"[T]he lyrics aren't literature; they are only part of the story."
Like A Video: One (Zoo TV Live from Sydney)
April 01, 2012
[Ed. note: This is the 8th in a series of essays by the @U2 staff about U2-related visuals and videos. Some essays may be informational and educational, while others may be more personal.]
As a music theorist, it is my job is to analyze music and find out how all the separate components come together to form a larger piece. Examining the relationships of different musical elements to each other -- like harmonies, texture and melodic contour -- can yield insights into a musician's compositional or performance practices, or reveal several layers of meaning and interpretation. When visual elements enter the picture (pun very much intended!), I'm presented with even more analytical possibilities. For this piece, I'll share some of my insights into U2's performance of "One" from their Zoo TV concert performance in Sydney, Australia. Some relate to the band's performance, others relate to the song's lyrics. They all, however, relate to the visceral experience of watching this video of my favorite band perform one of my favorite songs.
Less Is More
The first thing that strikes me about the footage of this song is how different the production and band's mood are from the U2 songs performed before and after "One," "Mysterious Ways" and "Until The End Of The World," respectively. For "One," the lighting is subdued -- purples and blues, with spotlights illuminating each band member -- while the video screens display the slow-motion footage of buffaloes and sunflowers from the Mark Pellington version of the "One" music video. The Edge, Adam and Bono all stay fairly static on stage, and Bono sings the entire song without sunglasses. Even the camerawork for the video is more understated than that of other songs from the concert: The transitions are smooth and there are many more long still shots. Of course, the simplified performance and cinematography were conscious choices by the band and the production team in an effort to shift the focus from the theatrics and aesthetic of the Zoo TV experience as a whole to the music and lyrics of the specific song.
Just like in Pellington's music video, the screens on stage flash various linguistic versions of the word "one," including ein (Icelandic, Norwegian), bir (Turkish), une (French), en (Danish, Swedish), ney (Xhosa), uno (Spanish, Italian), um (Hawaiian, Portugese), afu (Oromo), okan (Yoruba), and nji (Albanian). By including multiple languages, U2 is emphasizing the universality of one of the song's messages. It is a song about the difficulties of personal relationships, and how people all over the world experience these difficulties, regardless of the language they speak. With seven billion people now on Earth, there are hundreds of billions, if not trillions of interpersonal relationships, each with its own set of problems. The multilingual presentation of the word "one" highlights the fact that every human being shares this experience. We are one people, one species, but no two of us are the same person. Put another way, we are all individuals, but that also means we all have something in common. Essentially, our differences unite us.
(Being a Filipino-American, I have to admit that I am a bit disappointed that Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, is not included among the languages.)
Two Words, a Guitar and the Truth
One of Bono's trademarks as a frontman is his penchant for modifying song lyrics during a concert. This performance of "One" certainly is no exception. The lyrics through the first two verses and choruses stay faithful to the album version. At the end of the third verse, however (2:13 in the video), Bono changes the lyrics quite significantly. Instead of singing "Have you come here to play Jesus / To the lepers in your head," he sings, "Have you come here to play Jesus? / I did."
Accompanying this not-so-subtle change in lyrics is a smirk that comes across Bono's face, which reveals two things. First, it's a daring change, and he knows it. He looks like he is biting his upper lip like just before he sings the new lyrics, perhaps hesitating just a bit. The grin he flashes after "I did" expresses pride and maybe a bit of relief that he was able to pull the change successfully. Second, it is no secret Bono's dreams and ambitions are grandiose; he even admits to having megalomaniacal tendencies (The Fly, anyone?). But he's not saying he is Jesus, merely that his position as lead singer of the world's biggest band gives him the exposure and clout to play a Jesus-like role in bringing attention to the less fortunate.
It's an Angry Strum
For the first 2:50 of the song, Bono plays his guitar by picking the strings. At 2:51, however, he changes his playing style briefly after he sings the line "You ask me to enter." Here, he strums the next two chords as he sings the lyrics "Then you make me crawl." "One" is an angry song, and in this video, Bono reflects this sentiment with that brief, subtle change of playing style. He strums two chords -- the first one quite forcefully -- as the musical climax of the song approaches and as the lyrics portray a vivid image.
Despite the angry lyrics, however, the deeper message of "One" is positive, much like many of U2's other songs. The last chorus, beginning with the lyrics "One love, one blood," changes the song's tone from anger to optimism. Not only does Bono's strumming reflect the heaviness of the lyrics at that particular moment of the song, it also foreshadows the change in mood and character of the song as a whole, displaying his musical and lyrical sensitivities.
"One" is not only one of my favorite U2 songs, it is one of my favorite pieces of music of all time, regardless of artist, composer or genre. Musically, it is not very complicated; just five chords. But the true power of the song, at least for me, lies in the lyrics. Besides the title, the message of the song -- and the central message of U2's entire catalog, for that matter -- is of hope, faith and love … just like Jesus' messages in the Bible (see above). And this message is encapsulated in a single word: GET. Bono sings, "We GET to carry each other." He does not sing, "We have to carry each other." Nor does he sing, "We must carry each other." He has not written, "We've got to carry each other." No, he sings, "We GET to carry each other," which is a completely different sentiment from those other lines. By using the word "get," U2's message is that helping our fellow brothers and sisters is more than an obligation: It is a privilege. Helping our fellow humans, whether relatives, friends or people we don't even know, is the greatest thing each of us can do for the world.
New Coda, Same Sentiment
Starting at the 3:54 mark in the video, Bono starts singing a new coda, one that is not present in the album version of "One."
Do you hear me coming, love
An obvious reference to the "Love is a temple… You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl" lyrics sung earlier in the song, it is another angry set of lyrics. And just as he did earlier in the performance, Bono strums the chords in this section. His vocal technique changes here, too: He sings violently, almost shouting the lyrics, thereby physically reflecting the emotion of the words. The song is about a struggling relationship, and this coda cements the fact that any relationship, no matter how close or tight, can suffer from hardship.
I really like this addition. In other performances of "One," Bono changes some of the lyrics, sometimes singing "Lord" instead of "love" and substituting various pronouns for "me," depending on the person to whom he dedicates the song. This coda functions like a second climax, adding even more emotional weight to an already heavy song.
At the very end of the video, the following quote from artist/writer/photographer/activist David Wojnarowicz flashes across the screen: "smell the flowers while you can." Initially, I linked this saying to the sunflower visuals seen earlier in the video. Then, a scene from one of my favorite movies, Dead Poets Society, came to mind:
Here is the complete poem:
"To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" by Robert Herrick
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
That age is best which is the first,
Then be no coy, but use your time,
U2's "One" also espouses the carpe diem philosophy found in the Wojnarowicz quote, Dead Poets Society scene and Herrick poem. What they try to tell us is that we should not let personal differences get in the way of living life to the fullest. Life could be gone at a moment's notice, so we should enjoy it. Rather than drag each other down, we should help each other up.
One life, with each other: Sisters, brothers.
(c) @U2/Endrinal, 2012.