"It is my ambition to travel to America and give it what I consider it wants and needs."
-- Bono, 1981
Like A Video: The Fly
September 30, 2011
[Ed. note: This is the 2nd in a series of essays by the @U2 staff about the visuals and videos that U2 has employed over the years to complement its music. Some essays may be informational and educational, while others may be more personal.]
The importance of the song "The Fly" cannot be overstated. It was the first single from what is arguably U2's most important album, and it heralded a seismic shift in U2's sound, look and overall artistic aesthetic. If Achtung Baby as a whole was "the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree, then "The Fly" was the first swing of the ax.
Sonically, the song was a turning point for the band, but its video also announced U2's massive creative overhaul. Not only had the band members' looks changed, so too had the style of the band's music videos. In general, U2's videos are good productions that accurately reflect some of the meanings contained in the music. But for everything the song represents for the band, the video for "The Fly" is among those select few that I hold in the highest esteem.
Below I discuss three aspects of the video for "The Fly" -- its similarities (and differences) with the "With Or Without You" video, its superb coordination of the visuals to the music, and the text that appears throughout the video -- and how those elements lend an already significant song even more import.
The Same, Only Different
What first strikes me about the video for "The Fly" is how similar it is to the video for "With Or Without You" in some respects. This was a startling revelation to me because the songs sound radically different from each other. The same core elements are in both videos, much like the same core elements of the "U2 sound" -- Larry's propulsive drumming, Adam's rich bass lines and Edge's signature delay -- are in both songs. However, it is how these elements are used and combined that place the two songs on opposite ends of the U2 sonic spectrum. Both videos use the juxtaposition of light and dark but with very different results. The camera action in "With Or Without You" is much slower than in "The Fly," reflecting the song's slower tempo and gradual build toward its climax. "The Fly," on the other hand, uses a lot of rapid cuts and quick camera action to give a frenetic feeling. There's a more "in your face" style in "The Fly," which suits the song's lyrics and message.
Another similarity shared between the two videos reflects the cover of its respective album. The slow camera movement and grainy black-and-white footage of "With Or Without You" is the perfect video complement to the single black-and-white image of the band on the cover of The Joshua Tree. "The Fly," on the other hand, with its flashing lights and fast camera action, echoes the Achtung Baby cover. The sensory overload portrayed by the video is also reflected by the 16 multicolored, disparate images that adorn the album's cover.
Both songs explore heavy issues. "With Or Without You" sings of yearning and torment in the arenas of love and sex. "The Fly" is about the irony associated with the dark side of fame and fortune, no less weightier an issue than relationships. Yet, despite the similarities between the two videos, each has a completely different look and feel from the other. They both have the same degree of heaviness to them regarding their subject matter and visual portrayal of those topics, but each uses different avenues to achieve that gravitas.
Coordination Is Key
Another reason "The Fly" is one of my favorite music videos is that it coordinates the visuals and the music very well. There are three specific instances to which I refer. The first occurs at Adam's bass entrance (the 0:45 mark in the video). Because the first part of the introduction is just the drums and electric guitar, the entrance of the bass guitar is an important moment in the song. It represents the completion of the musical core around which Bono's lyrics and vocal track orbit. Directors Richie Smyth and Jon Klein do a fantastic job of inserting a close-up of Adam's face exactly when his bass guitar slide announces its presence. (I recommend using a good set of headphones or speakers when watching the video. The bass response of many computer speakers is not low enough to get the full effect.)
The second example of perfect visual and musical coordination is a brilliant piece of editing in the transition into Edge's solo (2:41 - 2:50). Musically, the song alternates between the guitar and the drums in a kind of rock 'n' roll call-and-response. The visual analog to this musical dialogue between The Edge and Larry occurs at the exact moments the music switches between the two musicians, with a few shots of Bono The Fly sprinkled in between (lest the viewer forget about The Fly!). On display here is a keen awareness of what is happening in the music on the part of both the directors and the band.
