Analysis of R.E.M.’s song "Nightswimming"

Essay, 2009

7 Pages, Grade: 1,0


MAP Modul 5 - Essay – Analysis of R.E.M.’s song Nightswimming

The Song “Nightswimming” was written and performed by the influential American Alternative rock band R.E.M. and appeared on their 1992 album “Automatic for the People”. It sold over 3.5 Million copies[1] in North America and had a huge influence on American rock music for the next decades. “Nightswimming" is sung by R.E.M.’s singer Michael Stipe, accompanied only by bassist Mike Mills on the piano and a string arrangement in the background of the song. There are many different theories about its meaning, lyrical intention and message in detail. Therefore, I will have a close look at the song’s structure and some formal aspects, various possible interpretations and their reflection in stylistic means, continue with a personal approach to the song and finish with a conclusion.

As regards the structure of the song in general, its lyrics are divided into five stanzas. In contrast to other popular music songs, there is no real chorus, meaning a certain part of the song is repeated at least twice or more times. The first stanza features seven verses, whereas stanzas two and three both have eight verses. Visually, there is a clear break between the first three stanzas and the upcoming stanza four, featuring only five verses, together with the following fifth stanza, which only has three verses. This shortening of the stanzas’ length may hint at the fading of the speaker’s memories of Nightswimming. I will discuss this formal aspect in greater detail later and will now come back to some other formal aspects.

Surprisingly, the song features no clear rhyme scheme throughout the whole text. Stanzas one and three present conventional clear-cut end-rhymes in verses two and three (l. 2-3; l. 17-18). Stanza one, in this context, represents the upcoming of the memory, triggered by a photograph, and stanza three represents the beginning of the ending of the memory’s content, because summer ends and September is about to begin. This structural circle closes between stanza one and five as well, because the fifth stanza recites the first stanza, shortening the very essence of the stanza into three verses. Moreover, the lyrics feature a rhyming couplet from line 14 to 15. Both verses represent the fading of extraordinary memories and events in life into the routine of everyday life. The renunciation of a typical rhyme scheme as a formal means, for example, entails the impression of nightswimming as an action of personal freedom, an act which is not defined by rules or norms. Nightswimming is not something typical or something which can be restricted by norms; nightswimming is extraordinary. Apart from these few rhymes, the song does not feature any clean rhymes at all which gives it a literary, but not overstated composed touch. As far as these few stylistic comments are concerned, I will now have a closer look at the song’s interpretation and combine it with a formal analysis.

The first stanza deals with the speaker’s vivid memories of nightswimming which are caused by a photograph reflected by the “streetlights” (l. 4) in the “windshield” (l. 3) of a car (in reference to “dashboard” – l. 2). These memories refer to what could be called one of the central verses of the whole text. “Nightswimming deserves a quiet night” (l. 1) sets the situation as well as the central topic of the text. The act of swimming at night, illegally in swimming-pools or legally in lakes after sunset, is typically referred to the spirit of summer, freedom and the escape from everyday routine. Swimming at night can be something rebellious, on the one hand, but very tranquil und peaceful, one the other hand. The metaphor of deserving and the personification of the nightswimming’s demand for quietness underline this thesis. We are confronted with images of a sensations caused by a certain “photograph” (l. 2). Interestingly, the speaker does not tell anything about the photograph’s content and the reader can only guess its meaning by the feelings which are evoked. All the speaker certainly tells about the picture is the fact that it has been taken “years ago” (l. 2), which strikes the image of long gone but still not forgotten memories. Although this picture is only reflected in the car’s windshield, the mirrored image becomes even more present, becoming “much clearer” (l. 5). As I said before, all of the emotions connected to the photograph may have been repressed willingly or unwillingly by the speaker, but now he recalls the past. The sixth verse strongly underlines this idea of a flashback of memories. Stylistically, the insertion “I forgot my shirt at the water’s edge” (l. 6) is interesting and unconventional at the same time, because the speaker, namely “I” (l. 6), introduces and, as a matter of fact, reveals himself/herself[2] for the first time. It could be regarded as an insertion because the speaker introduces a completely different temporal and emotional horizon here and refers to a specific evening, when he forgot his “shirt” (l. 6) near the water, presumably in an act of rush. The stanza’s final verse combines both visual images to one unity as it refers to the moon’s position at night in the sky. “The moon is low tonight” (l. 7) reflects the connection of both evenings, the evening now when the speaker literally remembers the evening then, and both nights being strongly characterized by the moon, its setting and the silent darkness.

In the second stanza of Nightswimming the speaker gives a closer insight to his inner feelings in relation to the act of swimming at night and its meaning to him. Again, the stanza starts with a repetition of the ritualized demand for a quiet night while nightswimming (l. 8). As the repetition of “Nightswimming deserves a quiet night” implies, the condition of quietness and tranquility is essential to the whole act of swimming at night. Only quietness, therefore, is able give this act of freedom and escaping from reality a special relevance. Although the speaker is not sure whether “all these people understand” (l. 9), the essence of nightswimming or its motives definitely play a huge role for his self-fulfillment. The feelings he used to connect to nightswimming have changed, “it’s not like years ago” (l. 10), because the “fear of getting caught” has gone (l. 11) and even the “recklessness” (l. 12) do not exist anymore. The word field of water also has a strong relevance for this stanza and the whole song. “Water” (l. 12), the symbol of life and movement, swimming (as in nightswimming), the act of being part of nature and water itself, and the “floating” of the speaker’s car at the beginning form a lyrical unit. The streetlights (l. 4) go by just like waves at the sea, just as the reflection of the windshield (l. 3) equals the water’s reflection of the moon at night. The following recollection “They cannot see me naked” (l. 13) could be interpreted differently. We might now guess that the speaker is in company while nightswimming. On the one hand, the reason for not being able to see the speaker naked is obvious, because it is dark while nightswimming and most of the time he is under water. On the other hand, there seems to be more behind the mere literal sense of this verse. This verse might imply the relationship to his friends or company following him while nightswimming. Maybe they only see the surface of his soul, but they cannot see who he really is, his inner self, him being “naked” (l. 13). The memory fades away as the speaker realizes that these rare moments of pleasure and freedom in life vanish by time, “they go away, replaced by everyday” (l. 14-15).


[1] According to - Retrieved on 19/07/2009

[2] From now on, I will talk of the speaker as “him”. Please understand this only as a formal decision.

Excerpt out of 7 pages


Analysis of R.E.M.’s song "Nightswimming"
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Seminar - Pop Lyrics – Pop Poetry
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ISBN (eBook)
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R. E. M., Nightswimming, Songinterpretation, Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft, literary criticism, pop songs, pop lyrics, literary studies, pop song analysis, lyrical analysis
Quote paper
Thomas Schulze (Author), 2009, Analysis of R.E.M.’s song "Nightswimming", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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