"[T]he lyrics aren't literature; they are only part of the story."
Column: off the record..., vol. 12-538
October 28, 2012
Am I the only one enjoying the quadrennial pestilence known as presidential politics? Unlike past election cycles during which I have immersed myself in the primary season as early as Jan. 4, this year I thankfully warded off my usual obsessive behavior until the middle of August. Now U.S. the presidential election is little over a week away. It frustrates me that I can't figure out who is going to win; I like to know those kinds of things. I loathe uncertainty.
Last week, when I was driving home from work, I listened to a live broadcast of the President Barack Obama speaking at a political rally. As he took the stage, strains of "City Of Blinding Lights" surged in the background. The crowd went wild. I was comforted by the sudden intimacy with strangers in the crowd several states away. I wondered if they were cheering for the song, the president, or both.
When I hear political audiences cheer with one voice, I am reminded of Beth Maynard’s essay "Where Leitourgia Has No Name," in which she argues that U2 concerts are more than "church." Instead, she says, they are public, structured gatherings in the ancient tradition aimed at responding to and affecting both political and spiritual realities. Having been to U2 concerts and political rallies, I find the comparison frighteningly accurate.
In my last OTR, I suggested the new Twitter hashtag #RemoveOneLetterU2 that created new songs based on removing one letter from existing songs. A few readers passed along ideas for and explanations of future U2 releases, including @kjvertigo's "The Unforgettable Fir: When a vandal poisons an iconic tree, a town rushes to the fir's aid" and @pashakubov’s "Miracle Rug--You never have to wash it again." My intellectual side loves the irreverence of the game.
Keep sending ideas to @arlan001 with the hashtag #RemoveOneLetterU2 and I will retweet them to my followers. Here are a few titles that I have come up with to get you started:
The Joshua Tee
No Lie On The Horizon
All That You Can Leave Behind
"Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Hoses"
"New Ear's Day"
As I put the finishing touches on my article this afternoon, I am feeling particularly introspective. I am in the passenger seat of my Honda Civic as my boyfriend Patrick and I drive across Pennsylvania. We are on our way to New Jersey to deal with a family emergency, unsure of exactly what we will face when we arrive. The autumn leaves are slightly past the height of their vibrant reds and yellows and seem to have shrugged themselves into a rich brown that suggests winter is closer than we thought. I feel trapped in an early Anton Corbijn photograph. We are listening to Philip Glass. I have made this journey countless times in my life, but I saw Belted Galloways (Oreo cows) for the first time along the highway a few miles back. Sometimes, life baffles me.
Although I share parts of myself on social media, I suddenly don't want to write about my relationship to U2, not because I don't have anything to say, but because I'm not sure anyone is interested. Why does my voice in that conversation matter? My father is gravely ill; I could write about "Kite" or "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own." I could say that I am preoccupied with U2's parental themes. I'm not. I'm thinking about everything else other than those kinds of songs right now: holding dad's hand walking through haunted houses when I was a little girl, fishing trips with him when I was a teenager, driving through Germany together searching for family records in July 2001.
We've only been on the road for a few hours, but I desperately miss our dogs. I miss their urgent wet noses, their sympathetic brown eyes, their insistent hunger. Why hasn't U2 ever written a song about a dog? They seem to have written a song about everything else in my life. I often boast that I can quote a U2 song for every occasion. Why not this one?
Note to self: Re-comb lyrics for veiled references to dogs.
I left my students with an assignment to select a few lines from a song, any song, that has inspired them to belief, empathy or positive social action and to write a brief "sermon" as they define the term in the context of their own religious/spiritual practice -- or lack thereof. My hope is that this paper will guide them to a more robust understanding of how character is developed over time by a variety of social and cultural influences. A couple have emailed me to ask what I mean by "sermon" and "spiritual practice." Their innocence concerns me. I am an atheist, but even I have a spiritual practice. I would even say that I have more of one now than I did when I was still a believer. Perhaps that is a conversation I need to have with my undergrads.
Without hesitation, I can identify one song, the first and perhaps only song, that moved me to action. During December 1984, the winter of my senior year in high school, I donated every penny I had saved to Ethiopian famine relief after the release of Band-Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" I doubt that my $84 made much of a difference to Bob Geldof, but it was the first time I'd ever spent money on someone other than myself -- what an adult concept! -- and the first time I realized that, indeed, I could affect the world. That winter was a life-changer, as was the summer of Live Aid. For me, "Do They Know It's Christmas?" will always be the best Christmas song ever. I am looking forward to hearing it this winter, just not too early.
I'd love to learn how other fans answer the "inspirational song" question, whether those inspirational songs are U2 songs or not. In some way, all experience still loops back to them anyway, doesn't it? Forward your comments to me through the contact page and I'll discuss them in a future OTR.
© @U2/Hess, 2012.