The profound uncoolness of R.E.M.’s 1994 album Monster was placed in sharp relief earlier this year in David Robert Mitchell’s thriller Under the Silver Lake, in which the callow, self-styled private eye played by Andrew Garfield invites a much-younger girl to dance to "What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?" It’s Oldies Night below Hollywood Forever and Garfield’s Sam is feeling his age. "I don’t know this song," admits his date, popping a red balloon as if to literally burst his bubble. Their exchange could be a millennial update of Steely Dan’s comically Nabokovian "Hey Nineteen" except that they definitely can dance together. We cut to a fish-eye lens to watch our thirty-something hero peaking to a nameless drug, abjectly and shamelessly pogoing away to Peter Buck’s chunky power chords. It’s more than a feeling when he hears that old song they used to play.
"I’d studied your cartoons, radio, music, TV, movies, magazines," sings Michael Stipe amidst the stream-of-consciousness wordplay of Monster's lead single. In a movie whose pop cultural signifiers have been obsessively curated, "What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?" pulls double duty as an I-Love-the-90s punchline and also an aural corollary to the protagonist’s paranoiac headspace. Stipe famously derived the song’s lyrical hook from the mantra of a mentally ill man who physically assaulted CBS anchor Dan Rather on the streets of New York; the assailant was allegedly in search of some grand unified theory to tune into, the frequency of those in the know. The track’s symbolic utility in a thriller tethered to an unreliable, impulsively violent narrator is readily apparent; the query "what’s the frequency, Kenneth?" is unanswerable, even as it suggests some deeper conspiracy to be untangled, or some subliminal wavelength to hang ten upon.
Hitting radio in the wake of Automatic For the People’s majestic, empathetic anthems, "Kenneth’s" buzz was like a fly in the one-song-heals all ointment R.E.M. had been rubbing all over everybody’s hurts. The second verse quotes Richard Linklater’s hipster-ethnographic classic Slacker (1991), observing that "to withdraw in disgust is not the same as apathy." Translation: just because you hate everything doesn’t mean that you don’t care. In lieu of communion, its narrator opts to marinate in his own hallucinatory confusion. "I never understood," he confesses in the final line; "don’t fuck with me." Hold on: was that an F-bomb from America’s most huggable rock star? "Oh no, I know a dirty word," Kurt Cobain snarked three years earlier on "Smells Like Teen Spirit," as if anticipating his future pal’s enfeebled stab at profanity.
Monster's uncoolness, then and now, was and is a byproduct of its attempted coolness, an approximation that makes it an outlier in a catalogue mostly unconcerned with such superficialities. R.E.M.’s grand narrative in the 80s had always been a coercion of the mainstream to meet the band on their own oddball terms; even by the time of "Losing My Religion" the foursome was still cultivating a Southern Gothic sensibility (stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but that title is just a little bit of Athens slang for catching feelings). The bleak, gorgeous, death-tinged folk of Automatic For the People slotted in nicely alongside Seattle’s various flannel-clad complainers, and was also a natural outgrowth of the more mid-tempo austerity that the band had developed while under contract to Warners with Green and Out of Time.
Monster's louder, riffier approach was intended as camouflage and commentary on the nascent grunge movement, a cycle whose leading lights dutifully evinced admiration for R.E.M.’s work ("they’re the greatest," fawned avowed fanboy Kurt) while encroaching significantly on their market share. The story was that the group had embraced a harder, amped-up sound organically, but there was clearly calculation in the record’s contents and rollout. When asked about the inherent goofiness of "Shiny Happy People" or "Stand," Stipe would say that they were experiments in R.E.M. playing a "cartoon band" like the Archies or the Banana Splits, yet he wouldn’t cop to such motives with Monster. Instead, the album’s startling visual and sonic metamorphosis, beginning with the singer’s newly shorn scalp and extending to more eccentric, aggressive physical postures and wardrobe choices across the board (i.e. Mike Mills’ Nudie Suits) demanded to be taken at face value.
At literal face value circa 1994 — let’s call it at least fifteen bucks a CD and ten per cassette in the U.S.— Monster was worthy enough to sell four million copies, less than Out of Time or Automatic but still a lot. The joke goes that that probably two million of them were eventually stranded at used-record stores: all those blurry orange-and-black bears staring out forlornly from resale racks and bargain-bins like Cordoroy, forming a metaphor for the hardcore fans accrued and alienated as their college-rock heroes crossed over into hockey arenas once and for all. (When you literally sell out Madison Square Garden, it means you’ve sold out figuratively — that’s the math.)
It’s not that people thought the record was bad, exactly, but even the reviewers who got what Stipe was doing with all that posturing had to point out that there was, for the first time, something to get with a band whose very name implied the unconscious, involuntary, revelatory quality of dreaming. Monster’s thoroughly received aesthetic, a glam pastiche layered over grunge thunder, represented something new and unwelcome: a dread self-consciousness. "I don’t sleep, I dream," Stipe insisted, a bit too coyly. Those fluttering eyelids were now frozen in a wink, the musical equivalent of sleeping with one eye open.
