[*] A 20-year-old beef

You know you’re getting old when you read something and you realize that what you are reading – even though it was composed during the last TV season – makes you think about something you have been mulling over for 20 years.

The really-alert readers of this blog have noticed that recently I added The Banty Rooster (that’s Brian Mattson) to my blogroll (yes: “banty” is a word – it’s the diminutive of “bantam”, which is somewhat funny because “bantam” means “small and/or feisty”; a “bantam” rooster is a decorative fowl, so a “banty” rooster is like a really small decorative fowl), and I did so on an experimental basis. I’m not sure that he’s not going to get demoted to “crickets and locusts” yet, but I have enjoyed reading his blog for a lot of reasons.

One of the reasons is this 20-year beef – and I have enjoyed it only to the extent that it has been somewhat of a gut check regarding what I really believe about things, and whether I have changed any since I was an atheist in college. My 20-year beef is with U2. Mattson has a 2-part review of the last U2 CD on his blog under “best of”, and that review got me back on this bicycle. Keep in mind, as well, that my first blog entry ever was on Derek Webb’s defense of Bono as a Christian hero.

There was a time, in the high age of vinyl records, when I had all of U2’s records. I had “Boy” before it was cool to have “Boy”, though I admit that I didn’t actually own it until about 1983 when “War” broke out. I had them all through “Rattle and Hum”, and it appeared to me that they were much smarter than the average rock band. I might not have used the word “grounded” then, but that’s what I would have meant if I had that kind of understanding of things. However, I always treated their lyrics with rubber gloves – because they always seemed to be saying one thing but meaning another.

Then came “Achtung baby”, and I swore never to buy another U2 record again.

(For the belly-achers, if you count the years, “Achtung Baby” came out in 1991, so you might want your money back for this blog post if you think that the beef begins where my album-buying ended. Well, you’re wrong, and it’s my blog, so go listen to your trashy U2 CDs from the 90’s on afterward and let the saner readers read in peace.)

Now why did “Achtung Baby” mark the end of my fanaticism for U2? Well, for several reasons:

(1) It was bad. You cannot compare that CD to October or the Unforgettable Fire or (for pete’s sake!) The Joshua Tree and honestly say, “boy, that Album’s the top of their game”. For all intents and purposes, this was U2’s 8th CD and it was by a long shot the worst. And don’t tell me about “One”, OK? I will argue from here that “One” is the reason to call the rest of the CD a dud.

(2) It was bad for all the wrong reasons. See: you can forgive a band for going out on a limb and trying something experimental or arty and admire the way they failed. But “Achtung Baby” was the seed from which the tragic and useless “Zooropa” CD came. It was an appeal to Pop, and while many people may have gotten on-board the U2 bus because of “Achtung Baby” and/or “Zooropa”, I was getting off. The same thing that happened to Peter Gabriel – which is a whole other blog entry yet to be written, I guess – was happening to the fellows from Dublin, and it made me sick.

(3) It confirmed my worst suspicions about them. Let me make it clear that from about 1981 to about 1993 I was an atheist, so my problem wasn’t that I found out that U2 was “Christian” or “not Christian”, but that I found out that they were in it for the money.

They were in it for the money! I would feel like an episode of Seinfeld if I said, “not that there’s anything wrong with that”, because in U2’s case, there is actually something wrong with that. Whatever it was that they were singing about, it was really just about the money – because they had just come off of what I would call one of the classic Rock and Roll LPs of all time, and now, as a follow-up, they traded all the things that mattered about “Rattle and Hum” for something with no regard for what they themselves had accomplished to that point.

Everybody needs a day job, right? Bills gotta be paid. Baby needs a new pair of fuzzy dice and all that. There’s no shame in working for a living, even if you have to work for “The Man” (whatever that means) or what your day job turns out to be is Rocking the House. See: when a businessman is just “in it for the money”, shucks, he’s just an ignorant capitalist and who can blame him. But when an ARTIST trades his aesthetics for cash, he’s just a guy on the corner selling pictures of Jesus or Elvis or the Dogs Playing Poker on black velvet – that is to say, it is obvious that he doesn’t care what he is selling as long as it is actually selling. There’s nobody on the internet complaining about the time that Duran Duran or Flock of Seagulls or Scritti Politti or Brittany Spears sold out for an extra buck because it turns out that they were only ever about the buck – they were made to be pop stars, not to take popular music to some new and dangerous place. U2 was taking rock and roll to a new and dangerous place by being faithful to a couple of ideals (apparently, anyway) and a few tips-o-the-hate to the roots of Rock and Roll (again, apparently).

And then there was the whole Christian vocabulary they were (and perhaps still are) massaging. Lifting texts from the book of Psalms, trading on religious-sounding refrains, and mentioning Jesus and God often enough to be (obviously?) involved in a conversation about Him if not to Him or with Him. For the atheist (me), they were obviously trading on what Dr. Martini used to call modern (I am pretty confident he meant “postmodern”, but I am quoting from memory) man’s inherent willingness to believe in something greater than himself, but at the same time modern man’s problem of having nothing left to believe in. So as I listened – not a Christian – I wasn’t hearing Psalm 40 or revised Catholic antiphons: I was hearing the modern voice adapting classical religious language to express its own message of optimism in spite of its own despair at having nothing greater than itself to believe in.

