"I think all this thing about plastic surgery and pop stars obsessed with the way they look . . . they're kinda cuttin' bits off themselves, you know."
Teaching U2: Songs Of Experience Listening Party
December 04, 2017
When initially developing Songs of Ascent: The Music and Meaning of U2, a class I’ve taught at Nebraska Wesleyan University since 2015, I had two dreams: 1) that my class could experience the anticipation and excitement of listening to a new U2 album; and 2) that students might have the opportunity to see the band live. Fortunately, the stars aligned for both, not only with The Joshua Tree 2017 tour, but also with the release of Songs Of Experience on Dec. 1, and the Experience + Innocence tour beginning in 2018.
To celebrate Songs Of Experience I had a listening party in my class the day the album was released. After students loaded up on some snacks I’d ordered for the occasion, I passed out a three-page survey asking them to rate each song on a scale of 1-4, with 1 the lowest score and 4 the highest. This same scale was also used at the end of the survey to rate the album as a whole. I left some space under each song title for comments, and at the end for any final thoughts. I told my students to be completely honest in their assessment of each song and the entire album. I then clicked “Love Is All We Have Left” in iTunes, and for the next 52 minutes students quietly and intently listened to Songs Of Experience, with lyrics from the album’s digital book projected on a screen in front of the room. After the delicate piano chords of “13 (There Is A Light)” had faded, students took a few moments to write down their overall impressions of the album, and finally give it an overall score.
In the final few minutes of class we discussed everyone’s favorite and least favorite songs, as well as some of the lyrical, thematic and musical similarities to Songs Of Innocence. I then collected the surveys, returned to my office, and totaled the rating for each song and the entire album, dividing this by the total number of students to generate an average. Here are the results, from highest- and lowest-rated songs:
Most students explained their justification for a rating. For example, “The Blackout” received the highest-score with comments like: “This song would be amazing live”; ”Everything. About. This. Song. Rocks”; and “HYPE,” which I’ll assume means good. However, the lowest-rated song, “The Showman (Little More Better),” received some rather harsh criticism: “Gets annoying. Could be a little more better”; “Doesn’t sound like U2”; and “I honestly hate this song.” There were also thoughts about a song’s meaning, its place in the running order, and the contributions of Kendrick Lamar and Lady Gaga. Perhaps the most humorous complaint was about the rhyming scheme with Ned, Fred, Jack and Zac in “The Blackout.”
In terms of its overall rating, Songs Of Experience received a 3.25. The majority of comments about the album were overwhelmingly positive, including:
• I think this album was balanced very well. They spoke about mortality a lot, which makes sense with Bono.
• Themes of the album stay true to typical U2.
• Fantastic album. Songs are not all front loaded. Many good songs toward the back as well.
• Bono showcased his vocal skills throughout. It seemed like the instrumentals were softer and calmer, giving the songs a soothing feel.
Despite the large majority of the class praising Songs of Experience, some students were less enthusiastic:
• A lot of the songs were just a little too repetitive, and they started to get boring by the end. I would rank this album slightly below average for U2.
• I wish there were more upbeat songs.
• Too pop … some decent sounds, but underwhelming overall.
Overall, I was most impressed with how many students took this listening party seriously. They thought carefully about a song not only in terms of its meaning (politics, religion, interpersonal relationships), but also how the music and vocals created emotional moments. Several students also mentioned the album’s production, the use of auto-tuning, orchestration, and the “One Republic vibe” on some songs. By moving beyond just saying they liked or disliked a song, which is easy, students articulated what factors influenced their opinion, which is more difficult. The amount of feedback provided on the surveys suggests that over the semester many students have come to appreciate U2’s music and, like me, have high expectations about their work.
The listening party for Songs Of Experience was everything I’d it would be. It probably also helped that I waited to listen to the album with the class so we could all enjoy the songs together for the first time. So, how would I rate the album? Honestly, I too would probably give it a 3.25, so my class and I were definitely on the same page. Nice job everyone! You all get an “A” for the day.
(c) @U2/Whitt, 2017