The third instance of impeccable audio/visual coordination accompanies a very subtle texture change, but one that, ultimately, is important not just within the context of the song, but also in the grand scheme of U2's career. Throughout the interlude (2:50 - 3:21), Adam plays his bass line with a staccato articulation (i.e., notes are played detached from each other). This detached texture helps put the focus on the lead guitar part. However, at the 3:21 mark, as Edge completes a scalar descent in his solo and begins another scalar climb, Adam changes to a more legato texture. This subtle texture change effectively signals the retransition section of Edge's solo, the part of the interlude that leads the song back to the final chorus sections that help bring the song to a close. The corresponding visual image that accompanies the musical change is a shot of The Fly lounging in a recliner and swiveling around to face the camera. It's a brief shot, but an important one because of its synchronization with the change in the bass line.
In an essay in the upcoming book Exploring U2: Is This Rock 'n' Roll?, edited by fellow @U2 staffer Scott Calhoun, I identify two types of vocal layering techniques and describe how they are an essential element of the band's sound during the 1990s. I also analyze how vocal layering throughout "The Fly" helped U2 transition from the The Joshua Tree era into the Achtung Baby era. Because "The Fly" was the lead single from Achtung Baby, and because that album is a watershed release for the band, the song and its accompanying music video are necessarily pivotal. From both visual and musical perspectives, the moment The Fly turns around in the recliner represents a major turning point for the band's career (pun most definitely intended!). Much like a magician's prestige, this swivel was the band's "ta da" moment: It was a visual representation of what the band had accomplished both musically and aesthetically. U2 had managed to use the core elements of its music to create a completely different sound from the one that propelled them into rock superstardom. A bold move, to be sure, and "The Fly" needed to be a bold video to announce this change to the world.
My essay also discusses the significance of the falsetto line in the song ("Love, we shine like burning star / We're falling from the sky tonight") and how it represents the older U2 sound from The Joshua Tree era. Not coincidentally, in the video, there are no shots of Bono singing the falsetto vocals, further reinforcing the notion that the band had completely transitioned to a new aesthetic. leaving behind the look and sound of 1980s U2 and venturing into uncharted creative territory.
Read More Words
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the video is the text that is used. The phrase "WATCH MORE TV" appears twice in the video: once in the beginning during the song's introduction (0:40) and once in the middle of the video at the end of the second chorus (2:31). Three times text flashes rapidly, so quick that it is almost unreadable: SURREAL, SEEING BELIEVE at the 0:40 mark; THOUGHT, SURREAL, SEEING, BELIEVING at 0:59; and IT'S NO SECRET, DEATH, TRUTH, LIES, OLD, NEW, ZOO, ZERO, GOD at 1:47. The rapid-fire text not only foreshadowed a key element of the ZooTV tour, but it also gave hints as to some of the subject matter and thematic content of the Achtung Baby record.
But because this is U2, the "EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG" phrase also works on another, more personal level for the band. By using the phrase while Bono sings in a falsetto voice, the band is juxtaposing its old sound with its new aesthetic. Essentially, the viewer is told in a not-so-subtle way that U2 has drastically changed and that all lyrical, musical and artistic preconceptions about the band should be cast aside. The sign could have read "EVERYTHING YOU KNOW ABOUT U2 IS WRONG."
An examination of the lyrics at this point in the video reveals another interpretation of the phrase, which flashes on screen as Bono sings "Love, we shine like a burning star / We're falling from the sky tonight" in a falsetto voice. At this time in their career, U2 were at the top of the world. "We shine like a burning star" could be referring to the band itself. It's an acknowledgment of their success. But the next line of the lyrics reflects the reason why the band changed its musical identity. They knew that it would have been impossible to repeat the success of The Joshua Tree with the same sound and look. In other words, they could not rest on the laurels of the previous success or risk stagnating. As a result, U2 had to come down from that perch and break some new ground. So, the "you" in "EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG" could be reflexive, referring to the band itself and how they forced themselves to reconsider everything in order to reinvent themselves.
(c) @U2/Endrinal, 2011.