U2: Local Act, Global Horizons (Part II)
How has U2’s lead singer, Bono, become such an icon of political activism?
- U2's music challenged listeners to hear nuance beyond the catchy choruses.
- When Bono met Horst Kohler, the politician challenged him directly, saying, "So you're a rock star. You make a lot of money and then find a conscience?"
- Bono had earned the right to rage. He wrote "Where the Streets Have No Name" after he and wife Ali spent time as volunteers in an Ethiopian refugee camp.
- In Dublin's culture of fond mockery, Bono was ridiculed for his assumed messianic complex.
From the start, U2's songwriting confronted the problems of the world.
Few bands have drawn inspiration from such a global diversity of subjects: from Hiroshima's holocaust ("The Unforgettable Fire") to Martin Luther King ("Pride (in the Name of Love)") to third-world hunger ("Crumbs From Your Table").
Their debut album Boy hinted at an idealistic belief in the power of the imagination to shape a better world. Bono sings, "I thought the world could go far/ if they listened to what I said."
Critics consistently pointed out the paradox of rich rock stars acting as spokesmen for the downtrodden. Years later, when Bono met Horst Kohler — then head of the IMF, and now the President of Germany — the politician challenged him directly, saying, "So you're a rock star. You make a lot of money and then find a conscience?"
In fairness, the singer had earned the right to rage. He wrote "Where the Streets Have No Name" after he and wife Ali spent time as volunteers in an Ethiopian refugee camp.
"Bullet the Blue Sky" described the fear experienced on a visit to Nicaragua and El Salvador, arranged through Amnesty International. They had witnessed first-hand the fighter planes and artillery fire of the Reagan-funded Contras.
Performing the song led the singer into another contradiction. "Outside, it's America," he would intone darkly on stage in New York, D.C. or L.A., trying to evoke in spoken lyrics the terror felt by Latin Americans at the forces which they associated with the superpower to the North. But such political sermonizing went largely over the heads of U.S. audiences.
Still, U2's music challenged listeners to hear nuance beyond the catchy choruses. The militaristic drums of 'Sunday, Bloody Sunday' made it a stadium favorite, yet, like "40," it concealed the biblical yearning to sing a new song.
Such subtleties were often overlooked, as many mistook the historical twist in the title for nationalistic rabble-rousing. Remember, the vitriol in the verses of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" suffered the same fate in Reagan-era America.
Elsewhere, audiences proved more perceptive. In Chile, the band used a live TV broadcast to showcase their lament for the country's political victims, "Mothers of the Disappeared," at a concert in the Estadio Nacional. The stadium was sacred ground, infamous for its use as a prison camp by the military regime following Pinochet's coup d'état.
The band invited the madres onstage to display pictures of their long-gone loved ones and gave them time to name each victim individually. Bono then spoke directly to the camera and said, "General Pinochet, God will be your judge. We will not. But at least tell these women where are the bones of their children."
Many cheered, but many in the audience hissed and booed, too. Bono, ever the arch-contrarian and agent provocateur, was pleased at this mixed response. "I was flattered that we weren't just playing to people who all agreed with us," he claimed.
An aversion to sycophancy is rare in the realm of rock, but U2 remain a gang of friends who still like to be challenged, and to challenge each other. Bono has reflected on the danger of rock-star privilege invading real life.
"After you go home, you return to be lords of your own domain," he said. "That is the way of males in particular, they rid the room of argument until they have no one left — except people who agree with them. It is understandable. But I like a good argument. It's a rare privilege to be in the company of people who you started out with and who can see through you."
If egos were self-regulating within the band, it wasn't always obvious from the outside. By the end of the 1980s, U2 were fast becoming caricatures. However worthy the causes, embracing the world and its contradictions was seen as political heavy-handedness and God-bothering grandiosity. In Dublin's culture of fond mockery, Bono was ridiculed for his assumed messianic complex.
A faux tribute band called the Joshua Trio played U2 covers wearing angels' wings, and its singer arriving on stage astride a donkey.
So, the four non-prophets decided the time was right to change their tune. U2 reinvented themselves for the 1990s, adapting the age-old adage of "Fear the devil, and he will taunt you, mock the devil and he will run."
"I'm ready," sang Bono as he air-kissed his preacher-man persona goodbye, "ready for the laughing gas." As the Zoo TV tour reinvented the rock show, out went the white flags and the preachy speeches. In came disguises, masks and the electronic razzle-dazzle of an age in thrall to technology.
Drawing on their playful Dada past, U2 introduced a cast of cracked characters that minced a fine line between method-acting dementia and demonic evocation. The Fly was a know-it-all barfly philosopher. MacPhisto was a "fat Elvis" version of the Devil himself, a menacing mix of world-weary Vegas crooner and faded Satanic majesty.
Rather than protesting stridently, the singer now loosed his demons onto global affairs. MacPhisto implicated the powerful and the complicit by warm association. For instance, he would call the White House nightly to tease and taunt George Bush (the elder). And he would invite Salman Rushdie onstage to speak about his infamous Verses.
Yet, underneath the eyeliner and the red horns, the message remained the same: The world was still going to hell — but now U2 offered us the warm hand of the devil to take us there… and the descent would be televised on the world's largest TV screen.
With Bono as Beelzebub's mouthpiece, the band tuned to the zeitgeist of capitalism's moment of historic triumph. It was the end of the 20th century, the end of the Cold War and the End of History, some said. While Vaclav Havel was rocking in the castle with the Rolling Stones, U2 were fast-forwarding rock into the age of New Media.
The walls were coming down, and the screens were going up. Global telecommunication offered a transparently two-dimensional world, which promised to be even better than the real thing.
Editor's Note: This is the second of a three-part series on U2. Read Part I here.