Michael Stipe is one of the foremost indie frontmen and is, in many ways, the much better American answer to The Smiths’ Morrissey. He was there at the conception of R.E.M. when just a longhaired student in 1980 and was an everpresent throughout their career and a key part of their success, with his pained style of delivery highly captivating, capable of providing moments of sheer elation, and those of intense introspection.
Whilst the other band members, such as their resident guitar hero Peter Buck were also important, without Michael Stipe, R.E.M. would not have been the same beast, and their songs would not have the timeless essence that we all know and love. Stip is not only a vocalist but an incisive poet, too, with his words equally as powerful as his voice.
Famously, in the 1980s, R.E.M. were more of a cult band, but by the time 1991’s critically acclaimed Out of Time dropped, the band blew up and entered the mainstream. The group became a rock band loved by fans of pop much in the way that U2 are today. From the moment the album hit the shelves on March 12th that year, the band went from strength to strength, becoming a commercial beast but still managing to consistently achieve artistic success in what is the truest testament to their skill.
A truly cerebral artist, Michael Stipe’s creative growth had a significant impact on the band’s development, and it was he who truly allowed them to go from indie heroes to the stadium-filling icons capable of penning universal anthems such as Everybody Hurts, Losing My Religion and Shiny Happy People.
Whilst he is ostensibly a rockstar who channels the type of punk spirit that was championed by the likes of Patti Smith and Ramones, Stipe is a lover of all music, not to mention pop, and one artist he has much respect for is ‘The Queen of Pop’ herself, Madonna. When speaking to Pitchfork in 2021 about the music that made him, he showered praise on Madonna and her 2005 hit single ‘Hung Up’.
He said: “This was one of the first times ABBA allowed anyone to sample one of their songs—and it’s Madonna of all people, who I’ve always really admired as a lyricist and artist. It’s just an incredible pop song, and she’s provided us with some great pop music through the years. I think Ray of Light might be my favourite song of hers, and I really love that album too. I love pop music. It’s all the same thing: R.E.M. were very earnest and sincere, and Madonna was more surface and pop and bubble gummy. But I love a good pop song. It doesn’t matter where it’s coming from.”
Stipe then revealed that Madonna gave him some stellar advice when he was making 2001’s Reveal with R.E.M: “Madonna also gave me advice when I was making Reveal, because I was really lost. So thank you for that, Madonna,” he said.
Of the advice that Madonna gave him, Stipe explained to Rolling Stone in another interview that year: “She gave me some really great advice and I accepted her advice and I followed it to the T, and I think it really helped create a complete… for me that record is about summer, really. It’s one of the records where I just said, ‘I’m gonna make this completely thematic about something, and then within that I can do whatever I want lyrically.”
He concluded: “So at the very beginning of writing words for that I said, ‘This is about summer – my favourite season. And I think it really holds together”.