Black angels and hungry sailors: The truly weird story behind Losing My Religion
To be fair, yes, this was the 90s. And, yes, Michael Stipe probably wasn’t aware at the time how funny his white man dancing actually was. Losing My Religion was also a “coming out” statement—which was a big deal at the time—masked as an unintentionally campy homoerotic religious fantasy.
And, finally but just as important, this is just such a bad video. Like bad movies or bad books, bad music videos are always easier targets for critics.
Still, let me put this into perspective. In terms of badness, if you were a vulture, this video is the equivalent of a line of rancid, deliquescing roadside corpses that magically appear the second your stomach rumbles. It’s the kind of easy bait that a thoughtful vulture might even just fly away from because it’s truly inexplicable how much badness there is to feast on.
That said, I was forced to watch Losing My Religion silently at a bar the other night with another bad Cyndi Lauper video that almost made me cry.
Watching Losing My Religion again this morning, I could only wonder what a Japanese or Chinese audience would make of this story if they had just the story and couldn’t understand the words.
So, in fairness to Michael Stipe—and anyone else that has had to suffer through this video without lyrics or sound like I did at the bar—let’s just focus on the story.
For your reference, the official Losing My Religion video from YouTube.
I’d say the easiest way to understand the narrative technique used in Losing My Religion is to imagine Ornette Coleman at his most fierce reduced to dental clinic elevator music. The story bounces in every direction—it gets all over your clothes and in your eyes and up your nose—but without propulsion, and it’s silly. Every second or two a new ridiculous image flashes languorously on the screen, and you’re turning your head to find out where it’s going. Unfortunately, most of the time it goes back to Michael Stipe white man dancing.
Anyway, here goes.
We open with the sound of dripping water. We’re in some kind of Caravaggesque garret studio where Michael Stipe is sitting unconsolably on a chair framed by a window with two mason jars and a jug of milk on the sill (this must be symbolic because everything is symbolic in this story, but it’s beyond my literary ambitions to diagnose what those jars and milk might symbolize).
The jug of milk falls and splashes against the floor like a big water balloon and then we get a few quick cuts to various band members. The action ends with Michael Stipe getting a mysterious shoulder massage. It isn’t clear what purpose the shoulder massage serves. There’s a long-haired guy playing mandolin though.
At this point, the story devolves into that Ornette Coleman-like free form renaissance symbolist medley I mentioned above.
Here’s the best I can do. Maybe you can piece together a narrative from these images? If you do, email me.
• • •
Michael Stipe white man dancing
More white man dancing
Cut to Stipe’s eye (telegraphing lyrics)
White man tumbling
Stipe looking at the corner of the room (telegraphing lyrics), where a black angel appears. Hello, black angel!
Stipe looking in the other direction (telegraphic lyrics), where a spotlight and a group of fashionable lumberjacks/train conductors/hungry sailors appears. Hello, hungry sailors!
12-year-old St. Sebastian impaled on a tree, writhing (#me too moment?)
White man shuffling
Stipe trying to get out of his chair, telegraphing lyrics (He can’t.)
Despondent Krishna-like figures
Stipe covering face with hand
Random shot of Cossack/Russian revolutionary saluting
Hungry sailors turning heads in unison, mouthing lyrics with shadow of huge gyroscope flashing on walls
Naked “orientalized” man
Stipe doing hand movements
Exotic woman in garden, glum and listless
A bunch of useless imagery which ends with Stipe fist bumping himself vertically, essentially a sort of white man dance without actual movement
Black angel gets pushed down hill, tumbles lifelessly
Second angel falls from the ceiling, almost hitting a da Vinci-like figure
Black angel reaches down from heaven at second angel and da Vinci figure
Stipe hand movements, more despondent, less actual movement
A lot more weird, pointless stuff
Turbaned man (previously “naked orientalized man”)
Stipe falls to knees after alerting audience to the possibility
Extended white man dancing
Visit from da Vinci and a group of Renaissance figures
Still more white man dancing, plus “white man shuffling” and “white man sliding” (a sort of sideways white man moonwalk)
An iron forge and a map
If you got through the first three minutes (this video is actually five hugely cringy minutes long), nothing changes. There is no tension or climax. From about minute three to the end, it’s just a loop of all the previous goofy scenes and characters, culminating in another water balloon hitting the floor and a set of white angel wings.
• • •
If you had to describe the storytelling technique used in Losing My Religion by director Tarsem Singh, I guess you’d file it somewhere under “imagism” and “symbolism”. The video uses images to get some keys points across—sex, longing, frustration, transgression—which aren’t all that clear by virtue of the lousy storytelling.
If I were Michael Stipe, on the other hand, I’d know just where to file it—under RTBF. RTBF, or the Right to Be Forgotten, is a handy European law that allows people to petition to have information about themselves essentially expunged from Internet search results. It’s the Google equivalent of a witness relocation program, except the info actually disappears.
Did you make a video of yourself urinating on a police car when you were 17? Has someone gone on a rampage against you, making up all sorts of nasty stuff that just isn’t true (everything but the fact that you doused that police car with your body fluids, which is 100% true).
Or did you make a horrible video in 1991 that makes no sense, tells no story, but deserves to exist in audio form because of its really brave stance on the torture of being gay and not being able to come out?
However you decide to approach the culpability for this disaster or its ultimate fate, director Tarsem Singh can be found on Google. And I intend to find him, after I’ve had my second cup of coffee, dusted off my Ornette Coleman and turned the volume way up.
Max Sheridan's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications in the US, UK and elsewhere. He's worked as a teacher, journalist, editor and copywriter. He's the founder and director of Write CY, a Nicosia-based platform for creative writing and community storytelling, where he teaches Story Craft, a 10-week short story writing course. His novel Dillo was released by Shotgun Honey in December 2017. Talk to him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.