by Scott Calhoun
Today’s post is from guest contributor Scott Calhoun, who directs the U2 Conference, writes for website @U2, and is a professor of English at Cedarville University. He has edited three books of essays studying the music, work and influence of U2, most recently U2 and the Religious Impulse: Take Me Higher (Bloomsbury, 2018). More information about his work on U2 is here. This is part two of a two-part post. Read Part One here.
Having formed in Dublin in 1976, in the midst of the context of Ireland’s troubled history, U2 was acutely sensitive from its start to the damaging personal and social effects of fundamentalism in both religion and politics. On top of that, three members of the band belonged to a Christian community which shifted over time from being nourishing and supportive for them to making demands that pitted their religious commitment against their career aspirations. Seeing themselves as artist-activists working in the medium of rock ‘n’ roll, the band members left the Christian community. U2 was naturally hungry for commercial success in America and equally inclined toward confronting fundamentalism both at home and abroad.
U2 first toured the United States in 1981, and found itself quickly entering into a complicated relationship with American culture at just about the same time as were many of the Christian teenagers of the 1980s which Randall Stephens’ writes about in The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘N’ Roll, who were shifting away from the “red-meat conservative issues” of their parents. Their parents, not coincidentally, had come of age in the 60s and 70s, when Christian Fundamentalism found plenty of cultural movements to stand against and when rock ‘n’ roll itself was shifting into high-gear as a music of protest.
U2 loved the idea of America as a political construct but realized the social song of America was not harmonizing with itself and its ideals. As immigrant-artists, U2 has expressed its love for America in songs of affection and critique. Taken together, the albums The Unforgettable Fire (1984) and the multi-platinum award winning The Joshua Tree (1987) speak most directly of U2’s dreams of America (best expressed on the former album) and its sober awareness of how far off the mark America still is (best expressed on the latter).
The working title for The Joshua Tree was, in fact, The Two Americas. The 1987 song “Bullet the Blue Sky” is U2’s best-known song critiquing America, and was composed initially as a jeremiad against President Regan’s policies involving the United States in Central and South American affairs. Bono said in this interview, he was upset “as a person who read the Scriptures, to think that Christians in America were supporting this kind of thing, this kind of proxy war because of these Communists. … I was not a Communist, but I felt it was wrong.”
U2 has kept “Bullet the Blue Sky” on its concert setlist for 30 years now, sometimes repurposing the song to also critique America’s gun-loving culture at home and abroad by its being one of the major nations that profits from global arms sales. U2’s songs typically employ Christian typology, themes and biblical references, but at times Bono will be explicit in his critiques, as when performing “Bullet the Blue Sky” in the 1980s he added lyrics bemoaning the fundamentalist Rev. Jerry Falwell and his thieving-televangelist kind:
“I can’t tell the difference between ABC News, Hillstreet Blues and a preacher on the Old-Time Gospel Hour stealing money from the sick and the old. Well, the God I believe in isn’t short of cash, mister.”
As being in a “lovers’ quarrel” is how Bono sometimes describes U2’s stance toward America, and “Love and Peace Or Else” (2004), “Get Out of Your Own Way,” and “American Soul” (both 2017) also express U2’s continued interest in forging a better America. There is no shortage of U2 songs that are equally critical of Irish, British and European nations too, and there are a couple of songs addressing conflicts in the Middle East as well. I can recommend Timothy D. Neufeld’s insightful and highly readable study of U2’s career as artist-activists, U2: Rock ‘n’ Roll to Change the World (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017) for more depth and analysis on this topic.
The fundamentalism in the human heart is, by far and away, the most prevalent theme in U2’s catalogue. There are many more songs about personal, interior struggles between certainty and uncertainty, kindness and violence, and fragmentation and wholeness than there are about external, communal conflicts. Astute interpreters of U2 would say, I believe, that all of U2’s songs are about the internal manifesting as external, and therefore I could recommend all of U2’s albums for examples of such songs. However, Boy (1980) is remarkable in this respect as a band’s debut album. Achtung Baby (1991) is certainly U2’s masterpiece of introspection but Pop (1997) continues to pursue the inward turn while occasionally noting shocks of dismay at the external world. Songs of Innocence (2014) and Songs of Experience (2017) offer some fresh takes on U2’s familiar topics with the benefit of the band’s earned and learned maturity.
In U2’s case, however, the interior and exterior lives are not only struggle; there is also hope, love, and joy, and the desire for and a belief in a beautiful resolution for all things. It is because of the artistry with which U2 performs both the conflicts and the resolutions that millions of Christians and non-Christians who’ve experienced the limits of fundamentalism in its various forms are U2 fans, and look with gratitude and expectation particularly to Bono as a kind of patron saint.