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To see like a songwriter is the easiest. . . . Hearing like a writer is a lot harder; you've got to really listen. -- Bono

Like A Video: Lemon


Like a Video[Ed. note: This is the 16th 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.]

"Lemon" is my favorite U2 song. Ever.

It's not because the story behind the song is heartbreaking. Beneath the veneer of a bouncy pop song lies a powerhouse of emotion that manages to tear me in half no matter how many times I hear it. Bono sings almost the entire song in falsetto, giving it an ethereal quality that lifts my spirit to the clouds, while the piano anchors my feet firmly to this earth. Bono is keening for the one person who could serve as the buffer in his tumultuous relationship with his father, but rather than getting bogged down in the sorrow, the song soars up and away from bodily grief and exults in the joy of living.

Because the song is so emotionally charged, I've always been bemused by U2's treatment of the song in the live setting and on video. In both cases, Bono assumes his Mr. Macphisto character (modified for the video, sans horns), a tragicomic character who, with his greasepaint and dramatic flailing of the arms, affects the air of an aging opera star. The metaphor is apt -- the man behind the mask putting on a brave face for the masses, but deep down, there's an unmistakable pain that shows in his eyes.

The video is homage to photographer Eadweard Muybridge, widely regarded as a pioneer in motion sequence photography, the precursor to cinema as we know it today. It is shot in black and white, except for a few flashes of color in the images superimposed on the background, reminiscent of the video wall backdrop of the Zoo TV tour. The images are fleeting: flames, fireworks, clocks, pendulums, doves. The industrial setting gives the video a cold feel -- the hard surfaces don't offer any sense of softness or warmth. The band is filmed mostly in slow-motion, performing mundane acts that are captioned (as if they were the subjects of a Muybridge study) and repeated throughout. The song has hips, but the video does not, save for a brief interlude of a dancing Edge and the appearance of Bono's other alter ego, The Fly.

The monochromatic color scheme, sparse set and military clothing visually dull the emotions expressed in the song, but was it deliberately intended to draw your attention away from those feelings, or was it meant to make you more aware of the music playing over the images?

In a hint to the song's origins, one of the images in the background is of a woman spinning in a yellow dress. She's imagination. How long Bono must have wondered about his mother and his memories of her. Were they real? Was she real? He uses the word "lemon" rather than "yellow," which underscores his relationship with his memories. He wants to think of her in a way that is bright and soft, like the scent of a lemon, but when he digs deeper, there's a stinging like citrus in a cut, the sour feeling of never knowing someone the way you wanted to.

At 2:24 in the video (and again at 3:50), The Fly stretches his hand out to an unidentified yellow object that is just out of reach. I feel like I'm slowly, slowly, slowly slipping under … I feel like I'm drifting, drifting, drifting from the shore. These are frightening images of a person alone in the water with his hands up; the last thing you see are the hands, grasping for another hand, a helping hand, a saving hand, in this case a mother's hand or God's hand. The idea of God pervades because it's what we all want, a hand to help us, to hold us up, to pull us back to solid ground when we're drifting. No one wants to feel so alone that their only choice is to give way and surrender to the inevitable.

Around the 4:00 mark, images that were previously shown in bits come together in sequence. Macphisto is in a cloud of smoke, shielding his eyes from a bright light, the band members in a circle with their backs to him. Midnight is where the day begins. This song articulates that single moment, the moment when the good and the bad, the darkness and the light, the yin and the yang in all of us converge side by side. It's a variation of the adage that it's always darkest before the dawn, but at midnight, the dawn is still a long way off. For Bono, the loss of his mother might have meant the end, but truly, it was just the beginning.

(c) @U2/Maione, 2013.