‘Everybody Hurts’ by R.E.M. is a song that has always had an effect on me, and means a lot to me. From the days I regularly heard it on family car trips on cassette tape (my Dad being a fan of the band himself, and therefore why I became an avid listener of their work too), I always associated with it with going through the hard times in life, and the pain that people go through when they are at their absolute lowest. Yet, and while this may seem contradictory, I have always found it to be one of my go-to songs when I need cheering up, or if things are not going right. This is because of the lyrics that, while quite simple, give you the strength to hang on, to keep going despite all of the crap going around you. The band’s guitarist, Peter Buck even noted the simplicity of them compared to the band’s other works, “the reason the lyrics are so atypically straightforward is because it was aimed at teenagers”, he explains, noting that high school can be many people’s idea of hell and perhaps comparable to the anguish in the song.* (I personally won’t rush to disagree with him). Indeed, they are quite clear and concise, a far cry from the quirkiness of spines and orange crush, or ‘vitriolic patriotic slam fights’ – quite possibly the most simplistic song of their entire discography. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however.
When I first heard the song, I remember asking my Dad if the song was meant to be about someone dying, and his answer was something like it being about all of the sad things that can happen to people. My young mind personally associated with the passing of my grandparents – I knew that my Dad grew up without a mum, and that Mum grew up without a dad. The grandparents that remained died not long after I was born, so I never really got to know them properly. I clearly remember this song stirring such feelings in me, and making me quite misty-eyed. Equally, however, it taught me that death is something that affects everyone – because, as the song says, everybody hurts sometimes. The ‘sometimes’ is a particularly powerful sentiment. We live in a world where it constantly feels like showing your emotions is a weakness, and it can sometimes seem that others can handle life much better than ourselves and just ‘get on with it’, not understanding why some around them are depressed and unable to handle things. This is reflected in the general lack of awareness of mental health issues in society today. However, as the song reassures us, everybody has moments where the world just becomes too much and they fall apart, their brave face being nothing more than a façade. The video for the song is also quite a powerful demonstration of this, as it depicts one of the most mundane, yet frustrating things that we encounter in everyday life – a traffic jam. As we shift between each disgruntled driver and passenger, subtitles reveal their inner thoughts – either simmering, bitter resentment towards those they are stuck in a car with, or a heavy pain that they feel they cannot reveal to their loved ones. However, as the song reaches its climax, everyone simply decides to get out of their cars and walk. This helps in imparting the general message of the song that there is a way out, that things will get better – and that it’s ok to face the pain and let it come out emotionally –‘cause everybody cries’ – but, it does also implore you not to give up – ‘Don’t let yourself go’, it tells you, ‘hang on’ and ‘Don’t throw your hand’ – perhaps suggestive of suicide, urging someone to not end it all right there and then. In fact, The Samaritans actually used the song in an ad campaign during the mid-90’s, showing how simple and comforting its message can be.
While I’ve never quite been depressed as to that extent, as I mentioned it has been a song that I find does comfort me if I’m feeling low, or if I’ve simply just had enough of things for one day. It can strike a chord in particular if you don’t have someone to go home to – the opening lyrics of the song in fact refers to ‘When your day is long, and the night is yours alone’; if the struggle of the everyday is not fulfilling or becoming so humdrum that it is making you feel numb to everything, the prospect of coming home to an empty house and no one to vent these feelings to, no shoulder to cry on, probably doesn’t seem all that enticing either. Before I was in a relationship, I often bore similar frustrations. This is part of why the song works so well and speaks to such a wide range of people – it can be about the passing of a loved one, the struggles of grief, or another equally harrowing event, but equally it can also be about simply becoming bored and frustrated with life, or the crippling feelings of loneliness that cause us to fall apart when we are alone. Though as the song also assures us – most people really aren’t alone. ‘Take comfort in your friends’ it advises us. Indeed, it can be easy to shut out friends and family during particularly dark times, and the stigma towards mental health probably doesn’t make us any more willing to unload our emotional turmoil. But, even if they don’t exactly understand, just the fact they are a listening ear can often be enough of a comfort. And in lieu of being able to find an actual person for that in a pinch, this song in some ways quite adequately serves as that. Its continuing popularity and resonance since its release in 1992 shows how relatable it is – it peaked in the charts in many countries and there have been many, many different cover versions over the years, culminating in it being chosen as a charity single to raise money for the victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, with many artists (both established and contemporaries) performing for it.
So yes, a relatively simplistic piece it may be, but ‘Everybody Hurts’ has always been a song that has spoken to me, both as a child and subsequently growing into an adult, showing that it resonates with people of many ages. Having always been passionate about mental health issues, and being quite an emotional and sensitive person myself, the reassurance that it is ok to hurt, to cry and let everything out is a great comfort to someone like me, who just wants to stop the world and get off sometimes.
*Quoted from the liner notes of the album In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988–2003
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