But it turns out they weren’t doing any such a thing: they were in it for the money. So when they turned out “Achtung Baby”, and we find lyrics like this:
Give me one more chance
And you'll be satisfied
Give me two more chances
You won't be denied
Well my heart is where it's always been
My head is somewhere in between
Give me one more chance
Let me be your lover tonight
Or like this:
You're dangerous 'cause you're honest
You're dangerous, you don't know what you want
Well you left my heart empty as a vacant lot
For any spirit to haunt
Or like this:
Johnny take a dive with your sister in the rain
Let her talk about the things you can't explain
To touch is to heal
To hurt is to steal
If you want to kiss the sky
Better learn how to kneel
On your knees boy

She's the wave
She'll turn the tide
She sees the man inside the child, yeah

It's alright, it's alright, it's alright
She moves in mysterious ways
It's alright, it's alright, it's alright
She moves in mysterious ways, yeah
It's alright, it's alright, it's alright / Love, oh love
Lift my days, light up my nights, love
Very mystical-sounding language, right? Very curious and high-brow, as far as pop lyrics go. But what are these songs about? They’re about what every other song on the radio is about: feeling your urges without regard to anything but your satisfaction. So when Bono intones, “If you want to kiss the sky, you betta learn how to kneel – on your knees boy!” he’s not talking about submission to a higher ideal: he’s talking about submission to something a little more immediate and either sultry or sensual.

When you listen to that CD’s other 11 tracks, then come back to “One”, the context is what those other tracks have established. The most charitable thing to say about “one” is that it is a cynical tip of the hat to U2’s previous 7 records.
Is it getting better
Or do you feel the same?
Will it make it easier on you now?
You got someone to blame

You say one love, one life
When it's one need in the night
One love, we get to share it
Leaves you baby if you don't care for it
So far so good, right? But the sentiment of this verse is irony: You say “one love, one life” [u]but[/u] it’s one need in the night. It would be interesting to see what that “one need” is, but clearly it’s not the “one love”. And what “love” leaves you if you don’t care for it? As an atheist, this can make sense, but it can make sense only in the context of love being itself a thing of impotence and limited scope, not a thing which is a greater purpose and a greater power.

That is undoubtedly underscored in the next verses:
Did I disappoint you?
Or leave a bad taste in your mouth?
You act like you never had love
And you want me to go without

Well it's too late, tonight
To drag the past out into the light
We're one, but we're not the same
We get to carry each other
Carry each other
Very mournful stuff, this – and the conclusion that “we’re not the same / we get to carry each other” – there’s no love there, or even duty. It’s just the last thing left to do.

Now we can cover the rest of this song, verse for verse, and talk about how the writer uses the image of Christ without actually invoking the person of Christ in order to demean the object of the lyric; we can talk about how the writer equates the temple of love that the object idealizes with a place which is in fact a trap into slavery or worse. But when it all comes to a conclusion, even the high language of “sisters and brothers … carry each other” is only an echo of the emptiness of the first time the writer uses the phrase “carry each other”.

And in that, this song is really a much darker, forlorn version of “Africa” by Toto or “She’s out of My Life” by Michael Jackson. And some people would say that it’s art because of the more somber tones and shades it uses, and comparing it to “Africa” or “She’s out of my life” is frankly reductive – but to that I say “I doubt it”. You cannot put this song in the context of this album and say, “oh brother – at least they threw their ‘real’ fans a bone”.

For me, as a fan, I was pretty shocked. I gave up on them. It wasn’t so much that they were voicing things I didn’t personally believe – because I have to say that as an atheist I believed exactly what that song and that CD was saying. It was because all the times I thought they were trying to raise our eyes up from the daily mud to a higher ground of brotherhood – even as a kind of dream – they were doing no such thing. They were paying the bills.

When it turned out that this is how I saw their work, it was obviously ridiculous to listen to them anymore – especially when they (meaning: Bono) would drone on about how the rich take advantage of the poor on a collective level. Somehow it is America’s fault and Western Europe’s fault that the Third World is run by dictators and con men – when this selfsame person is a con man for pretending to have higher ideals about the ability or the duty of men to lift each other up, and the only reason he has a platform to say any of this is because he has fooled others into believing something he does not.

And 20 years later, I think it is much worse than that. After finding the love of God, and seeing the inability of man, and finding God’s grace not by being good but in spite of being good, I think Bono’s clever and nuanced uses of the Bible and the names and work of God are not just pop marketing: I think they are intended to deceive.

After I describe why I think that by example, I’m going to tell you what I think of the Banty Rooster’s review of the last U2 CD.

Other entries in this series: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 |