Paper Summaries @ U2 Conference 2018

We are looking forward to hearing 24 presentations grouped into eight sessions spread over two and a half days at the U2 Conference 2018. Listed below are the panel titles and individual presentation titles, with brief summaries of the presentations supplied by each speaker. The full program is posted on our program page. All sessions are open to all conference registrants.

14 JUNE 2018, THURSDAY
8:45 – 10:00 am: Panel Sessions 1A & 1B
Queen’s University

Panel Session 1A: “Don’t You Wonder Sometimes?” Sound and PopVision
Session Chair: Angela Pancella

Pop’s Music Videos
Dr. Jonathan Hodgers
Popular Music Lecturer
Trinity College
Dublin, Ireland

This presentation explores how Pop’s music videos reflect the album’s themes. These promotional vidoes provide an outlet for the songs’ paradoxes and contradictions. They enhance tracks such as “Discotheque” and offer intriguing meditations on tracks such as “Please,” but also settle for comparatively straightforward interpretations such as for “Staring at the Sun.” The discussion also compares Pop’s videos with their antecedents. On occasion, Pop’s promotionals revisit styles found in earlier U2 videos and update them to reflect the band’s aesthetic circa 1997.  The Pop video series showcases a curious mix of conservative and progressive modes, and as such provides an apt reflection of the album.

“And What You Leave Behind You Don’t Miss Anyway”: U2’s Pop and the Pop Art Aesthetic
Dr. Kimberly Mack
Assistant Professor of African American Literature
Department of English Language and Literature, The University of Toledo
Toledo, Ohio, USA

Repetition and revision is a notable feature of Pop Art, with Andy Warhol’s repeated Campbell’s Soup cans and images of Marilyn Monroe serving as striking examples. In Pop Art, sometimes the recurring images are not identical, but instead reflect relatively minor differences in color or size. U2 revised and re-recorded “Last Night on Earth” three times: the original album version, the single, and the “First Night in Hell” mix, a dance remix that bears no resemblance to the other two versions. While the differences between the repetitive visual images in Pop Art are usually minor, the third iteration of “Last Night on Earth” reflects a major change in style and form. Using musical excerpts from all three of the band’s interpretations of “Last Night on Earth,” my presentation will argue that U2 takes an expansive approach to Pop Art repetition, connecting Pop to Pop Art through structure, form, and postmodern play.

“Lookin’ for a sound that’s gonna drown out the world”: Resolving Musical Emotional Ambiguity in U2’s POPVision
Dr. Diane M. Rasmussen Pennington
Lecturer in Information Science
Lead, Information Engagement Research Area, Strathclyde iSchool Research Group (SiSRG)
University of Strathclyde
Glasgow, Scotland

Semantic ambiguity complicates finding desired information. Additionally, the same music elicits different emotions in different people, which makes it difficult to find music online that meets our emotional desires. I operationalise this as “musical emotional ambiguity.” U2’s musical emotional ambiguity is especially complex, as any fan can attest. In this presentation, I will disambiguate the emotion of U2’s PopVision using multimodal analysis of music, lyrics, videos, and live concerts from Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop, 1990s world events, interviews, reviews, paraphernalia, and fandom discussions. Can we agree on how PopVision and its artefacts make us feel?

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Panel Session 1B: “Take This Tangle of a Conversation, Turn It into Your Own Prayer”
Session Chair: Helena Torres Montes García

A Table in the Presence of My Enemies: Pop as “Songs of Descent”
Dr. Richard S. Briggs
Lecturer in Old Testament and Director of Biblical Studies
Cranmer Hall, St. John’s College
Durham University, England

I explore Pop as a series of “poems” that consider the world “in the presence of (my) enemies,” as Psalm 23 puts it. But who are Pop’s enemies? I suggest the album lacks focus on this crucial question, and blurs the line between focusing on God’s enemies (classically: sin, death and the devil), and focusing on how evil is manifest in human life and relationships instead. The album ends up descending into darkness with no clear path available for a corresponding ascent. This sits uneasily with U2’s classic approach, hence the various ambiguities and awkwardness of the PopMart concerts.

The Urban Landscape of U2
Revd Mark Meynell
Independent writer and Cultural Critic
London, UK

Dublin, New York, Belfast, Berlin, London, Paris … and Miami. U2 invariably depicts gritty urban landscapes. If we escape city limits, it’s usually to a desert expanse. It’s hard to picture U2 anywhere other than bathed in neon on the mean streets or even urban warzones (like Dublin in the 70s or Sarajevo in 90s). In U2’s pleading for “God to send his angels,” while “hangin’ round this neighbourhood … THE HIGH STREET never looked so low.” When not actually “Staring at the Sun,” “intransigence is all around … military is still in town.” The surprise is not simply that U2 thrive here, but that they meet God here. These cities bring theophanies. Could this be one reason for U2’s extraordinary spiritual influence? They not only articulate many people’s urban experience, they introduce them to God in it.

