"When people ask us what our influences are, we always say, 'Each other.'"
On the Road: U2, Roger Waters and Trump
August 06, 2017
This summer the social and political tensions that have divided the U.S. have not only played out on cable news and the family dinner table, but also in arenas and stadiums across America through two radically different concert tours: U2’s The Joshua Tree 2017 and Roger Waters’ Us + Them. It should come as no surprise that U2 and Waters have been highly critical of our president. In an interview with CBS This Morning’s Charlie Rose before the 2016 election, Bono stated, “Donald Trump is potentially the worst idea that ever happened to America, potentially … I think he’s trying to hijack the idea of America … This is really dangerous.” Waters, the former bassist, singer and songwriter from Pink Floyd, was more blunt, telling Rolling Stone in February that Trump is a “true sociopath,” “sick and mad and crazy,” and “a philistine and deeply insensitive.” Having seen both tours, I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast their attitude toward Trump.
The Joshua Tree 2017
The Joshua Tree 2017 celebrates the 30th anniversary of U2’s classic 1987 album The Joshua Tree. However, for the band The Joshua Tree 2017 was not about tapping into 1980s nostalgia. In the official tour announcement, Edge stated, “It seems like we have come full circle from when The Joshua Tree songs were originally written, with global upheaval, extreme right wing politics and some fundamental human rights at risk.” He added, “To celebrate the album – as these songs seem so relevant and prescient of these times too – we decided to do these shows, it feels right for now.” While fans waited for the tour to kick off in May, there was speculation about where The Joshua Tree album, expected to be played in sequence, should be placed in the setlist, and how the band would use 30-year-old songs to comment on America in 2017.
Before the tour began Bono stated that he did not want to talk about Donald Trump during the concert, telling Rolling Stone that “it's very, very important that people who voted for Donald Trump feel welcome at our show.” So, while Bono may not actually mention Trump’s name during a performance, the band adopted some subtle, and not so subtle, means to comment on his policies. While much of The Joshua Tree Tour imagery has remained constant throughout the tour, Bono has adapted his commentary to each venue. Including every variation would be impractical. So, for the sake of simplicity, here are just a few examples from my experiences in Santa Clara and Boston:
• “Pride (In the Name of Love)”: Before the lyric “Early evening, April 4” Bono encouraged the audience to sing along, stating, “For those holding on, and those letting go of the American dream. Sing with us. From the right, from the left and those in between. Will you sing. Everybody welcome here. We’ll find common ground reaching for higher ground.” One variation on the “From the right, from the left … ” was “For the party of Lincoln and Kennedy and those in between. Sing!”
• “Bad”: Late in the song, Bono asked that the lights be turned off, and the crowd immediately turned on their cell phone flashlights. Bono said, “You’ve seen the stripes, tonight we get to see the stars” and then encouraged the audience to sing the snippet “All come to look for America” from Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.”
• “Exit”: At every show the introduction features clips from an episode of the 1950s Western TV series Trackdown, with a character by the name of Trump who says to the townsfolk, “I am the only one. Trust me. I can build a wall around your homes that nothing will penetrate.” Bono then becomes the Shadow Man, complete with black jacket, vest and hat who towards the end of the song sings, “Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe,” which is part of a children’s counting rhyme with historically racist overtones.
• “One”: Before the song began Bono recognized by name local politicians, professionals and celebrities involved in AIDS activism. He stated that this is the “Greatest story rarely told. 18 million lives. Heroic American story of what you can do when the left and the right work together. Country stars, punk rockers, business people and artists, it’s the best of America. We can disagree on almost everything if the one thing we agree on is important enough.”
Bono’s commentary during “Pride,” “Bad” and “One” speaks to our divided country, partisan politics and the importance of unity. The clips from Trackdown before “Exit” are, arguably, the most direct attack on Trump and his intent to build a wall between the United States and Mexico to control illegal immigration. Additionally, Bono’s Shadow Man, speaking the words to “Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe,” hints at a racial motivation for Trump’s wall plan.
U2 also takes advantage of the massive 8K-resolution screen to show iconic images of Americ, including the vast expanse of West (“Where the Streets Have No Name"), a woman painting an American flag on a building (“Trip Through Your Wires”), and Native Americans in traditional dress (“One Tree Hill”). Again, this is not an exhaustive list, and no doubt there are other moments I’ve missed. Still, I hope the examples provide an accurate depiction of The Joshua Tree 2017 in terms of its political tone.
