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What's Haiti single and REM song Everybody Hurts about?

Classic pop, reappraised by the Magazine

Stars including Kylie Minogue, Take That and Mariah Carey are recording REM's Everybody Hurts as a charity single for Haiti. But what is the original song about, and why is it associated with suicide?

It started out as a song to comfort "younger people", and the attempt to make it accessible to someone "who hasn't been to college" has made it applicable in all kinds of situations.

Written by REM (Stipe and Bill Berry pictured above)
From 8th album Automatic For The People
UK number seven (April 1993)
Number three 'Song to listen to when depressed' (6Music poll, 2004)
Number two 'Gen X funeral song' (Bereavement Register, 1993)
Number one 'Cry-Pod song' (Poll for Irish radio station RTE, 2007)

Everybody Hurts is not a typical REM song. For one thing, you can make out all of singer-songwriter Michael Stipe's words. More importantly, it's immediately obvious what they mean: don't give up.

And so the song has had a much more varied and exposed life than most of REM's output, even before the imminent celeb-carousel rendition.

It was, for example, the first song played by Radio 1 after the two minutes' silence to mark 1996's Dunblane shootings. A version edited to include the sounds of the attacks on the Twin Towers was widely circulated online in late 2001. And the track rubbed shoulders with Candle In The Wind and I'll Be Missing You on the official Diana Memorial album.

But the troubles that the song originally speaks to are more personal.

In the 1993 video, Stipe is portrayed among drivers stuck in an almighty Texas traffic jam, each with troubles on his or her mind, all of these conveyed in subtitles. Among them is a teenager staring out of a window, thinking: "They're going to miss me."

And suicide - especially among the young - is the personal problem with which Everybody Hurts is most often associated.

'Don't throw your hand'

In 2001, the Nevada Assembly passed a resolution praising REM for "encouraging the prevention of teen suicides", specifically mentioning Everybody Hurts.

And in 1995, the Samaritans marked the first anniversary of the suicide of Kurt Cobain with adverts in music magazines which consisted of two verses of the song.

If you're consciously writing for someone who hasn't been to college, or is pretty young, it might be nice to be very direct. In that regard, it's tended to work for people of a lot of ages
Peter Buck, REM guitarist

"We've tended to license the song out for free to charity," guitarist Peter Buck told the BBC in 2005. In the same interview (see link on right), Stipe is characteristically evasive, but Buck is more forthcoming.

"I remember Michael saying something to the effect that he wanted younger people to not have to worry about metaphors," he said. "The only metaphor is in the bridge: 'throw your hand', which is a card-game metaphor."

It's also, to many, a metaphor for taking one's life. Is it incongruous, then, to apply the lyric to Haitians affected by an earthquake?

'Things are tough but they get better'

Not necessarily. Buck told Mojo magazine that "trying to reach a 17-year-old and say, 'it's OK - things are tough but they get better'" involved economy and directness - and that universality automatically means the song is picked up on by other people.

The Corrs

The simplicity of the music helps, too. Based on a beat from a drum machine that cost $20, the track revolves around a few familiar arpeggiated chords.

Even after the arrival of the strings, arranged by former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, there's an intimacy that fits the lyric, and a vocal from Stipe that, in the words of rock critic Garry Mulholland, expresses "all the personal tragedies and troughs that he has travelled through". An earlier version included the line: "Everybody hurts, even the singer of the song."

The charity-single template is, of course, very different to this, and Simon Cowell, the organiser of the new version, is not usually associated with musical restraint. However, the point of next week's release is not faithfulness to the REM original, it's something more commonly associated with Mr Cowell - that is money, in this case for Haiti.

As for REM, Stipe says: "How could we not say yes to this appeal? We're honoured to play even a small role in trying to help."

This echoes what Buck told the BBC in 2005: "The song belongs more to the people that it's aimed at than it does to the band any more."

Smashed Hits is compiled by Alan Connor.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I am a vicar. At funerals I would normally expect to be able to rein in my emotions, but this song will always cause a tear to flow. On one occasion as I took the funeral of a suicide, we played this as part of some reflective prayer and the whole congregation, including me and the funeral director, were in tears.
Tim Goodbody, Dunmow, UK

In my first term at university, I was wracked with absolute gut-wrenching homesickness. I heard this song on the radio late one night, and it was like a light-bulb. It made me realise that it was OK to be missing home, but that it was going to work out if I just hung in there and stayed the course. I saw REM live later that year, and hearing them play Everybody Hurts, with 100,000 other voices in the crowd remains a very special memory to me.
Helen, London

I am not surprised Simon Cowell thought a song about suicide was appropriate for Haiti - he thought a song about sexual anguish was suitable for the Xmas number one in 2008. I am a big REM fan and in its original context the song really works. I CAN imagine being desperate enough to want to commit suicide - so yes, everybody does hurt. But I can in no way imagine what it is like to be in Haiti now. Everybody does not hurt as they do. To tell them that everybody hurts, as if we can in some way empathise, feels patronising.
Helen Bunter, Harrogate, UK

I love this song. It's a reminder that when you think you have it bad, other people have it worse and things will get better. A beautiful, simple piece of music and wonderful lyrics from Messers Stipe and Berry. An all time classic.
M Dickson, Bury, UK

As an expert on depression I can assure you that if you are depressed then you want to avoid this song completely. It's a neat song if you're in a reflective mood yes, but depression... oh no!
David, London

This is an incredibly uplifting song that is both inspirational and powerful. I think that perhaps millions of people have at one time not given up on something because of listening to this song. Absolutely fitting to be used here.
Alison, Preston

The most comforting things to be told when you're in a terrible state are that you're not alone and that things will get better; you will be alright. This song does both of those, and it speaks to you as an individual. No, REM don't know you or your individual pains, but this song says that somebody cares. Everyone has been through something, so everyone understands the song.
Sophie, London

Everybody Hurts is a great, great song and is no doubt going to be beaten to within an inch of its artistic credibility by this selection of pop stars. Wouldn't it be better to do a brand new song, or better still for REM to repackage the original and allow all proceeds from now on go to the Haiti fund? All the pop stars could just contribute by buying it a few times.
Dave, Leighton Buzzard

REM's Everybody Hurts is a classic song that is as relevant today as it was in 1992. Whilst I appreciate the new version will be for charity, I fear it will be a travesty of the original, ie bland and cheesy. I will probably listen to Automatic For The People tonight and donate a couple of quid to Oxfam instead.
Mark Jones, Rushden, UK

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