Book Review: The World And U2

Reviewed by William R. Upchurch, University of Pittsburgh 

The World And U2, by Alan McPherson, a professor of international and area studies at the University of Oklahoma, and a longtime U2 fan, is subtitled “One Band’s Remaking of Global Activism,” but it might be more accurate to think of this story as one about how global activism remade a band. Despite the band being mentioned twice on the cover, McPherson’s narrative primarily follows Bono’s personal transformation from “Mount Temple kid” to “superstar lobbyist,” and is written with a Shakespearean eye for tragedy and a historian’s eye for the details needed to bring the drama to life. Bono emerges as a Joseph Campbell-esque hero who finds himself in the dragon’s lair after a journey through the many layers of global poverty, sickness, and war. The supporting players are all accounted for, but as Larry Mullen, Jr. said, “Nobody could argue with what he was doing, it was clearly too important.” Bono’s activism was important for whom, though?

The World And U2 is a short book, at 104 pages plus notes, which works both for and against it. The brevity makes it a breezy read, particularly for U2 aficionados who are well-acquainted with the different periods of the band’s history. After losing touch with his youthful passion for the band and writing six books on what he calls “serious” issues, McPherson decided to “reconnect with Bono and the band by writing about something we should all take seriously — their activism.” The book’s meticulous notes and bibliography are an obsessive U2 fan’s dream. (U2 fans tend to share their idol’s love affair with data.)

The book’s chapters are arranged in chronological order, following the band members’ adolescence through Songs of Innocence and what McPherson judges to be “the final stage of their career.” Community, faith, and action are presented as both the “pillars of U2’s activism” and as “lessons … that all activists or would-be activists should carry with them as they fight injustice.” As with many books about U2, each era is brought to life through a combination of cultural and historical context and the band’s own words, of which there never seems to be a shortage. McPherson does a better job than most at connecting the two, though, and he is able to draw out some nuances in the band members’ thinking that other books gloss over. For example, he links the rant against televangelists in “Bullet the Blue Sky” to the band’s eye-opening first encounters with American televangelists in the early 1980s. These details blending historical context with the band’s broadening global awareness are worthy additions to U2 lore.

Whether intentional or not, U2 has always tried to be relevant by pitting its musical identities against the tides of both dominant and counter-cultures: Bono’s rejection of punk’s disdain for its audience; earnestness in the face of the “false optimism of Ronald Reagan”; self-aware irony in the face of the band’s earnestness; and most recently a celebration of nostalgia in the face of a fetishization of the future. U2’s activism demonstrates its identities have been a part of its collective personality from the very beginning and has, perhaps, functioned as an outlet for the complexity that’s actually in the band, which can get obscured by the process of making and selling records.

Examining U2’s global claims and consciousness apart from its songs – even while telling those stories in parallel – is one of McPherson’s outstanding contributions to U2 scholarship. So much of what is written seeks to imbue the songs with personal meaning drawn from the band member’s lives, but The World and U2 clarifies the distinction Bono has attempted to articulate for years: Regardless of how they spend their free time, they’re still in a rock band. McPherson’s inductive approach more closely mirrors U2’s creative process than does the usual approach of textual analyses of lyrics, and is wholly appropriate for the book’s subject. It illustrates the recalcitrance of injustice and inequality, in whatever form they take at a given time, which is an underlying theme of both Bono’s and the reader’s journeys. It is a startling and universal realization for activists of all stripes, and since informing activism is one of McPherson’s goals, it helps put the book into a clear focus. Community, faith, and action are not presented as a template for successful global activism, they are merely what keep the members of U2 grounded and fighting. Readers are challenged to find their own pillars, and perhaps to reflect on the story of how one group negotiated the complexities of living in a world it desperately wished to change.

At the beginning of this review I asked, “For whom was Bono’s activism important?” During a 2000 interview, Bono defined rock and roll as “that thing of wanting to change the world, or take on the world, at least the world inside your head.” The World and U2 articulates the band as an expression of this ethos, and presents Bono, in particular, as an archetype for whom injustice becomes a metonym for the turmoil inside his heart. The frustration felt by young Bono manifested itself in his early insistence on small-scale action as a catalyst for change. It came out stronger and clearer when at the height of the band’s success/excess, Bono turned to advocating larger structural solutions for redirecting the world’s wealth and power to bring about justice. The farther removed he became from his mother’s death, his father’s stoicism, economic uncertainty, and the street violence of 1970’s Dublin, the more cerebral his activism became. McPherson’s writing conveys a real sense of loss as the deeply personal spirituality of U2’s early activism gave way to the detachment and cynicism, however necessary, of managing a series of global activist brands, such as ONE, DATA, (RED), and even the brand of Bono himself.

