'Everybody Hurts' fills a gap in our lives [April 11, 1993]
Plus: Barry Manilow, The Prodigy. and David Bowie
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋
It’s April 11, 1993 again
📰 All eyes on Texas, where the ongoing Waco siege sees US feds in a deadly standoff with the Branch Davidian cult, led by David Koresh.📽️ Cinema-goers can see Willem Defoe and Madonna in un-erotic thriller Body Of Evidence or Dustin Hoffman in Accidental Hero. 📺 And a sad week for Saturday morning telly-watchers as BBC air the final episode of Going Live!
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is ‘Young At Heart’ by The Bluebells, but today we’re listening to something less chirpy…
This week’s Number 27: ‘Everybody Hurts’—R.E.M.
Folks, I have been thinking about God recently, ever since I saw a sign.
Not a burning bush, no. I saw an actual cardboard sign attached to a lamppost, advertising a Dawn Mass on Easter Sunday at the local graveyard. I caught a glimpse of this sign as I was driving past, and I thought to myself, “…that actually sounds quite nice.”
Which was a surprise. I grew up Catholic, like most Irish people, but I turned into an aggressive atheist during my mid-teens, and the abuse scandals of the 90s only made me more anti-religion.
My atheism has softened over the years, and I’d now identify as more of an agnostic. Nevertheless, I’ve never felt the urge to rediscover religion. I’ve never doubted my doubt.
And yet here I am, looking at this sign for a dawn mass during the wettest spring in recorded history and thinking, “sounds great!”
Where did that thought come from?
When your day is long
Last week’s issue on David Bowie talked about feeling lost at 15. Judging by the comments, many of us had a similar experience at that age—and music helped us survive.
‘Everybody Hurts’ was written specifically for people like us, for teenagers who feel lost and hopeless. In the sleeve notes for R.E.M.’s Best Of, Peter Buck said:
This song doesn’t really belong to us anymore. It belongs to anyone who’s ever gotten any solace from it. The reason the lyrics are so atypically straightforward is because it was aimed at teenagers. I've never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but the idea that high school is a portal to hell seems pretty realistic to me. It’s hard for everyone.
And by all accounts, the song seems to have worked. The Samaritans used it in an ad campaign aimed at young men, and Michael Stipe says that many people have thanked him personally and credited ‘Everybody Hurts’ with saving their lives.
Why does this song give some people solace? I think it’s because the song gives a sense of community, a feeling of togetherness. Everybody hurts, everybody cries. You can take comfort in your friends. And that line where Stipe’s vocal is at its most precise, most unambiguous:
“You’re not alone.”
Loneliness and isolation are at the root of most problems—especially in teenagers, who crave community. A song like ‘Everybody Hurts’ helps people feel like they’re connected.
But this raises a bunch of other questions. Why do people—especially teenagers—feel so isolated and disconnected?
The night is yours alone
As a parent to a teenager, I’m heavily invested in solving some of the mysteries of adolescence. This often means thinking back on my own teenage years and trying to remember how it felt back then, during that strange time when you were so big but also so small.
And there’s a lot to unpack, but I think that one universal teenage trauma is the moment you lose faith in your authority figures. You learn that your parents aren’t so reliable, that your teachers aren’t so smart, that the government doesn’t care about you, that the cops don’t come when you call.
It’s scary. You start to feel more alone than ever.
Losing my religion (hey, that would make a great song title, someone should tell R.E.M.) was possibly one of those traumas in my adolescence.
Not that I was super-religious or anything. The typical Irish religious education is: getting dragged to Mass every Sunday; listening to boring Bible stories in school; getting dressed up for ceremonies like your First Communion and Confirmation, which are great because you get money and cake. Apart from that, it’s a lifetime of weddings and funerals and never really thinking about God.
The only genuinely religious feeling I ever recall having happened when I was seven. It was Good Friday, and I remember being in my garden, doing normal kid stuff, just poking at a worm with a stick or something equally stupid.
