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[P]eople get a clearer glimpse of who you are through the music than through any interview you may do. -- Bono

Listen To Me Now: U2 And Communication

@U2

 

Music communicates messages, and sometimes these messages are about communication. For example, in “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone),” Bono sings, We have language so we can communicate. Or at least that’s what I always thought he sang, until one day I realized the actual lyric was, We have language so we CAN'T communicate. No doubt I always heard can rather than can’t because of my experience as a professor of communication studies who explores the nature and power of language. After I got over my mild embarrassment for this mistake, the misheard lyric was something of a happy accident, and I began to consider how U2’s music may reflect various communication concepts. I discovered that several songs have references to the very problem I had with “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)”: listening. 

According to a survey published in the International Journal Of Listening,each day we spend approximately 11 percent of our day writing, 16 percent speaking, 17 percent reading, 28 percent listening to media, and 28 percent listening to others. The fact that we spend the majority of our day listening rather than speaking should tell us something about its importance in communication. However, even though listening consumes the greatest percentage of our daily communication activities, it can also be incredibly difficult. Several factors influence our ability to listen, including: physical and mental distractions, message overload, and sender or message bias. In other words, listening takes a great deal of focus and effort, and we’re not always successful at it despite our best intentions. 

The importance of listening has been emphasized in U2’s lyrics going all the way back to Boy. Here are some songs with lyrics that mention listening:

“The Ocean” – I thought the world could go far / If they listened to what I said

“I Threw A Brick Through A Window” – I was talking / I was talking to myself / Somebody else /Talk, talk, talking / I couldn’t hear a word / A word he said

Acrobat” – Don’t believe what you hear

“Stay (Faraway So Close)” – And if you shout I’ll only hear you

Wake Up Dead Man”- Listen to the words, they'll tell you what to do
Listen over the rhythm that's confusing you
Listen to the reed in the saxophone
Listen over the hum of the radio
Listen over sounds of blades in rotation
Listen through the traffic and circulation
Listen as hope and peace try to rhyme
Listen over marching bands playing out their time

Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” – I still listen through your ears / And through your eyes I can see

“Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” – Listen to me now / I need to let you know / You don’t have to go it alone and Can you hear me when I sing?

Unknown Caller” - Hear me, cease to speak that I may speak

“Every Breaking Wave” – I thought I heard the captain’s voice / It’s hard to listen while you preach

“This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” - Old man knows that I never listen / So how could I have something to say

Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” - If you listen, you can hear the silence say / When you think you're done / You've just begun

As you can see, in some songs listening attempts to build bridges between people and provide comfort (Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”), but in its absence can build walls (“I Threw A Brick Through A Window,” “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now”). Listening encourages communication, which in turn can positively affect the quality of our interpersonal relationships. 

References to listening are also part of other U2 songs. “Wake Up Dead Man” lists various environmental factors that may interfere with listening (hum of the radio, traffic, marching bands, etc.). In “Acrobat,” the opening lyric Don’t believe what you hear, immediately establishes cynicism towards the message or messenger, becoming a barrier to listening for the receiver. Finally, in “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” Bono encourages us to listen to our inner voice for courage or wisdom. 

You may have noticed that with some lyrics Bono uses “hear” instead of “listen.” According to the interpersonal communication textbook Looking Out Looking In, hearing is a passive, automatic process, while listening is more active and thoughtful. For example, when I’m teaching, students hear my voice in the classroom talking about a particular subject, but are they truly listening, processing what I’m saying, thinking of questions to ask, and how the material relates to their own lives? In some songs Bono uses hear and listen interchangeably, which doesn’t alter the song’s message. Engaging in mindful listening by caring about another, asking questions and giving that individual your undivided attention seem to be important to him, and is a process he believes we should practice and take seriously.

Listening, and more specifically, getting others to listen, is also a key persuasive strategy in U2’s activism. For example, Bono explains in U2 By U2that during the initial stages of Jubilee 2000, a campaign for wealthy countries drop the debts of poor countries, particularly in Africa, he initially experienced resistance from those who saw him as a rock star and didn’t take him seriously as an advocate. To get skeptical politicians and professionals to listen to his pitch, Bono educated himself about economics and debt relief. By doing so Bono became a credible spokesperson for not only Jubilee 2000, but also future campaigns such as DATA, the Millennium Challenge and ONE. So while Bono’s celebrity got him in the door to talk with world leaders about debt relief, funding AIDS medication in Africa or eliminating poverty, unless his persuasive appeals are supported by evidence, these power brokers would only hear him talking, and not actually listen to his serious message.

The other members of U2, no doubt, have followed a similar template, becoming knowledgeable on the issues surrounding organizations they support such as Music Rising, Music Generation and MusiCares. Speakers earn credibility from a person or audience by demonstrating their knowledge about a subject, and being dynamic or engaging in their delivery. When we are credible, the likelihood of being listened to by others increases significantly, as does our ability to persuade. 

In our communication department conference room, the words “Listen so others may speak. Speak so others may listen” are etched on the wall, which sound similar to the “Unknown Caller” lyric, Hear me, cease to speak that I may speak. They are a reminder that in conversation you should respect the thoughts and opinions of others, while also being aware of your own language to be a clear and effective communicator. Through their song lyrics and activism U2 are a model of these words. 

© @U2/Whitt, 2018