose?
It’s a very melancholy thought, yes, in the context of the song, because Stipe’s voice sounds so sorrowing. And just at that peak when his voice leaps a bit—“if I’m to be a camera”—we see hope for him. A camera will never lack for faces to record.