The sky above me suddenly turned black with rainclouds, and I thought to myself, “It’s around 3 o’clock, and that’s when the crucifixion happened.” Suddenly, all of it seemed very real, as if it were happening right now, as if it were happening to someone I knew.
I stopped poking at this worm, and the worm stopped moving, and I was overwhelmed with a sense of grief for this poor guy in so much pain, with his mother weeping at his feet. And I also felt this uncanny sense of connection, like millions of other people were feeling this same grief, and we were all connected.
The feeling only lasted for a second, and then I ran inside to avoid the rain.
Apart from that, religion was just a mundane fact of life. I believed in God the same way I believed in the sun and gravity, or the inevitability of sudden black rainclouds in an Irish sky. I sacrificed my Sunday mornings t
o sit in uncomfortable churches, surrounded by strangers who would also rather be in bed, and we all mumbled the same prayers, and we all shared the same vague feeling that God was listening.
Until I turned 14 and started wondering… what if he’s not?
So began my journey into angry teenage atheism. I told people I was inspired by Nietzche, but the book that actually turned me to godlessness was Terry Pratchet’’s Good Omens. I largely boycotted church, and I dismissed all religious people as gullible rubes.
And then, one year in my mid-20s, I went to a midweek mass with my mother. It was the anniversary of my father’s death, and his name was one of several that would be mentioned during the ceremony.
Catholic mass on Tuesday morning attracts a real rabble. You get the elderly, the confused, the people with nothing better to do, the people just trying to stay warm, and the foreigners who pray with an intensity that lackadaisical Irish people find a little embarrassing.
It was a tiny group, a few dozen people scattered in ones and twos around a church built for 500. The priest droned through his readings, and I spent most of the time looking at the 1960s architecture and wondering if there was asbestos in the ceiling.
When my father’s name was mentioned, my mother squeezed my hand and tried to stifle a sob. I could see other people shivering with private grief when they heard the names of their loved ones. And there was a sense that we were all together, united not by God but by grief, and our common need to share that grief with others. Our need for community.
This is why people sit in a church on Tuesday morning. Just to be with people.
At that moment, I was struck by a realisation that still haunts me today.
We don’t have places like this in the secular world. And it’s killing us.
You’re not alone
Covid has woken people up to the that our world is in the grip of a loneliness epidemic. People had been sounding the alarm for decades. Back in 2002, the author (and dogged atheist) Kurt Vonnegut wrote:
“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”
Community is a vanishingly elusive concept in modern life. We’re slowly losing the spaces where communities naturally flourish: town squares, big family gatherings and, yes, in churches.
That’s why a dawn mass in a graveyard sounded appealing. It would be nice to share that feeling with people.
And that’s why so many people say, “music saved me.” Music is one of the few secular things that can give us that same sense of community (that’s also why music is such a big part of religion). Live gigs are places where you can be emotional in a room full of strangers. I was at Henry Rollins show recently that honestly felt like a religious event, if not a cult indoctrination.
Even if you’re listening to music alone at home, that feeling of community can still come through a record. A moving song makes you feel connected to the singer, and connected to the thousands of people who are also listening to this song, and feeling emotions similar to your own. You’re all joined together by something supernatural.
Kurt Vonnegut once addressed the question of whether it’s worth the trouble of making art. In his reply, he wrote
“Still and all, why bother? Here's my answer. Many people need desperately to receive this message: I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.”
That is the message of ‘Everybody Hurts’, stated plainly so teenagers don’t miss it. In a way, it’s the message of all art.
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 13 (↑ from 17): ‘Come Undone’—Duran Duran
The Duranaissance continues with this very slick follow-up to ‘Ordinary World’.
Nick Rhodes and guitarist Warren Cuccurullo originally wrote this track for one of their side projects, with plans for a pre-Bush Gavin Rossdale to do vocals. But Simon Le Bon snagged it for the upcoming Duran Duran album and wrote new lyrics about his love for Yasmin Le Bon.
The female vocal (which is probably the best bit of the song) is by renowned session artist Tessa Niles, who has a diverse CV ranging from Suede’s Dog Man Star to Jimmy Nail’s Big River.