It is a social justice hero’s journey, but McPherson does an outstanding job of weaving commentary on the changing contexts of activism over the period into the book. In a clever turn, he uses U2’s celebrity to call attention to a serious issue, just as Bono trades on his own fame. And here is where I think the book’s length works against it, especially in the final chapter: McPherson hints at a critique of contemporary celebrity activism that I would have liked to see developed more fully. The end of the book floats away amid a relentless stream of facts and statistics, yet the underlying narrative about the changing face of global activism is what makes this not just another book collecting quotes and anecdotes to tell the well-worn story of U2. McPherson drops bits of commentary here and there, but I would have welcomed more of the author’s voice in expressing the significance of the story just told, and I think it would increase the book’s appeal for a broader audience.

Still, I recommend The World and U2 to both activists and fans alike. For fans, it evokes the “feeling” of the band better than any book except U2 By U2. For activists, it transfers those feelings to a particular history, helping make sense of the very public twists and turns of U2’s activist career. At one point, McPherson reports Bono’s claim that The Clash “gave U2 the idea that social activism could make for a very musical riot.” As it turns out, the combination of activism and U2 also makes for a very readable and interesting book.

William R. Upchurch is a doctoral candidate in Communication at the University of Pittsburgh, where he is also an instructional designer and teaches Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. His work focuses on the intersection of rhetoric, social media, and game studies, with an emphasis on the development of online culture and identities. You can reach him at wru3@pitt.edu or his blog www.wrutheday.com.

Contributor:
William R. Upchurch
Contact:
wru3@pitt.edu

U2 College Course at Nebraska Wesleyan University

Nebraska Wesleyan UniversityThis semester at Nebraska Wesleyan University, where I am a Professor of Communication Studies, I am teaching a class titled Songs of Ascent: The Music and Meaning of U2. The course is part of a larger offering of classes known as the Archway Seminar (AWS). Basically, an AWS is an introduction to the first-year experience, but with topics that are not part of the traditional curriculum. For example, this semester there are AWS courses on jazz, Bob Dylan, James Bond, Hamlet, the Necessity of Wilderness, and the seriousness of humor.

After almost five weeks, I’m happy to report the class is going exceptionally well (at least I hope it is). We’ve been moving chronologically through each U2 album and reading U2 by U2 as well as chapters from Exploring U2: Is This Rock ‘N’ Roll?  Students receive discussion questions based on readings, write about their personal music history and knowledge of U2, and will analyze a concert (ZooTV, I+E, etc.) and give presentations later in the semester about an organization U2 supports (RED, Amnesty, International, etc.). Their major research paper is “U2 in 10,” arguing for which 10 songs, albums, and/or events best represent the music and meaning of U2.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to report from the class is how little students know about U2. Some had never even heard of U2, that is until I played brief snippets of a few songs the first day of class. Some recognized the song “Beautiful Day” but didn’t know it was by U2.  I guess this shouldn’t be surprising considering U2 isn’t really on Top 40 radio anymore. While reading their first papers many students commented that the only way they know about U2 is because of their parents. In fact, I get the feeling some parents are more excited about this course than their kids are.

Although most students are not familiar with U2’s history, they have been interested in their stories of growing up in Dublin, becoming a band, and their creative struggles and breakthroughs along the way.

I don’t know if I have any U2 converts yet this early into the semester, but at the very least they’re beginning to understand not only why I enjoy U2, but more importantly, why U2 is a relevant subject of study.

Contributor:
David Whitt
Contact:
dfw@NebrWesleyan.edu

Mapping Popular Music in Dublin Survey Of Interest to U2 Fans

St Pats LogoI took a short online survey for this interesting research project called “Mapping Popular Music in Dublin” and I wanted to make other U2 fans aware of it and encourage them to take the survey too. I think the survey closes on September 30, 2015.

The project “aims to map popular music experience in Dublin by looking at popular music from the viewpoint of fans (citizens and tourists), musicians, and music industry personnel. The purpose is to inform tourism, culture and music industry organisations by providing the first comprehensive overview of popular music experience in Dublin to date.” The project is led by Dr. John O’Flynn (Principal Investigator) and Dr. Áine Mangaoang, and coordinated by St. Patrick’s College, Dublin City University, and funded by Fáilte Ireland.

