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Out of Time

Now, do not read that and think I am somehow suggesting thatnothing is new anymore or that everything has already been done or thatI am secretly applying for a job at Tracks magazine. There are still new things in this world. But they don’t feel new to me. And I am placing much of the blame on R.E.M.

Growing up, I hated R.E.M. In fact, my high school metalheadfriends and I compiled a “Bastard List” on the back of my life-sciencenotebook, and Michael Stipe was always No. 4 (preceded by BruceSpringsteen, our high school principal, and some kid from anotherschool named Gene, whom I’d never met). I didn’t even own an R.E.M.album until I was a sophomore in college, when I bought a used copy oftheir early singles compilation, Eponymous, for $5.99. And then — for the next four or five years — I was relatively obsessed with their entire catalog.

Butwhat I have come to realize is that those four or five years (from 20to 25, roughly) represent the only time when things can seem new. Whenyou’re a teenager, you can’t appreciate innovation intellectually –everything seems normal, and you take everything for granted. And whenyou reach 30, you can’t enjoy innovation viscerally, because it’simpossible not to see how everything is ultimately derivative ofsomething else. And yet there is a very specific window of time whennewness can feel truly authentic, and it’s a really amazing moment inyour life. I was reminded of this when I watched a bunch of R.E.M.videos I had not thought about in years.

The R.E.M. DVD Parallel compiles the videos the band made for the albums Automatic for the People (1992) and Monster(1994). I’m not sure why I decided to watch this DVD the other night; Ithink it was probably because I’d heard we were interviewing MichaelStipe for this month’s “My Life in Music,” and I suddenly felt vaguelynostalgic for the mid-’90s. However, these videos did not make menostalgic for any specific moment.

They did evoke a period when I first encountered a certainkind of aesthetic self-awareness about how art and music reflect life.Take the video for “Nightswimming,” my favorite R.E.M. song and a videoI remember liking very much in 1993. This was two years after RichardLinklater’s film Slacker. Looking back, it seems obvious thatthe director of “Nightswimming” was influenced by Linklater’s style:handheld cameras, lack of narrative, making things look cheap andunpolished, etc. I never put those thoughts together at the time. Yetwhen I saw this video at 21, it was perfect: I understood that it wasdifferent, but I did not understand how or why. It merely seemed likeR.E.M. was making a video that was exactly like all the other things Iwas starting to love at that time in my life. It almost seemed like Iwas being entertained by something that I was actually informing, andall of that was an absolute accident. I am not sure I have the capacityto enjoy that response again.

What really blew my mind, though, was the clip for 1995’s”Star 69.” And it wasn’t so much the video, which was pretty staid, butthe idea that there was a period when the *69 automatic callbackfunction of the telephone was so significant that R.E.M. could write asong about it.

Caller ID has become so universal that the idea of a crankcall (or even just a surprise call) is on the way to becoming asextinct as the woolly rhinoceros (part of Crank Yankers‘ appealis nostalgic). In fact, Caller ID is so widespread that it haseliminated the need for *69. However, the technology was a hugedeal when it debuted. I remember using it constantly, willingly paying75 cents a shot just to see if my girlfriend had called and hung up(which happened four times a day). *69 was a massive innovation — butonly for three years. It was (suddenly) this incredible new thing, andthen it was (suddenly) completely passé. And now its whole legacy iscontained in one R.E.M. song. That three-year period of my past is nowthree minutes and eight seconds long.

I miss when things were new.