Number 12 (New Entry): ‘Wind It Up’—The Prodigy
The final single from The Prodigy Experience, which is maybe sounding a bit tired by now. Fortunately, the boys are already working on their next record and we’ll soon be getting the first single from their masterpiece album, Music for the Jilted Generation.
Number 17 (New Entry): ‘Do You Love Me Like You Say?’—Terence Trent D’arby
A moderately successful comeback single from the man who once declared himself to be bigger than The Beatles (and therefore, by the law of transitive properties, bigger than Jesus.)
Incidentally, you’ll never see Terence Trent D'Arby on the lineup for one of those nostalgia festivals. Terence Trent D'Arby was a stage name, and he now performs under his real name: Sananda Maitreya.
Edit: Thanks to Lee in the comments for pointing out my error. Terence Trent D’Arby was his real name, but he legally changed it to Sananda Maitreya.
Number 23 (↓ from 22): ‘Copacabana’—Barry Manilow
Barry Manilow was Mr. Cheese at the start of the 90s, the punchline to every joke about bland music that your grandaunt enjoyed.
In 1992, Take That performed the spectacular feat of making him cool again with their energetic version of ‘Could It Be Magic’. Manilow seized the initiative with a thumping version of ‘Copacabana’, which was one of several resurrections for this excellent story-song, including Rachel’s iconic a capella performance in Friends.
The irony here is that Manilow’s reputation has soared over the years, while Gary Barlow is now seen as Mr Cheese. History is an ever-turning wheel.
Number 36 (New Entry): ‘Sweet Freedom’—Positive Gang
This is terrible, but it’s a kind of early-90s terrible that’s vanishing from the charts. I kind of miss it.
Album of the Week
Black Tie White Noise—David Bowie
As mentioned last week, Black Tie White Noise arrived after a string of disappointments in the 80s, and faithful Bowie fans wondered if this would be his big comeback.
And the answer was… kind of.
The Bowie comeback never really happened. He would never again have a critical success like 1980’s Scary Monsters and Super Creeps (1980) or a commercial smash like Let’s Dance (1983).
But the good news is that his creatively bankrupt years were also at an end. Black Tie White Noise marks the start of Bowie’s final era: his Having Fun In The Studio era.
The title track sums up the album, and also sums up Bowie’s output for the next 20+ years. It’s a strange gumbo of jazz, funk, R’n’B and other random ideas, with no real chorus or structure. The occasional pop hook drifts through the noise (that “I look into your eyes and I know you won’t kill me” bit is very affecting), but Bowie simply refuses to explore it. He’s already moved onto the next thing.
Even the album structure is disorienting, with three instrumentals (‘Pallas Athena’ is the best one) and three cover versions (‘I Know It’s Gonna Happen Some Day’ is the best one), all scattered in what feels like a random pattern.
And yet, Black Tie White Noise somehow hangs together. Bowie’s magic is back after a long absence, and there’s a sense throughout of a real artist trying to develop the ideas he feels most passionate about.
That’s the energy he’ll carry with him on the next eight album. Sometimes it works (The Next Day), sometimes less so (Hours), and sometimes it has a very niche, cultish appeal (1. Outside). But he’ll never again be timid or crowd-pleasing.
This does mean that Bowie’s pop star era is now over for good. He’ll have one Top 10 hit later in his career, but that comes in 2013 when the charts no longer mean anything. Otherwise, his time in the charts ends with his last true pop song, the excellent ‘Jump They Say’.
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I hear what you say about the lonely having nowhere to go. I hope the monthly vinyl club that I set up helps folk out with that. We have all manner of people come along to that.
I hate to blow my own trumpet but when people tell you how much they enjoy it and that they're looking forward to the next one then it brings home the power of music to bring people together.
Excellent writing by you, as always. Thank you for doing this.
Another excellent piece! you blend the personal and the historical so seamlessly! It doesn’t hurt that you featured two of my favorite songs, “everybody hurts“ and “come undone." the parallels between the two songs actually are a lot more striking, seeing them in retrospect. I'd like to cross post this on my earworms Substack later this week if that’s cool with you.