U2’s Pop:  A Maturation and Crisis of Faith
Dr. Brian E. Porter
Professor of Management
Department of Economics and Business
Hope College
Holland, Michigan, USA

The songs on Pop address faith and its complications, expressing that neither faith nor God are simple, but instead highly nuanced ideas.  Doubt, questions, uncertainty, and struggles are consistent themes throughout Pop. A sophisticated awareness of God necessitates grappling.  Progression and growth of faith continue on future U2 releases up to their most recent Songs of Experience (influenced by Bono’s near-extinction event).  This presentation will focus on the songs of Pop demonstrating both the crisis and maturation of faith and discuss that the two are complementary. A context of where U2 (and Bono) were at previously and where they have progressed since, with faith, will be presented.

10:45 am – 12:00 pm: Panel Sessions 2A & 2B
Queen’s University

Panel Session 2A: “Got the Swing, Got the Sway, Got My Straw in Lemonade”
Session Chair: Chris Endrinal

Counterpoint and Expression in the Music of U2
Dr. Timothy Koozin
Professor and Division Chair of Music Theory
Moores School of Music, University of Houston
Houston, Texas, USA

This presentation examines counterpoint in the music of U2 from the perspective of embodied musical gesture, showing how vocal and instrumental gestures are combined freely – without strict contrapuntal alignment – to form a unique gestural approach that engages with lyrics to project U2’s distinctive sound. A focus on guitar and vocal gestures in U2’s music shows how material projecting different and even conflicting gestural implications provides a framework for creativity that the band has consistently leveraged through their various changes in style as a means to expressively mediate between the romantic inner world of the artist and an oppressive societal world.

“Already Gone”: How U2’s Use of the Harmonic Series in “Gone” Expresses in Musical Language the Searching, Restless Cross-Pressures of Postmodern Culture
Kevin Ott
Independent Scholar
Shafter, California, USA

Philosopher Charles Taylor describes the secular age as a middle space that produces tremendous cross-pressures between transcendence and immanence. On one side the longing for transcendence tugs at us while the day-to-day wants of immanence pull hard from the other side. U2’s “Gone” uses the colossal structure of the harmonic series to capture this experience. The massive physicality of the music, its rumbling lows and screaming whammy pedal highs, bears down on Bono’s restless melody with insupportable weight. He’s trying to find a way through the canyon of cross-pressures, and we’re following hard after him.

“Electric Blues Death Rattle”: Wisdom Literature and Ecclesiastical Visions in U2’s Pop
Dr. Dan Pinkston
Professor of Music Theory and Composition
Simpson University
Redding, California, USA

“All is Vanity.” So begins the book of Ecclesiastes.  This ancient wisdom echoes through the ages, influencing a myriad of philosophers and theologians … even the biggest rock’n’roll band in the world.  U2’s albums in the mid-1990s showed a departure from the optimism of their 80s output. Pop, the last of these albums, is examined in this paper as a form of wisdom literature, functioning in a manner that is analogous to the Biblical books of Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and many of the Psalms.  Songs from this album will be explored in the ways they express dissatisfaction, doubts, and anger.

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Panel Session 2B: “And You Know There’s Something More”: The Art and Soul of Pop
Session Chair:  David Whitt

A “Bogus Brand”: The Popular and UnPOPular Iconography of U2 Fan Tattoos
Beth Nabi
Associate Professor of Graphic Design and Digital Media
University of North Florida
Jacksonville, Florida, USA

Pop is one of U2’s most visually stunning endeavors, from album art and videos to tour stages and screen graphics, and hosts some of Bono’s most profound and spiritual songs. Yet the album is unpopular in the context of U2 fan tattoos. Fan tattoos merge counterculture and commercialization in the same Pop Art spirit invoked on Pop, as the band played in the tangles of art and commerce, artifice and sincerity, commercial brand and personal identity. Analyzing data from more than 500 fan tattoos, this presentation explores the allure of the most popular symbols and Pop’s noticeable absence from them.

Conversing with the Willfully Polarised: A Multimodal Analysis of “Please”
Dr. Christopher Wales
Associate Professor
Gimlekollen School of Journalism and Communication, NLA University College
Kristiansand, Norway

Pop’s penultimate song, “Please,” is bounded by the complexities of a fragile peace process, compounded by a broken ceasefire, heightened tension and increasingly sharpened rhetoric of polarisation. Willful polarisation. “Please” will be examined and explored through multimodal discourse analysis of various recorded and live versions of the track. Noting its direct and stinging focus, and “one-sided” conversational form, I will explore issues of identity and the temporal, while also focusing more closely on the frames of place and space (Marzierska, 2017). Consideration will also made of how the song once again resonates in the current climate of willful polarisation.