Learn more about the project and take the survey here.

MPMiD Image

If you live in Dublin or have been in Dublin as a popular music tourist, or if you have some distinct impressions about the Dublin popular music scene you’d like to share, the project would benefit from hearing from you.

You can follow the project and the results, and get updates about related events, at its  Facebook page.

Contributor:
Scott Calhoun
Contact:
calhouns@cedarville.edu

Danish book on U2 published: When the Sky meets the Sea – U2´s songs as hymns

In June 2015, a new book was published in Denmark. The Danish title is “Himmel og hav i ét – U2´s sange som salmer”.  Translated directly it is: “Sky and Sea in one – U2´s songs as hymns”. The book focus on the theme of U2´s No Line On The Horizon (2009), exposing the contrasts and ambiguity of life, the longing for contact, understanding, unity and love and the harsh reality of alienation, division, disintegration and hatred in our personal life and in the world we live in. The wonderful moments where the sky meets the sea, and there is no line on the horizon, end the times where the line between the sky and the sea is all too clear.

The book is an in-depth analysis of No Line On The Horizon, and there is a wide range of references to other U2 songs, music, literature, the bible, hymns, our personal experiences among other things. It is available here.

The book consists of 15 chapters, with an introduction, a presentation of the four trilogies of U2 (1980-2009), a chapter for each of the 11 songs on NLOTH plus “Winter”. The last chapter focuses on the 360 tour and the new songs presented there. As an appendix there are two articles on our experiences with U2 church services.

The authors of the book are Joergen Lasgaard, Aarhus and Jens Moesgaard Nielsen, Herning – two pastors in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark, who have been inspired by U2 in decades. They have been arranging U2 services since 1993. Joergen is a vicar amongst homeless people, drug addicts and people who are fighting to keep up every day. His experience is that the music and songs of U2 can be a part of both reflection and reconciliation. Jens is a vicar in a church, and he can say the same thing, even though his church is situated in an “upper class area”. The Church is the home of the well renowned Herning Boys Choir, and they have transformed two U2 songs into sacred music, both “Magnificent” and “Gloria.”

Both authors participated in the U2 Conference 2009, giving a presentation on our work with U2 services: U2 in the church – How it is done in Denmark.

 

Contributor:
Jens Moesgaard Nielsen and Joergen Lasgaard
Contact:
jcmn@km.dk

Engaging with Bono’s “Little book” at Fandom and Religion Conference, Leicester, UK, July 28-30, 2015

Bono described what he was thinking when he pressed “go” to publish his Little book of a big year, but what was he actually doing? More extensively and intimately engaging with fans than he had done for a long time, the little book makes interesting reading across many issues. I will be exploring issues of meaning making in a paper presentation at the Fandom and Religion Conference, University of Leicester, UK. In particular, I will briefly approach Bono’s presentation of himself, his beliefs and understanding of fandom, whilst linking his Little book to other discourses. In my analysis, I will apply the concepts of Sensemaking and Sensegiving. For those interested, I have included the longer abstract below.

I’m delighted to be presenting in the same session as Dr. Scott Calhoun, whose presentation is titled “Ecce Bono: Celebrity Status After 33.” – really looking forward to hearing that!

Abstract

“F is for Fans… J is for Jesus: Making sense of Bono’s big year”

Dr. Chris Wales

“It’s January 1, 8 p.m. I nearly didn’t press go on this, and I am clearly delirious in places. It’s very personal, but I feel in not a corny way that U2 has a very intimate relationship with our audience … so I’m going for it.”

“Little book of a big year: Bono’s A to Z of 2014”, U2.com, 2015

No strangers to fandom and anti-fandom, in 2014 Bono placed U2 once again in what he likes to describe as “right in the centre of a contradiction” with the “controversial” U2/Apple album release that intended to reach instantly a wider audience. A few months later, as 2015 began, he published a “little book” on U2´s official website, seemingly one of his most intimately direct, although asymmetric, communications with fans. I will review and analyse this personal ‘treatise’ and the events leading up to and around it, showing the way it directly and indirectly addresses issues relating to unity, fandom, activism and religious tolerance, whilst explaining the relevance of music and message, aimed at deepening understanding of the U2 mind-set. Bono’s communication is analysed as an act of sensemaking (Weick, 1995) and sensegiving (Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991), theoretical constructs thought pertinent to understanding the band´s internal and external meaning making. The paper explores how alongside the increasing growth and diversity of their fan-base, U2 has engaged with the varying interpretations and expectations placed upon them, especially concerning issues of belief. The search for ultimate validation is linked to musical authenticity (Pattie, 1999), rather than promotion of celebrity, aligned to the band’s self-claimed constant and driving desire to produce authentic and relevant music, built on deep, intimate audience engagement, while embracing controversial issues such as faith and conviction. Further analysis considers how this ‘intimate’ form of communication might be understood as “authentic” or “performed” (Marwick and Boyd 2011; Bennett 2012).

