Queer Frequency: R.E.M.'s Monster & Michael Stipe as a Queer Icon

If you’re a bit older than me, R.E.M. was the college rock band you loved, then your interest probably petered out once they became more mainstream. If you’re younger than me, R.E.M. is that band your parents liked with the skinny bald guy.

If you’re part of my generation, both you and your parents liked R.E.M. You both discovered them via “Losing My Religion”’s incessant MuchMusic/MTV play. My parents bought Out of Time on cassette. A few years later, I bought Monster on CD.

Monster’s been a punchline for almost two decades for being the biggest used-CD store staple. I’ve always had a soft spot for it, though. As a tween, I’d program my CD player to play “I Don’t Sleep I Dream,” “Strange Currencies,” “Tongue,” “Bang and Blame” and “You” as I fell asleep. These songs were the closest the album had to ballads. And at the same time, they’re some of the queerest songs on the album.

In “I Don’t Sleep I Dream,” singer, Michael Stipe is “looking for an interruption” and asks his lover, “do you give good head/ am I good in bed?” In “Strange Currencies,” Stipe plays an obsessive ex-lover, repeating over again, “these words/ you will be mine” and tells his “secret love” of his goal to “Take you in and make you mine.” “Tongue” has Stipe singing from the perspective of a girl with low self-esteem, someone’s “last ditch lay.” “You” is the most beautiful song-poem about being horny for someone.

“Bang and Blame” was a top 40 hit and probably the queerest song on the album. Stipe sings from the perspective of someone in a relationship where their lover who “used to be so in control” now has a “secret life of indiscreet discretions.” The lover knows this isn’t Stipe’s thing. The song ends with, “you kiss on me/ tug on me/ rub on me/ jump on me/ you bang on me/ beat on me/hit on me/let go on me” and eventually fades out without resolution. It’s haunting, it’s dangerous, it’s sexual. But only if you listen closely.

Monster is R.E.M.’s most overtly “rock” album, with guitarist Peter Buck using tremolo guitar effects. There are only slight traces of his “jangle”-style that helped define R.E.M.’s sound in the 80s. The same boys in my class that used the f-slur as an insult thought Monster rocked. Beavis and Butthead probably called them wusses at some point, but “Star 69” was definitely enough of a rocker for them to even approve of (“uhh, huh uh, 69, huh huh!”). And when Monster rocked, it was really quite glam. My favorite song on the album, “Crush with Eyeliner,” is a glam-inspired strut about a woman who’s “her own invention” and sometimes I am that woman and other times she’s who I’m smitten with.

“Crush with Eyeliner” struck me as a kid. I was coming to terms with my own queerness at the time, and Stipe admitted to have had lovers of both sexes. Another bicon for me at the time was Brett Anderson of Suede, who had declared at one point that he was “a bisexual man who’s never had a homosexual experience.” When Sophie B. Hawkins came out as “omnisexual,” my instincts about “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover” and the feelings it gave me weren’t so mixed-up after all.

The 90s had tons of successful, openly-queer (albeit mostly cis, white) celebrities. kd lang, Melissa Etheridge and George Michael all came out and continued to thrive. Elton John won an Oscar for a Disney movie. Later in the decade, John had the biggest single of all-time with “Candle in the Wind 1997” (tied with Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”). RuPaul’s “Supermodel (You Better Work)” was a mainstream and club hit (and still an anthem today!), and Ru’s popularity garnered him a MAC campaign, a talk show and radio work before he eventually founded his Drag Race empire. Ellen DeGeneres’ 90s sitcom, Ellen, was cancelled shortly after she came out, but now she’s all our moms’ favorite talk show host.

For a time in the 90s, R.E.M. was the biggest band in the world, and their singer happened to be queer. You need look no further than another big hit in the 90s to find R.E.M.’s best comparison. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. Though Queen were European and Freddie Mercury had one of the best rock voices of all-time and R.E.M. were American and Michael Stipe was famous for his “mumbling”-style of singing, both bands had broad mainstream appeal due to timeless songs and enchantingly charismatic, openly queer frontmen.

Mercury is obviously an unquestionable queer icon. But Stipe seems to rarely be mentioned as an important queer trailblazer. R.E.M. are seen as the influential rock band that they were as a whole, but Stipe deserves more.

Stipe’s influence on queer culture is still relevant today. Last year, he co-produced Fischerspooner’s Sir, 2017’s gayest album and one of the steamiest, grimiest most sexual albums I’ve ever heard. Sure, the album had filler, but its lead single, “Have Fun Tonight” is a pumping celebration of gay polyamory, with a falsetto refrain of “we come together sweetly, man!” Last week, I went to see Ezra Miller’s “genre-queer” band, Sons of an Illustrious Father, and complimented a fellow concertgoer on their outfit. “It’s very Fischerspooner!” I told them. They didn’t know who Fischerspooner were. I wonder if they know who Michael Stipe is? But does it matter? Ezra Miller is a Hollywood actor – in superhero movies! – who’s  openly queer, and blazing his own incredible trail. And that’s who they were there for; a queer icon in the making.

Movies and books about “outsider” teenagers in small towns in the 80s and the 90s often have its protagonist obsessed with one band only – The Smiths. I liked The Smiths, but they weren’t my obsession of choice. One queer friend in high school was obsessed with Hole and Madonna. Another was partial to Toni Braxton. But R.E.M. was my coolest, artsiest, queer friend’s favorite band. R.E.M. made more sense to me than The Smiths as a queer guy’s favorite band. Especially one living in a small Canadian town of 7,000 in the 90s, before the internet. He can’t have been the only one.

Most of the conversation about R.E.M. comes from the majority  – cis straight white men. As much as I enjoy Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott’s R U Talkin’ R.E.M. RE: ME? Podcast (I only call Peter Buck “Peter Dollar Bill” now!), I’d love for there to be more queer perspectives about Michael Stipe’s and R.E.M.’s impact. In the process of writing this piece, I found Sex & Trash Aesthetics: R.E.M.’s Monster Revisited, a piece by Stewart Smith for the Quietus. I was both happy to find that an article about Monster’s unsung queerness was out there, but at the same time wary of writing about the same subject. But why not put out my perspective as a queer woman? Especially a queer woman who considers Michael Stipe to be one of her personal queer heroes.

As Pride Month wraps up, let’s hold Michael Stipe on a higher queer icon pedestal! After all, it is #20GAYTEEN! It’s what he deserves!