U2’s Concerts as Contemporary Spectacle: Hyper-reality vs. Authenticity
Dr. Michael Williams
Senior Lecturer and Course Leader
University of Brighton
Brighton, UK

U2 appear to intentionally exploit the spectacle to connect with and engage their global audiences. This suggests hyper-reality is an important part of the spectacle of U2’s shows, in terms of the band and their producer’s use of images to create an experience that escapes reality. Despite this, for some fans, the hyper-reality of U2’s shows detracts from the authenticity of the band’s performance and therefore their enjoyment of the shows. This paper examines the tension between the U2’s desire to create an authentic spectacle, ‘free of irony’, and the mediated ‘hyper-real’ experience that is necessitated by the scale of their shows (Jones, 2012).

15 JUNE 2018, FRIDAY

8:45 – 10:00 am: Panel Sessions 3A & 3B
Queen’s University

Panel 3A: “Wanting to Be the Song That You Hear in Your Head”
Session Chair: Jan Vierhout

Pop and the Prequels: A Case for the Necessity of These Pariahs
Dr. Christopher Endrinal
Assistant Professor of Music
Bower School of Music and the Arts, Florida Gulf Coast University
Fort Myers, Florida, USA

While superficially disparate, U2’s Pop album and the Star Wars “prequel” trilogy (Episode I: The Phantom Menace; Episode II: Attack of the Clones; Episode III: Revenge of the Sith) share a dubious distinction: Many critics and fans consider each the nadir of its respective franchise. This presentation explores these works and their reception, and argues that they were actually necessary for each franchise’s continued cultural relevance, critical acclaim, and financial success.

A Reinterpretation of U2’s Discography: Pop as a Transition Album
Dr. Helena Torres Montes García
Professor
Instituto Tecnológico de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey
Mexico City, Mexico

This presentation proposes the division of U2’s discography into eras. As such, Pop would be the pinnacle of an era, and the album that eased the transition into U2’s next incarnation. Pop, as an album, has been criticized, but this presentation aims to prove that this was the album that foreshadowed the U2 of the 2000s.

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Panel 3B: Pop and the Preachers: “Is There An Order In All Of This Disorder?”
Session Chair: Tim Neufeld

Psalms of Experience: Prayers and Protests From The Boot Of Your Car
Micheal Felker
Lead Pastor
Lakeside Church of Christ
Mansfield, Texas, USA

In the Hebrew Bible there is a collection of promptings, poems, and prayers known as the Psalms of Lament that are designated by their focus on helping bring hope in the life of an individual, of a nation, or a particular group caught in the midst of trials and tribulations. U2 has always used their music to both speak truth to the powers of injustice and sing grace to pain. Pop is their master opus in this endeavor. On this album, U2 appropriates the words and images of Lament to give voice to grief and bring life to despair. Join us for a discussion of Lament, U2’s use of lament in the era of Pop, and where lament can lead us once we get up off our knees.

The Endings of Pop: Benediction, Lullaby or Lament?
Rev. Dr. Steve Taylor
Principal
Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Knox College
Dunedin, New Zealand

U2 are performance artists. They shuffle songs, insert visuals and craft snippets in the name of peace. This helps us understand “Wake Up Dead Man,” the song ending Pop. The album begins with “Discoteque” – everybody having a good time – yet ends with a song in which a profane lyric speaks of divine absence. Live, during the PopMart tour, “Wake Up Dead Man,” is performed as an ending. Is this a benediction, an invoking of divine sending? Yet midway through the later Elevation tour, “Wake Up Dead Man” is played mid-show, between “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “One.” Is this a lament? How might such performances contrast with the lullaby-like “MLK,” another album-ending song for a dead man? This talk includes #U2lyricbingo

Escape from the “Playboy Mansion”: U2, Me Too, and Masculinity
Andrew William Smith
Instructor of English and Religious Studies
Tennessee Tech University
Cookeville, Tennessee, USA

Is there a masculinity after toxic masculinity? Borrowing perspectives from feminism, men’s studies, and theology, this paper will look primarily at lyrics and images of U2 in the Pop era to reclaim and recover a tentative gender theory for U2 fans and scholars in the wake of the #MeToo movement and moment. Come look, come learn, and come listen to what Bono’s eschatological coda to “Playboy Mansion” has to say about the divine promise of a time without shame and sorrow, through and beyond the shameful status of gender relations in 2018.

