When Dan Kois wrote this Slate column on the REM v U2 debate - who was the best rock band in the 80s - it wasn't too hard of a question to answer. I've always been a steadfast REM fan, obsessively following the band's details throughout adolesence. I'm younger than Kois: by the time I had listened to REM, it was well past their 80s college rock hey-day, and in the tail-end of their first backlash (people didn't seem to take too kindly to Michael Stipe's newfound enunciation). By that point, Nirvana had clearly taken the lead, Bono wasn't too far off with his "the Fly" schtick, and any attention paid to REM's 80s output was purely archival.
At that stage of adolescence, it was odd to pit REM against U2. The latter had gone through its Americana pissing match with Rattle and hum, and into its uber-machismo rock god mode of Achtung Baby. REM, though now much more audible, were as sullen as ever. As with any awkward teen, REM's outsider appeal was much more attractive to me, with U2 being much too normal, that nice popular kid that you had no reason to dislike but did anyway.
Instead of pitting REM against U2 for rock-band-of-the-80s, it made a lot more sense to compare them with the Smiths. The classic rock kids latched onto U2 and the Tragically Hip, both providing that sort of rock anthem that didn't take a lot of guess work or, as Kois might put it, self-searching. The more angsty of the bunch had Nirvana, and those of us that were more passive-aggressive about it had either Morrissey or Michael Stipe to look to. Morrissey wasn't without his charm, but his fans had that same pompousness that male Bono fans did, albeit in a much more well-read sense. Stipe was just an odd ball, much less inclined to explain himself, though just as much of a showboat. Despite all the terseness and plain incomprehension in Stipe's lyrics or antics, however, it always seemed that Stipe was as sincere as anything else, and while Morrissey was busy being all clever and shit, Stipe just seemed that much more relatable. I can certainly understand why the Brit-Pop fans ultimately chose the Smiths over REM, but those reasons are also exactly why I chose REM over the Smiths.
That's always been Stipe's charm, and thus REM's charm. They're less antagonistic than the Smiths; they're much more 'everyman' than one would think, but not in the traditional sense that U2 have grown into. U2's grown and redefined arena rock; REM's content to sell t-shirts in the parking lot. And for that underdog charm, I'll always stick by REM.
Here's Stipe with chef Mario Bateli, as they take in a U2 concert: