R.E.M., American rock-music group, pioneers of the so-called alternative style of rock music, and one of the most popular and critically acclaimed bands of the 1980s and 1990s. Formed in Athens, Georgia, in 1980, its members included guitarist Peter Buck, singer Michael Stipe, bassist Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry. The letters R.E.M. are an acronym for rapid eye movement (the eye motion that characterizes the dream stage of sleep), although members of the band say they chose the name mostly for its lack of any overt meaning.
At the time of R.E.M.’s formation, Buck worked in a record store, and Stipe, Mills, and Berry were students at the University of Georgia. Mills and Berry were already experienced musicians, unlike Stipe and Buck. R.E.M. gave its first performance at a private birthday party and developed its distinctive sound during numerous touring performances in bars and rock clubs.
The growth in R.E.M.’s popularity was closely linked to the development of so-called alternative rock. Heavily influenced by the anxious, energetic style of 1970s punk and new wave music, the alternative style distinguished itself from mainstream pop music in the 1980s by its dissonance and irony. Its rise was fueled by several developments, including the emergence of college towns such as Athens as locations for the creation and performance of independent music (music recorded without the backing of major record companies); the growth of independent record labels; and the rise of college radio stations, which, free from the constraints of commercial radio, could broadcast an unusually wide variety of music. R.E.M.’s first recording, the single ‘Radio Free Europe,’ released in 1981, was perhaps the first commercially successful college-radio hit in the United States. In 1982 the group signed a contract with one of the largest independent record companies, IRS Records. R.E.M.’s first album, Murmur, was released the following year, and, due in large part to support from college radio, reached number 36 on the Billboard pop album chart. Later albums—Reckoning (1984), Fables of the Reconstruction (1985), and Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)—also did well. Document (1987) reached the top-ten on the Billboard charts, and produced the band’s first top-ten single recording, “The One I Love.”
The music of R.E.M., written by Buck, Berry, and Mills, is characterized by tight rhythms; a harsh, metallic guitar sound; dissonant country and folk-music harmonies; and striking melodic hooks. The lyrics, written by Stipe, string words together in unconventional or unexpected ways, suggesting hidden layers of meaning. In 1988 R.E.M. signed a contract with Warner Bros., a major record company, and released Green, which became a top-ten album and featured the popular song “Stand.” Out of Time (1991) became the best-selling album of 1991 and included the major singles “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People.” On these albums, and on Automatic for the People (1992) and Monster (1994), the band introduced horns, stringed instruments, distorted guitar sounds, and more comprehensible lyrics that often reflected a growing commitment to political causes such as conservation of the environment and civil rights. The album New Adventures in Hi-Fi, released in 1996, was followed by Up (1998), which featured drum machines, vintage keyboards, and other innovations. Up was the group’s first album after the retirement of drummer Bill Berry in 1997 following a near-fatal brain aneurysm. In 1992 R.E.M. won three Grammy Awards, including an award for Out of Time as the best alternative music album. In 2007 the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. R.E.M.’s success helped establish alternative rock as a part of mainstream American music.