10:45 am – 12:00 pm: Panel Sessions 4A & 4B
Queen’s University

Panel 4A: “Returning the Call to Home”
Session Chair: Chris Wales

Mother and Muse: The Voice of Iris
Dr. Stephen Newman
Lecturer, Department of Irish
Mary Immaculate College
Limerick, Ireland

At the heart of U2’s foundation myth is the death of Iris: “This was where a certain life-force gathered pace in me, when a certain defiance began” (Bono, Songs of Experience). This paper will explore the expression of grief in U2’s music and to what extent it relates to traditional connections between music, death and the grieving process, especially in an Irish context. She is the absent mother of “I Will Follow” and “Tomorrow,” the muse-like figure of “Lemon.” In “MOFO,” the singer, astray in a crazy Popscape, calls for her guidance. In “Iris,” memory recaptures her, a reunion of sorts, her voice emerges, still present in “Lights of Home,” Bono’s reflection on a near-death experience.

U2 and Nostalgia: Running to Stand Still or the Start of a Beautiful Day?
Madison Vardeman
Independent Scholar
Keller, Texas, USA

Within the realm of communication studies, the topic of nostalgia is often viewed in a negative light. This is due to its tendency to glorify a troubled past which allows for the potential to recreate similar issues in the future. In this presentation, I will analyze U2’s Joshua Tree Tour 2017 concert in Dallas, TX to prove that a nostalgic framework can be used in a way that does not solely glorify the past. I argue that this can be accomplished by applying the principles of Affect Theory and Aristotle’s emotional appeals to place focus on the emotional reactions that nostalgia elicits rather than focusing on the memories of the past events that are associated with the original Joshua Tree album and tour.

U2 in the Classroom: The Teacher Perspective
Dr. Dave Whitt
Professor of Communication Studies
Nebraska Wesleyan University.
Lincoln, Nebraska, USA

Since 2015, I have taught a course on U2 titled Songs of Ascent: The Music and Meaning of U2. I will discuss how the course has evolved over the past several years in terms of content, assignments and discussions, as well as the challenges and success stories teaching a class on U2.

U2 in the Classroom: The Student Perspective
Georgia Straka
Psychology Major and Communication Studies Minor
Nebraska Wesleyan University.
Lincoln, Nebraska, USA

As a former student in Songs of Ascent: The Music and Meaning of U2, I will share my thoughts about the course, what I learned, and how this experience will prepare me for being a teaching assistant in the class this fall.

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Panel 4B: “Listen As Hope and Peace Try to Rhyme”
Session Chair: Naomi Dinnen

Escape from the “Playboy Mansion”: U2, Me Too, and Masculinity
Andrew William Smith
Instructor of English and Religious Studies
Tennessee Tech University
Cookeville, Tennessee, USA

Is there a masculinity after toxic masculinity? Borrowing perspectives from feminism, men’s studies, and theology, this paper will look primarily at lyrics and images of U2 in the Pop era to reclaim and recover a tentative gender theory for U2 fans and scholars in the wake of the #MeToo movement and moment. Come look, come learn, and come listen to what Bono’s eschatological coda to “Playboy Mansion” has to say about the divine promise of a time without shame and sorrow, through and beyond the shameful status of gender relations in 2018.

“The Less You Know, The More You Believe”: The Dilemma of Pop Activism in the Case of Aung San Suu Kyi
Dr. Tim Neufeld
Professor, Biblical and Religious Studies
Fresno Pacific University
Fresno, California, USA

U2’s interest in social activism during the 1990s prepared them for an enthusiastic reception of the Suu Kyi story on a scale that was unique to rock ’n’ roll culture. The band became more than advocates; U2’s members passionately entered the narrative, moving beyond the one-off strategies of earlier decades, inspiring legions of fans to do the same. However, the experience has, of late, revealed blind spots in Western activism, celebrity advocacy, and fan-based social movements. Suu Kyi’s fall from celebrated humanitarian to international despot is sobering. The band’s failed relationship with her reminds us that philanthropists can miss important signals in their attempts to be benevolent.

1:30 – 2:30 pm: “Like Faith Needs a Doubt”: An Interactive Exploration of Theist/Non-Theist Dialogue, led by  Angela Pancella, Independent Scholar, Norwood, Ohio, USA
Fitzroy Presbyterian Church
Session Chair: Micheal Felker

An increasing number of people have a non-theistic worldview. As the culture becomes more diverse, there is a need for models of engagement where differing perspectives are treated with respect. U2 have demonstrated a talent for maintaining dialogue across a theist/non-theist divide. Participants in this gathering will respond to U2 songs that say “I don’t believe,” “I could never believe” and “Don’t believe what you hear.” We will explore how terms like “believe” can be used for vastly different experiences, and how this ambiguity keeps the possibilities of interpretation open for listeners with diverse worldviews.

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