Contributor:
Chris Wales
Contact:
chris.wales@nla.no

The U2 Tattoo Project

The U2 Tattoo Project is documenting and curating U2 tattoos and the stories behind them.

When you think of bands like The Beatles, The Who or The Rolling Stones, a dominant icon emerges in your mind: the elongated type and fretboard-like “T” of the Beatles, the arrow-protruding “o” of The Who, the lips and tongue of the Stones. But what comes to mind when you think of U2? The hand-brushed grunge script from Achtung? The bold, red Block Gothic face of War? The Joshua Tree silhouette? U2 has become an iconic band with no consistent icon, but rather a history of transient visual identities that embody their eras and represent different emotional experiences for fans.

In the absence of an official logo or singular, long-running, uniform mark, how do U2 fans brand their love for the band? The U2 Tattoo Project aims to study U2 fan tattoos in terms of popular U2 iconography and lyrics, examine the connections between favorite albums and tattoos, and explore what happens to U2’s visual identity as it passes into the hands and onto the bodies of fans.

Have a tattoo? Submit via our survey. Follow the project on social media: “U2 Tattoo Project” on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram. 

 

Contributor:
Beth Nabi
Contact:
U2tattooproject@gmail.com

“Ecce Bono: Celebrity Status After 33” Presentation at Fandom and Religion Conference, July 28-30, 2015

I’ve been looking forward to attending the Fandom and Religion Conference at the University of Leicester for months, and in a few more weeks I’ll be finally be there from July 28-30, taking in a great program of speakers and seminars, all organized by Dr. Clive Marsh as a part of the Theology, Religion, and Popular Culture Network at U of Leicester. I’ll be learning from everyone on the program and surely I’ll strike up some new friendships; I’ll even be presenting a paper and chairing a session too.

As a major gathering of leading theorists, scholars, practitioners, and students, the conference will explore interactions between religion and popular culture. How does fandom work? What is happening to fans as they express their enthusiasms and allegiances? Has fandom replaced or become a form of religion? What can the study of religion learn from explorations of fandom?

I’ll be presenting Wednesday, July 29, in a session with two papers on U2. One will be from my colleague Dr. Chris Wales, of NLA Høgskolen, who presented at the 2013 U2 Conference and published “Collaborative Transactions: Making Sense (Again) for U2’s Achtung Baby” in U2 Above, Across, and Beyond (Lexington, 2014). Dr. Wales’ presentation is “F is for Fans … J is for Jesus: Making Sense of Bono’s Big Year.”

My presentation is titled “Ecce Bono: Celebrity Status After 33.”  Here’s the abstract for my presentation:

“Dressing like your sister / Living like a tart /
They don’t know what you’re doing / Babe it must be art / ….
They want you to play Jesus / They’ll go down on one knee /
But they’ll want their money back if you’re alive at 33 /
And you’re turning tricks / With your crucifix / You’re a star”

“Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me,” U2 (1993/95)

When Bono was 33 in 1993, he had already disappointed many of the devout U2 fans the band had acquired in the 1980s. Having taken to heart the Irish poet Brendan Kennelly’s Judas-haunted aphorism, “If you want to serve the age, betray it,” Bono had “tarted up” the persona he had developed in the previous decade for U2’s revolutionary Zoo TV tour, and he was well on his way to disappointing more fans in the future with a vigorous commitment to avoiding the trap of typecasting. Now at the un-messianic age of 55, Bono has become expert at attracting, exciting, and repelling the masses, forcing the fan-celebrity dynamic into an ever evolving process of redefinition as both he and U2’s fandom ages. Behold Bono! I will examine Bono’s public acts as a singer, performer, and advocate as they have become intertwined with his status as a rock star for what they reveal as running through the heart of U2 fandom when evaluated against some fans’ specific expectations of celebrity-leadership, particularly among those who identify as having strong religious commitments. Paradoxically, as Bono has successfully avoided typecasting, he has moved closer to archetypes, most obviously the rock star-humanitarian. But in light of Bono’s overarching role as an artist, and especially since he is self-identifying as an artist on U2’s current tour, I will argue for our attention to be focused on his arguably greater feat of successfully enacting a palate of multiple and contradictory types to become, himself, a work of art that resists easy, monological interpretation, eschewing fans’ singular devotion to himself. In doing so, he is not only closer to the archetypal artist fulfilling the archetypal function of art, but is, ironically, performing a primary role of the archetypal savior by reorienting the adoration of fans who would follow him and frustrating them into synthesizing an authentic, liberating fandom of their own, imbued with a more realized sense of self and a more realized sense of the other. Behold Bono indeed. He’s a star.

