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We'd certainly never had a rock star to the house before. -- Melinda Gates, on Bono's visit to her and Bill Gates' home, 2005

'The Showman' Makes U2 'A Little More Better'



On the most recent episode of the “U Talkin’ U2 To Me?” podcast, Bono and The Edge shared that among their songwriter friends, “The Showman (Little More Better)” is one of the most respected songs from Songs Of Experience. This nod to one of the album’s most subtle songs may come as a surprise to some, but I think the track is perhaps the greatest indicator of the band’s progressing mastery of their art. While not all artists continue to grow throughout their career, “The Showman” showcases U2’s evolving ability to have fun with their music and engage in honest self-reflection.

A little more better at having fun

As Bono and The Edge mention in the interview, U2 is a serious band -- and we love them for it. Fun is not the primary characteristic that attracts fans to U2’s music. While there’s plenty of tongue-in-cheek irony in the Achtung/Zooropa/Pop era of the 1990s, we are all here talking about them primarily because of their earnestness. They make great rock music, but are not pop stars. When they’ve tried to focus completely on fun in the past, they’ve come up short (e.g., “Miami” from Pop -- great song, not especially fun).

Many of U2’s most clever songs point a finger at some truthful yet baffling paradox, such as in “Numb” when Bono sings, “Too much is not enough.” “The Showman” is a rare example where Bono pairs poignant life observation with his self-deprecating sense of humor. This comes from a seeming realization that the best way to have fun in songwriting is to make fun of yourself. “The Showman” has this in droves.

Right off the bat Bono sings, “Baby's crying because it’s born to sing/Singers cry about everything,” acknowledging one of the biggest complaints many have shared about Bono: He talks too much and should keep his opinions to himself. He continues comparing himself to a child: “Still in the playground, falling off a swing.” He’s still a rock star despite being in his 50s, which seems a little ridiculous.

Thankfully he follows it up with a refrain that repeats itself throughout the song. He says, “But you know that I know,” hoping that because he acknowledges it’s an issue he’s working on, that makes it a “little more better.” Throughout the rest of the song he refers to the vanity of his day job as “staying up all night” to “chase the sunlight,” “This screwed up stuff is the stuff of dreams,” and “giving front row to his heart.” Having heard his critics for decades, he’s cutting off their criticism by admitting they’re right and saying, “What’s wrong with that?”

While “The Showman” is full of jokes and asides many U2 fans can smile about, the real fun is in the musical style. For one, it’s the first U2 song from a studio album with a horn section since Rattle And Hum. Musically, the song is more laid back than most you’d find on a U2 record, yet here it works. The mix of guitar parts includes a light-hearted acoustic paired against a staccato counterpoint with a bit of wah-wah added. These come together to set a seriously fun atmosphere. All of this is played over a great swing beat from Larry. A few clever touches on the production bring it home, specifically at the song’s conclusion with the ambient noise of the partying crowd only partially paying attention. It seems the band is letting us know they’re aware everybody doesn’t take it all quite as seriously as they do. Of all the newest songs on this album, this is the one that most showcases the band’s musical growth and could indicate a new direction in their sound.

A little more better at self-reflection

While “The Showman” first jokingly belittles rock singers to disarm the listener, it’s also a way for Bono to share some extremely intimate reflections. Among the many letters Bono is writing across Songs Of Experience, “The Showman” is an evolution of a theme over the course of his songwriting career: the ridiculous nature of the famous rock star.

Many artists' first instinct is to reflect on themselves in their work. Bono has frequently done this as he struggles to confront the vanity required for his job as “rock star,” struggling to fulfill what is often a self-centered role while trying to remain self-aware. In earlier years, it was the awakening of youth in Boy, realizing there is a world bigger than yourself in songs like “The Ocean” and “A Day Without Me.” Later, Bono couples irony with cynicism in disparaging his job. In “The Fly” he throws himself under the bus (“Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief/All kill their inspiration and sing about their grief”), while in “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” he sarcastically lays out the absurd vanity of trying to be intimate with thousands of people (“Oh no, don’t be shy/It takes a crowd to cry”). By the time we get to How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb he’s just being bluntly honest when he sings in “Original Of The Species,” “Some people got way too much confidence, baby,” pointing a finger directly at himself.

“The Showman” plays with many of these ideas, but from a place of acceptance and wisdom, with plenty of self-deprecation mixed in. In contrast to the aforementioned line from “The Fly,” The Showman’s confession that he “prays his heartache will chart” is more of an honest admission, explaining that “Making a spectacle of falling apart is just the start of the show.” He admits that his methods are suspect, but hopes to find the genuine amidst the disingenuous. 

Another theme expressed in the song is finding purpose in singing, both real and false. This can take a more faith-filled, hopeful tone, as in “Magnificent” (“I was born to sing for you/I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up/And sing whatever song you wanted me to”); or a darker bent (HMTMKMKM: “You don’t know how you got here … believing in yourself almost as much as you doubt”). Again, in “The Showman” he sees faking it ‘til you make it as part of an artist’s reality when he sings, “I’ve got just enough low self-esteem to get me where I want to go.” That brilliant line was, incidentally, stolen from one of U2’s producers decades before.

If every track on Songs Of Experience is a letter to someone, Bono clearly addresses us, the listeners, the audience, his adoring fans, in “The Showman.” He admits that he’s come to terms with the vanity of selling art for money, while still hoping that amid so much frivolity and meaninglessness, a magic and community can emerge in the space between the artist and the audience. Gratitude and respect to the audience play a big part in this song. Indeed, some of its final words explain the importance of what is made together in the music (“I lie for a living/I love to let on/but you make it true when you sing along”).

A little more better at moving on

“The Showman” is a kind of joke in the context of the Songs Of Experience album. Knowing that every joke is based on a kernel of truth, Bono turns the spotlight on himself and uses a little humor to make showing his vulnerability easier. Once he’s comfortable and feeling some good vibes from the crowd (that crowd at the end), he feels comfortable enough to talk about what’s really happening in the album’s next track, “The Little Things that Give You Away.” A clear segue opens up: In every action as an artist he’s exposing his weaknesses and fears, which he does only because he loves and trusts those he shares them with.

“Little Things” is a more serious examination of the same subjects explored in “The Showman,” with today’s older, wiser Bono singing to the 18-year-old Paul Hewson, just getting started on his career. Much like the progression throughout U2’s career, these tracks show how the album is a little like a conversation. Whether with himself, the band, or the audience you can decide. And as you think about it you’ll be tapping your feet and feeling “a little more better.”

(C) @U2/Gifford, 2018