Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Lyrics (Over)Analysis - Losing My Religion by R.E.M.

Losing My Religion is one of the greatest unrequited love song of all time and this song contains my favourite lyrics ever written as it's a theme that I have related to a lot. I sometimes get dishearten with my songwriting thinking about this song, wondering why bother writing music when other people can express your own feeling better than you can yourself.

Although people tend to associate the song with religion due to the title and the religious themed video clip (it's funny that Michael Stipe always corrects people that this song isn't about religion and yet he was involved in a video clip that spread that illusion to so many people).

The phrase "losing my religion" is actually a saying from the southern region of the United States which is a variation of "to be at your wit's end" as if things are so bad that you could ended up losing your faith in a god. In this song, that line in this context is about the main character loses faith in the person he loves because it is not returned rather than a literal losing faith in religion itself.

So this song is about the main character falling in love with another  person and being conflicted whether to reveal his feelings or keep it a secret. In the end he reveals his feelings (or his lover worked it out) and it ended up as tragedy for the main character.

If you want official confirmation, Michael Stipe told Q Magazine that Losing My Religion is about "someone who pines for someone else. It's unrequited love"

Oh, life is bigger
It's bigger than you
And you are not me

A lot of times when we have people pining over love, we end up having people telling them that it's just a girl (or guy) and that there are more things in life than that.

In this song, the main character is acutely aware that there is more to life than the object of affection. However, the knowledge of that logic doesn’t change the feelings that he has and he tells people that they are not him and they don't understand how he feels.

The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
Oh no, I've said too much
I set it up

Often in this one-sided love, the person goes to extreme lengths to just talk to the person or be in their company and often "set up" chance meeting (This song was inspired by Every Breath You Take by The Police and Michael Stipe deliberately put a creepy obsessive vibe to the song). Despite all the attempts to be with the person, the main character only see distance in the eyes of his person of affection.

Also, the main character is scared that the person he loves has discovered his true feeling and suspected that he had said too much.

That's me in the corner
That's me in the spotlight, I'm
Losing my religion

So the main protagonist is losing his religion and feels completely helpless about his love for that person. When his love for that person is discovered, he will feel trapped in a corner and his feelings will be open to bare for that person to see (and hence his feelings are in the spotlight).

Trying to keep up with you
And I don't know if I can do it
Oh no, I've said too much
I haven't said enough

He lost his religion as he can't find a way to get through with his lover (trying to keep up with you) and has self-doubt whether he could ever get through with his lover.

He's afraid that he may have said too much and that he has revealed his feelings that may cause his lover to stay away from him and perhaps at the same time, he's afraid that he has said too little in convincing his lover to be with him. 

I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try

This is the chorus of the song (despite Michael Stipe claiming that this song has no chorus) and it's about how when you are in love. You believe that you see signs from that person and perhaps your love is return. So you thought you saw the person laughing at your jokes with affection, you thought that you saw the person trying to make it work with you.

Every whisper
Of every waking hour I'm
Choosing my confessions
Trying to keep an eye on you
Like a hurt lost and blinded fool, fool
Oh no, I've said too much
I set it up

It's common for people who are in this emotional state to fantasise in their head every waking hour of confessing their feelings to the person they love (and have that love return). It's this fantasy that people indulge themselves often but for the most part they will never have the nerve to directly reveal it.

However, the main protagonist is quite aware that this is a pretty foolish thing to do.

Consider this
Consider this
The hint of the century
Consider this
The slip that brought me
To my knees failed
What if all these fantasies
Come flailing around
Now I've said too much

So the main protagonist gave away one hint too many and now his lover knows how he truly felt about him/her. This "slip" of insight to his feelings led to an obvious rejection and that rejection bought him to his knees.

His fantasies that he has were out of his control and now he has said too much about himself to his lover.

I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try
But that was just a dream
That was just a dream

The chorus repeated itself but this time the main character now realise that his hope for his love to be return was all just a dream and any signs he thought he saw was a case of him projecting his fantasy onto him/her.

(repeat chorus)

But that was just a dream
Try, cry, why try?
That was just a dream
Just a dream, just a dream

After some repetition of earlier lyrics, the main character laments that any hope he had of a successful relationship was just a dream. He is thinking why he bothered to even try in the first place.

In a sad outro, the main character just repeated it was just a fantasy he had and perhaps trying to convince himself that the whole embarrassment of rejection was "just a dream" as well.

So that’s my interpretation of Losing My Religion which is my favourite song from a lyrical stand point.


  1. Applause. I like your interpretation and agree with it. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks for making your understanding of these lyrics public. I could offer a few minor adjustments, but I don't wish to take away with all the insight you have offered. What reveals the heart of the song for me, even before I saw your explanation, is the poignant musical delivery that communicates exactly (at least to me) the feelings that you discuss. And the most valuable piece of information you offer is the explanation what the colloquialism "losing your religion" means in context. Thanks again.