If you’re still awake and want a little more detail on my talk, as I conduct my examination and argument, I’ll cover these topics:

  • A brief survey of types Bono performed in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s
  • monologism vs. dialogism
  • Fandom formation and appropriation theories
  • Complicating factors in U2 fandom within the American Evangelical Christian community, starting with the 2003 critique called “Bono’s Thin Ecclesiology” up to U2’s recent support of civil marriage rights for same-sex couples in Ireland and the United States
  • The functions and conditions of art and archetypes

And finally, the session I’m chairing is music focused and looks great with these presentations:

  • Len Cazaly: “’You got a lotta nerve to say you are my friend’: Dylan v. The Fans”
  • Dr. Wendy Fonarow: “The Purists: How Indie Music Expresses Puritan Dogma”
  • Felix Papenhagen: “Jewish Religiosity in the Context of Popular Music in Israel”

I’d love to see you at the conference. You can register here.

Contributor:
Scott Calhoun
Contact:
calhouns@cedarville.edu

U2 Concerts and Community Publications by Michael Williams

My name is Michael Williams, and I am a long-time U2 fan (since 1982). Currently, I am also a doctoral candidate, researching rock music events, focusing on U2’s 360° tour. The aim of my research is to develop a better understanding of the concept of spectacle in the context of a rock music event. 

The following two publications relate to my research project and may be of interest to fellow researchers and fans:

Williams, M. (2015) ‘One but not the same: U2 Concerts, Community and Cultural Identity’ in Merkel, U. (ed.) Identity Discourses and Communities in International Events, Festivals and Celebrations. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 242-259.

Williams, M. (2014) ‘Politics as spectacle: U2’s 360° tour (2009-11)’, in Merkel, U. (ed.) Power, Politics and International Events: Socio-cultural Analyses of Festivals and Spectacles. London: Routledge, 174-190.

 You can find out more about my research project at www.U2360spectacle.net

Contributor:
Michael Williams
Contact:
mw146@brighton.ac.uk

Music Events as Spectacle: U2’s Union of Rock and Resistance

My name is Michael Williams, and I am a long-time U2 fan (since 1982). Currently, I am also a doctoral candidate. My research project focuses on the concept and phenomenon of spectacle and the process of spectacularization in the specific context of U2’s ‘360°’ tour (2009-2011). In particular, it concerns the contribution of spectators to the creation of the spectacle and the meaning they attach to this. Spectacle is a frequently used term but it is not yet fully understood in the event context. The project focuses on the relationship between rock music events, politics and audiences. The research uses a multi-method case study, which includes analysis of online content and semi-structured interviews with fans and attendees of U2’s ‘360°’ concerts and analysis of concert documentary material.

I am keen to interview people with varying experiences of U2’s 360° shows in Dublin, Istanbul, Moscow and Pittsburgh.

If you are interested in participating, please contact me by emailing me at mw146@brighton.ac.uk. You can find out more about my research project by visiting my website at www.u2360spectacle.net

 

Contributor:
Michael Williams
Contact:
mw146@brighton.ac.uk

Research query on U2 and Krautrock, and new MA dissertation on U2 and James Joyce

Hello. My name is Helena Torres and I wrote an MA dissertation in Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool on U2 and Joyce, titled “Nicely-polished looking glasses: A comparative study of U2 and Joyce’s Dublin in ‘Eveline’ and ‘Running to Stand Still.’” You can read my work here.

I would like to develop a new research project focused on Achtung Baby and the influence of krautrock for this album. However, I think sources regading U2 and krautrock are scarce. I have Rock and Popular Music in Ireland: Before and After U2 by Noel McLaughlin and Martin McLoone to provide me a starting point, but I’d like to know if there are more options. Thanks a lot.

 

 

 

Contributor:
Helena Torres Montes García
Contact:
ladystardust18@gmail.com

The U2 Conference logo and site design by Beth Nabi.