Us + Them
Opening only a few weeks after The Joshua Tree 2017, Roger Waters’ Us + Them highlights songs from the Pink Floyd albums The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975), Animals (1977) and The Wall (1979), as well as songs from his latest album Is This The Life We Really Want? (2017). According to Waters, from the previously cited Rolling Stone, "There is no 'us' and 'them'; it's an illusion. We are all human beings and we all have a responsibility to support one another and to discover ways of wresting the power from the very, very few people who control all the cash and all the property." Rogers’ wearing his politics on his sleeve is nothing new, and has always resonated in his work with Pink Floyd, and then as a solo artist. In fact, The Wall Live tour (2010-2103) brought Floyd’s 1979 album, with its themes of alienation, anti-war and distrust of the government, and updated them for the 21st century, with critiques of corporate control and government surveillance. And now, with Trump in office, Waters has a new target for his biting, no-holds-barred political commentary. Not surprisingly, the tour has generated controversy, with American Express pulling its financial support in the United States because of Waters’ anti-Israel comments, and reports of concert attendees walking out of some performances.
Like my discussion of The Joshua Tree 2017, I will only highlight select moments from the Us + Them show I saw in St. Paul that best reflect Waters’ attitude toward Trump. I will also include some information about each song to provide context for those unfamiliar with the music of Pink Floyd and Roger Waters.
• “Picture That” – A new song from Is This The Life We Really Want? Waters sang, “Follow Miss Universe catching some rays,” and Trump was shown smiling with several beauty pageant contestants.
• “Another Brick In The Wall Part 2 and 3” – Arguably Pink Floyd’s most well-known song from The Wall, “Brick” was originally about schooling practices in the U.K. with children simoving, “We don’t need to education/We don’t need no thought control … Hey teacher, leave us kids alone.” During “Brick” eight young children stood near the front of the stage dressed in orange prisoner jumpsuits. During the guitar solo the kids removed their jumpsuits, and all were wearing T-shirts that say RESIST in large white letters. The song ended with RESIST shown on the video screen. Resist has been a slogan used to rally against Trump and his policies.
• “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” – Arguably the political centerpiece of the show, “Pigs” is almost 12 minutes long, and a blistering, relentless assault on Trump. “Pigs” is from Pink Floyd’s Animals, meant to represent those in power. Throughout “Pigs” Waters matched the song’s lyrics to various images of Trump. For example, Waters sang, “Big man, pig man/Ha ha, charade you are” and Trump’s face was seen with the word “Charade” underneath. During the next lyric, “You well-heeled big wheel/Ha ha, charade you are," Trump was seen in profile projectile vomiting. Other unflattering images that followed include Trump’s head on a baby, him driving a child’s car, giving a Hitler salute and wearing a KKK hood. After approximately four minutes the iconic Pink Floyd inflatable pig, first seen on the cover of the Animals album, began to float around the arena. On one side are the words “Piggy Bank of War,” and on the other “Welcome to the Machine” with an image of Trump saying, “I won!” At the 9:30 mark over a dozen Trump quotes were projected including: “This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier,” “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I would be dating her,” and “The wall will go up and Mexico will start behaving.” The song ended with “Trump is Pig” shown in big, bold letters.
• “Money” – From The Dark Side of the Moon, the song is about greed and power with images of Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as well as locations such as Trump’s now closed Taj Mahal Casino, oil refineries and the Kremlin.
• “Us and Them” – The Us + Them tour is named after this song from The Dark Side of the Moon. Juxtaposed against images of conflict and violence, there are several images of protesters at various rallies. One woman holds a sign that says “Immigrants = Awesome,” while at a rally outside Trump Tower, another sign says “Say No to Racism. Say No to Trump.”
Political commentator Michael Smerconish, who interviewed Roger Waters for his CNN show on July 15, called Us + Them “an anti-Trump rally disguised as a rock concert.” This is, perhaps, a bit of an overstatement as not all songs had an anti-Trump focus, particularly during the first half of the show. And the ones that did, with the exception of “Pigs (Three Different Ones),” had other images that were not necessarily Trump-centric (drones, oil field fires, homelessness, poverty). So, while the tour has received attention because of Waters’ comments about Trump, in terms of production it is also has everything one would expect to see at a Pink Floyd concert including laser lights, abstract imagery, and animation from Gerald Scarfe, who worked with the band on graphics for The Wall and music videos.
Two Artists, Two Tours, One President: Messages of Hope
Hopefully, from the brief song descriptions provided it is clear how different The Joshua Tree 2017 and Us + Them are in terms of addressing the Donald Trump presidency. U2 has always promoted understanding and change through dialogue and activism, with Bono typically taking time during each concert to make personal appeals to the audience (i.e., the Bono rant). Waters takes a less personal approach, never really attempting to connect with the audience, instead letting his lyrics and imagery make a statement. However, despite Waters’ anti-Trump rhetoric, there is also an undercurrent of optimism on his tour. During several songs there was an image of two hands reaching out to one another. Initially, the hands begin to crumble as they first try to shake, but towards the end of the concert they finally grasp each other to signify the possibility of compromise and peace, an outcome U2 would certainly endorse. In this respect, perhaps the message of Waters and U2 is more alike than not, the difference being how that message is packaged and conveyed to an audience. In Trump’s America, the individual will have to decide which approach is more persuasive as a strategy to healing our political divide.
(c) @U2/Whitt, 2017