Here’s a link to R.E.M.’s performance of “The Wake-up Bomb” at the 1995 MTV Music Awards (oh those halcyon days when MTV mattered/was relevant to music)*:
I remember watching it on television at the time and being a) disappointed, because I had never heard the song before since it hadn’t been released yet–I was expecting them to play something from their latest album, Monster (remember that in the early days of the internet, and really before youtube, it was A HUGE DEAL to get to see your favorite band perform on television); and b) a little confused by the fact that Michael Stipe was wearing eyeliner, but assuming that he was doing it just because it was his job as a rock star to do weird things. In hindsight, I think it was the first time I had ever seen a man wearing make-up, and I remember my father commenting to me that it bothered him that the lead singer of my favorite band wore make-up and was thus hinting at cross-dressing, just like a few years earlier he had expressed his displeasure when I was listening to U2’s Achtung Baby because there was a picture of Bono wearing a dress in the liner notes. (Actually, now that I just typed that sentence, that picture of Bono is the first time I saw a man wearing make-up because he also has lipstick on. But the dress was more noticeable!). As such, watching this performance was a seminal experience for me because it was an early instance of me slowly learning that not everyone fits into the heterosexual mold (the earliest example of this was when I was nine and read Martina Navratilova’s autobiography, which is where I learned what lesbians are). These instances were very difficult to come by growing up in a conservative Christian household. Soon thereafter I learned that Stipe was bisexual, which at the time only signified to me why he wore make-up, but later on in my life when I realized that I was bisexual it was neat to know that there were public role models for me to look toward.
I like “The Wake-up Bomb” now, though it is a guilty pleasure because it is so pop-y, not as sophisticated as most of the rest of R.E.M.’s early stuff (“early R.E.M.”=when Bill Berry was still with the band, i.e., all of their albums through New Adventures in Hi-Fi. With the exception of their greatest hits album In Time, I pretend that later R.E.M. never existed.), and it is one of the weaker tracks on New Adventures in Hi-Fi, which is an underrated album. But every time I hear it I think about that first performance.
* This post is going to overuse parentheses.