The Hidden Meaning Of R.E.M.'s The One I Love

Before 1987, R.E.M. was still a far cry from the stadium-filling alt-rock juggernaut that they would become. The year radically changed the band's fortunes with Document, the watershed album that started transforming the group from an Athens, Georgia gem on the rise to an inescapable airwave presence. As Bryan Wawzenek of Diffuser tells us, this was greatly helped by the success of "The One I Love," the album's powerful lead single, which became the band's first hit as well as one of their signature songs. 

"The One I Love" became extremely popular with radio listeners, and the song's excellent riff and love-themed lyrics caused many fans to call the radio DJs in order to dedicate the song to their own loved ones. They probably should have paid a little bit more attention to this particular tune before doing so, however, because there are some very strange undertones behind its catchy veneer. Let's take a look at the hidden meaning of R.E.M.'s "The One I Love."

The One I Love means the opposite of what people think

The thing about "The One I Love" is that despite its catchy melody and the word "love" in its title and most prominent lyrical hook, it's very much not a love song. The song's sparse lyrics actually depict a manipulative man who heartlessly uses women before coldly dumping them: "This one goes out to the one I love / This one goes out to the one I've left behind / A simple prop to occupy my time / This one goes out to the one I love." Ouch. 

As Erik Van Rheenen of Mental Floss tells us, R.E.M. vocalist Michael Stipe was originally reluctant to put the song on tape, because he considered it "too brutal" and "really violent and awful." Imagine the band's surprise, then, when they debuted the song in concert, and people immediately started perceiving it as romantic. As guitarist Peter Buck tells it: "I'd look into the audience and there would be couples kissing. Yet the verse is ... savagely anti-love ... People told me that was 'their song.' That was your song?"

Nevertheless, the public had decided that "The One I Love" is a love song, and as it kept being dedicated to people's significant others on the radio, even Stipe eventually relented. A few years after the song's release, he basically shrugged and said: "It's probably better that they think it's a love song at this point."