There are a few unguarded moments on Monster, and at least one deep cut is open enough to signal permeability in its title. During interviews, Stipe spoke with uncharacteristic directness about "Let Me In" as plea "to, for, and about" Kurt Cobain, whose suicide serves to contextualize the song’s every aspect: the murky guitar; the desperate lyric sheet; the choked air of despair. In terms of tempo and melody, the lovelorn "Strange Currencies" is Monster’s sequel to "Everybody Hurts," a blue-eyed soul shuffle with a sing-along chorus that works equally well when addressed to God, your girlfriend, or a ceiling mirror. But it’s "Let Me In" that revises the earlier hit in a meaningfulway, concluding that sometimes reaching out to touch somebody is not enough. It’s futile for everybody if the somebody who’s hurting won’t reach back. "He gathered up his loved ones and he brought them all around to say goodbye/nice try," Stipe mumbles in the tone of a detached depressive; later, on the final chorus, he adopts a keening falsetto that cuts through the album’s almost uniformly deadpan vocal performances and elevates the song’s careening melody into the stratosphere.
It’s fair to say that Monster as a whole is haunted by Cobain, and so is Under the Silver Lake. Sam’s love for Nirvana is such that it actually compels him to commit murder. In Mitchell’s most inspired scene, he comes face to face with a mysterious, ancient composer who claims to be the secret brains behind countless top 40 hits — a spectre modelled on Phil Spector who tickles the ivories with the Invisible Hand of the Market. His story insinuates that the pop music that’s catalyzed the most radical individual and collective revolutions has only ever been industry formula, including the Gen X rallying cry of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." "That song was not written on a distorted guitar... I wrote it, here, somewhere between a blow job and an omelette... there is no rebellion, there’s only me earning a paycheck." Mitchell’s conceptual gambit is cleverly rooted in Cobain’s own self-deprecating claim that he nicked the riff for "Teen Spirit" from Boston’s "More Than a Feeling," a song that is explicitly about the visceral, full-bodied joy of hearing a beloved melody on the radio. What Sam has for Nirvana is more than a feeling, but the Composer is telling him to eat crow. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" isn’t an homage, or even a copy. It’s a forgery. Oh well, whatever. Nevermind.
"Exploding Head," R.E.M. thought of calling Monster. If they had, then the gory, fatal money shot of Sam’s meeting with the composer could have been another in-joke in the most reference-infested American movie in years (comparisons to the Big Lebowski and Inherent Vice, themselves hugely allusive works, only scratch the surface of Under the Silver Lake's exhaustive annotations). When our hero bludgeons the pop-industrial Moloch with a replica of Kurt’s own electric guitar, it is an act of vengeance to subsume Stipe’s gesture of mourning in "Let Me In"; it provides a righteous gross-out giggle that catches in the throat. Does his this-machine-kills-fascists gesture re-inscribe significance to Nirvana’s signature song, or does it suggest something more bathetic, a murderous fury wielded on behalf of an ersatz anthem?
"Let me in" could be Sam’s mantra as he cruises through the Valley like a fuckboi Philip Marlowe, and so could "what’s the frequency, kenneth?" What he wants is access to a hidden world (and its spoils) as a salve for the existential pain of being on the outside looking in, which presents here asaging out of coolness and so clinging to the idea that the things he loved as a teenager actually mean something. As a parody of male savior-narratives in which the missing femme fatale doesn’t actually want to be found or rescued by her shady one-night stand, Under the Silver Lake is a swing and a miss, attempting the old Lynchian trick (and this is the only way in which its mostly bland surrealism is actually Lynchian) of being about misogyny and female exploitation while indulging in it. (See also: Eyes Wide Shut, which Mitchell probably has a billion times. I’m guessing mostly on VHS.) Where it’s sort of revelatory anyway is in its timeliness as an Epstein movie (the secret global sex cult is real and only the super-rich need apply!) as well as its Reddit-level understanding of how desperately we narrativize our experiences and seek synchronicity. The search for meaning in entertainment becomes jaggedly double-edged. In the end, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" does mean something, just not what Sam thinks. It’s not a gesture of resistance, but the byproduct of a music-industrial mind control project flattering every generation into thinking their own personal heroes invented rock n’roll. (Here we are now, entertain us.)
The issue of whether or not the Composer was behind any of R.E.M.’s mid-90s hits is never raised in Under the Silver Lake, and that’s fair enough. There’s nothing epochal about Monster, which may have been the first R.E.M. record 1) to seem anything less than, and 2) certainly the last about which anybody would have even tried to make the claim. (Actually, 1996’s focused, greyscale New Adventures in Hi-Fi is 1) better and 2) a masterpiece, but that’s an essay for a different 25th anniversary.) There’s also probably nothing epochal about Under the Silver Lake, which won’t likely stand the test of time alongside other cult classics because 1) it’s literally the end of the world as we know it and 2) it’s already been fully reclaimed, a beneficiary (or is it a casualty?) of an ever-accelerating cycle of hype, backlash and explanation. To give Mitchell credit, it’s these very same topics —i.e. incipient apocalypse and the yearning for something that’ll endure — that make the film impossible to dismiss (compared to the Coens and PTA, the director is all thumbs, but he’s got at least one on the pulse). If nothing else, the sensation of being seen as Garfield lip-syncs with eyes wide shut to Stipe’s nonsense poetry, briefly luxuriating in a coolness that’s long gone and was also never really there in the first place, will stick with me like something out of a horror movie. Turns out that there’s a Monster at the end of this essay, and it’s me.