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"Quite hard to photograph because he has so many different faces, but therefore my favourite." -- Anton Corbijn, on Bono

Column: off the record..., vol. 12-507


off the record, from @U2

Last week was a vacation for me. Although it was spring break, a time when students abandon their books and follow their appetites to Panama City or Miami Beach for the sun, surf and certain other amenities, I stuffed midterm papers and portfolios into my suitcase and made my way to Sounds of the City: The 2012 EMP Pop Conference, held jointly with New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music and the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM-US).

On Thursday evening, after grading most of the day and strolling through Union Square Park, I met up with fellow @U2 staffer Scott Calhoun and found myself sitting in NYU's Kimmel Center listening to NPR music critic/correspondent Ann Powers interview Grammy-winning Beninoise singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo, Esperanza Spalding (also a Grammy winner), Philadelphia-bred, Brooklyn-based, bohemian underground indie rocker Santigold and MC Heems of Das Racist about how their work reflects a broader world view despite each artist being firmly rooted in his or her unique urban setting.

Powers began with Duke Ellington's striking description of his swing symphony "Harlem Air Shaft": "So much goes on in a Harlem air shaft …You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love. You hear gossip floating down. You hear the radio. An air shaft is one great big loudspeaker." However, the conversation soon turned to a debate about the role of radio in popular music. How do today's audiences shop for and share music? How are cities both real and imagined places? How does the music of our hometowns characterize the people who live there? Much of the conversation centered on the artists' early musical influences. Whether it was traffic sounds Kidjo heard on the way to school or songs Spalding's mother sang to her when she scraped her knee, the panelists engaged in a dialogue with music at an early age, only finding out later that what they pushed away eventually came back to define their relationships with music and themselves.

Indeed, so much of my understanding of the world comes from 30 years of listening to U2 that, despite the disparity in genres among the keynote speakers and a small punk band from Dublin, for the first time I clearly understood the extent to which the seminal influences between music and musicians, and musicians and audiences, shape communities locally, globally and online. My early exposure to U2 led me to Ireland while I was still in college. My love of Ireland directed me to Irish literature. When I began to apply my analysis of literature to U2, I embarked on a path that eventually led me to @U2 and to Achtung! The U2 Studies Journal. In turn, those experiences led me to New York for the IASPM conference. Like Kidjo said last week, "Before speech comes song."

While I am on the subject of community and the cross-pollination of artists and genres, I received a text message from a former student last Sunday saying that he had come across a few references to Bono that made him want to "give his music a shot." At first incredulous that he had never listened to U2 before, I cut the poor kid some slack. Derek explained that Sunday is the day he watches documentaries and biopics about the subjects and people who interest him and have influenced his fiction writing.

On March 18, he watched three films, all of which featured Bono as an interviewee: Bukowski: Born Into This (2003) by John Dullaghan; Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man (2005) by Lian Lunson; You're Gonna Miss Me (2005), about psychedelic rock pioneer Roky Erikson, by Keven McAlester. Coincidence? Maybe. Or maybe it was just Derek's time to be welcomed into the fold. I suggested he begin with Achtung Baby, but am still waiting on a follow-up review.

Finally, as I head back to class this week, I am putting the finishing touches on a course proposal for a U2-based First Year Seminar class titled "How Long Must We Sing This Song?": Rock 'n' Roll, Culture and U2. A semester meant to introduce freshman to the liberal arts, the purpose of the course is to examine one subject from a variety of angles to exemplify the need for broad-based study across disciplines.

With the advice of @U2 staffer Tim Neufeld, who teaches a course called "Theology, Culture and U2" at Fresno State University in California, my plan is to focus on the band's exploration of gender, politics and religion in their songs since the release of Boy and the band's subsequent political activism addressing issues of education, poverty, inequity, fair trade, AIDS and debt relief on both local and global levels. Together, we will investigate the significance of rock 'n' roll's effect on apartheid, famine and public policy, as well as U2's ongoing relevance, from cultural, historical and intellectual perspectives. Ideally, we will cover such topics as gender ambiguity and self-knowledge, the Americas as forsaken and promised lands, and philanthropy and greed as tools of freedom and slavery.

See ya next time!

(c) @U2, 2012.