Music Geography 101: R.E.M.- “Cuyahoga”

I recently assigned the students in my Geography 101 course a writing project whereby they select a song with geographically-oriented content and report on all of that song’s inherent regionalisms. In the body of their assignment text, I include a list of suggested songs for anybody who may be interested in them or may have difficulty selecting a song on their own. The following is one of them.

While I do consider R.E.M. to be the quintessential Southern American rock band and the very paradigm of indie-to-mainstream success, I had not thought of the geography in their lyrics much before last semester. This is odd, I know, as they recorded and released “Stand,” perhaps the most blandly geographic song ever heard on the radio (that dance, though…). However, one of my students in Fall 2014 pleasantly surprised my TA’s and I with this song when her paper came up. It not only provided a breath of fresh air from the torrent of “Walking in Memphis” submissions we had, but it also inspired me to dig deeper into Michael Stipe’s Southern mysticism.

R.E.M., despite becoming one of the biggest bands in the world in the 1990s, never quite shed the “college rock” association. They formed in Athens, GA, which could qualify as one of the best college towns in America. The music scene at the time was already on the map due to a campy dance-rock culture that could only have thrived in a relatively warm place full of wierdos. Someone told me recently that the band would throw snack cakes out to their crowds at the 40 Watt Club early on; some of those snack cakes are still preserved as mementos/possible eat-this-and-win-$10,000 hangup pieces.

As for Cuyahoga, it’s a county and river in Ohio. The band’s geographic references obviously didn’t stay close to home (Mike Mills’ wonderful song “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” being another case), but this one gave Stipe an ample opportunity to talk about pollution. Famously, the river outside Cleveland caught on fire in 1969, signaling federal cleanup dollars and a whole lot of embarrassment for the city. It was a great joke on The Simpsons, but a terrible reality for the rustbelt city of so few sports championships.

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