R.E.M.: Monster Madness
Wearing black jeans, green sneakers and a dark-green T-shirt with a black star on the chest (similar to the shirt he wears in the video for Monster‘s first single, “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”), Michael Stipe is standing in a control room at Ocean Way recording the vocal for a track on Monster that will eventually be called “King of Comedy.” In the studio it is alternately referred to as “Disco Song” or “Yes, I Am Fucking With You.” Gripping the mike with both hands, reading the lyrics from a revision-scarred sheet of paper placed on a stand in front of him, Stipe sings: “Make your money with a pretty face/Make it easy with product placement/Make it charged with controversy/I’m straight, I’m queer, I’m bi.” Over a driving dance-club beat, his normally warm voice is heavily distorted, a distancing device that runs throughout Monster. At the end of the track he snarls: “I’m not the king of comedy/I’m not your magazine/”I’m not your television/I’m not your movie screen/I’m not commodity.”
The character Stipe evokes on “King of Comedy” is a manipulative, sexually indeterminate power monger who, strangely, is struggling desperately to maintain his sense of humanity. It’s like the twin poles of the rock-celeb experience for Stipe — the allure of power over an audience (an idea he has explored since “Turn You Inside-Out” on Green) and the danger of losing yourself in the fun-house mirror world of pop stardom.
More specifically, though, Monster is filled with what Buck describes as “obsessive-creep love songs.” “It’s funny,” he says. “Sometimes Michael will write songs where I’ll go, ‘Well, I can see how that’s part of Michael’s perspective,’ even though he’s not necessarily writing about his experiences. But there’s a lot of songs on this record that are not even his perspective. You can say a lot of things about Michael — and journalists do — but he’s not creepy. And these songs, a lot of them are kind of creepy.”
For his part, Stipe, 34, professes to be unaware of the sources within himself of the darker emotions on Monster, which is dedicated to the late actor River Phoenix, a close friend of Stipe’s who died last year of a drug overdose. “I don’t know, I just put it out there,” he says as we sit on folding chairs in the parking lot outside the studio during a break. He, too, seems a bit surprised by the album’s quality of emotional terrorism.
“I wanted to write a record about sex,” he continues. “I thought that would be kind of fun, kind of cool. I could come at it from all these different angles. I was thinking about this the other day, because I know that with this record people are going to ask a lot of questions about sex. I’ve had this pat answer about my idea of sex, that sex is nothing more than friction and ego — and timing. [Laughs.] These songs are meant to be in your face. I kind of wanted something that was brash, fucked up and sexy. Dysfunctional. Kind of a gender-fuck train wreck just thrown out there.” He smiles. “Hopefully, there’s a humanity in it, too.”
Part of the gender-fuck element of Monster would seem to be Stipe’s way of confronting — and playing around with — the widespread speculation about his own sexual orientation. Along with the “I’m straight, I’m queer, “I’m bi” nonadmission in “King of Comedy,” the tremolo-guitar glam-rock tribute “Crush With Eyeliner” — which Berry terms “that snotty boy-sexy thing” — implies that sexual identity is not determined by nature but can be consciously and constantly created, shifted and re-created.
Singing in a voice that sounds like a combination of the high affectation of Bryan Ferry and Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster, Stipe declares: “I’m infatuated/It’s all too much passion/She’s all that I can take/What position should I wear?/Cop an attitude, fake her/How can I convince her… That I’m invented, too?” In another verse he wonders: “How can I make myself be faker/To make her mine?” In this light, Stipe’s repeated insistence in the song that “I’m the real thing” (with an obvious nod to Coca-Cola and the identity politics of advertising culture) is hilarious, the ironic opposite of the assertion “I’m not commodity.”
On a more disturbing note, however, rumors about Stipe in recent years have centered not only on his sexual preference but also on his health. When R.E.M. announced that they would not be touring after the release of Automatic for the People — after not touring two years earlier in support of Out of Time, either — and Stipe refused all requests for interviews, people began to wonder if he had AIDS or was HIV positive. A preoccupation on Automatic with mortality and dead pop-culture celebrities like Andy Kaufman, Elvis Presley and Montgomery Clift only fueled the concern.
“I don’t know how smart it is to say this,” Stipe responds when asked about the rumors, “but I purposely did not come forward and say, ‘No, I am not HIV positive,’ because I thought that it might be good for a lot of people who did respect me or think highly of me to wonder about that and think about it. And think, “Wow, if it can affect somebody who I really look up to, maybe I should be a little bit more careful myself’. That may be unbelievably naive on my part. I also didn’t want to answer to it. It was completely ludicrous. I don’t think anybody had anything to base it on.