"Maybe it's just the latitude and longitude of the places we're playing, but there has been an extraordinary amount of undergarments onstage."
-- Bono, 2001
U240: Have U2 Changed the World? Part 4: Still Dreaming Up The World They Want To Live In
September 25, 2016
My world changed on Nov. 18, 1987. Sitting way up at the top of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, I was ambushed by a wall of sound. But the surprise attack was more than just a magnitude of volume – the synergy of music, words, images and lights was greater than the sum of its four parts. It was my first U2 concert.
In this final part of my #U240 series, I talk about how personal and inspirational the music and activism of U2 have been for both the band and their followers, especially during the fourth decade of their career.
I Can/Can’t Change The World
As youthful idealists, U2 knew they wanted to make a significant impression on the world. Their ambitions were bold and their dreams far exceeded the limited musical ability they possessed at the start. In “Rejoice,” from 1981’s October, Bono acknowledged that changing the world would be difficult, while being much more hopeful about the ability to transform his own internal character. He sang, “I can’t change the world / But I can change the world in me.” But on Songs Of Innocence, the band’s most recent album, his experience as a veteran musician and a seasoned global activist led him to the opposite conclusion. In “Lucifer’s Hands,” he confessed, “I can change the world / But I can’t change the world in me.” Decades of activism taught him and his band an important lesson: It’s much easier to transform the world than the self. “A change of heart comes slow.”
In a recent interview with CBS news anchor Charlie Rose, Bono reiterated, “Our music was always wrapped around social justice.” Because of their personal values and beliefs, U2 continue to demonstrate their original mission to shape the world. In 2013, the band honored Nelson Mandela with “Ordinary Love,” a song that was commissioned for the biographic film Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom. Having taken inspiration from the anti-apartheid reformer early in their career, U2 considered the opportunity a great honor. Throughout its most recent tour, Innocence + Experience, the band has addressed causes including the Troubles in Ireland, police violence against African-American males in North America, the refugee crisis in Europe and the ongoing AIDS issue in sub-Saharan Africa. They even put the “gay back in Gaelic” as they celebrated Ireland’s historic, groundbreaking vote to legalize same-sex marriage, a move that has extended a variety of benefits to the LGBT community in their homeland.
Bono has been busy in the last decade too, tirelessly championing his (RED) campaign, resulting in millions of saved lives through the distribution of antiretroviral drugs in Africa. He has also advocated on behalf of European refugees, appearing before the U.S. Senate in 2016, and arguing for increased foreign aid to Jordan, Syria and other African countries from which people have fled in search of work, shelter and safety. Having just concluded a multinational fact-gathering tour of the Middle East and Africa, he warned the Senate, “For too long, aid has been seen as charity – a nice thing to do when we can afford it. But this is a moment to reimagine what we mean by aid. Aid in 2016 is not just charity – it is national security.” Two weeks later, in a prerecorded video, he reminded the Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, “Jesus was a displaced person – his family fleeing to Egypt for fear of the life of their firstborn child. Yep, Jesus was a refugee.” In late 2016, Bono spoke at a conference for the Global Fund, participated on a panel discussing development and security at the Clinton Global Initiative and received a Bloomberg Hopkins 100 Award. Relentless and unstoppable, Bono continues to be the voice of those who are marginalized and underrepresented.
The path toward social justice, however, has not always been easy. Throughout their career, the band have faced a wide array of criticisms and many cynics have doubted U2’s sincerity or mocked the strategies they’ve used. Critics have been especially suspicious of U2’s involvement with (RED), often charging that the band have conveniently conspired with the mega corporations they once opposed. When accused of compromise and collusion, Bono responded in an editorial in The Independent, “I don't see this as selling out. I see this as ganging up on the problem … For those people [whose lives are saved], my motivation or our (RED) motivation is irrelevant.”
Others have indicted U2 for being patronizing and paternalistic in their advocacy for Africa, charging the band have arrogantly assumed that they know what’s best rather than allowing Africans to determine their own destiny. Bono, along with his associates, Bill Gates, Jeffrey Sachs, Warren Buffett and George Soros, have been accused of caring more about their own portfolios than the poor they say they are serving.
Still other critics have chastised U2 for being hypocritical. In 2006, the U2 organization moved a portion of its complex business affairs to the Netherlands to maximize its financial portfolio. Detractors complained that the band was more interested in protecting their own business interests than in contributing to Ireland’s economy. During an interview with the Guardian, Edge responded, “So much of our business is outside Ireland. It’s ridiculous to sort of make a big deal about the fact that we operate outside of Ireland.” Throughout the quartet’s long journey of activism and advocacy, they have repeatedly faced – and weathered – the criticisms of others.
U2 continue to search for the perfect balance of the internal and the external. Over 40 years, both they and the culture around them have morphed and evolved, each in response to the other. Some critics will disapprove of the band and the sizable franchise that has developed around them, but there’s no arguing that the members of U2, have, at the very least, changed their own worlds, while also making a noble impact on a global scale.
Three Worlds Of Change
Though U2 have indeed affected both their internal and external worlds, there’s still another important one to think about. Many Atu2 readers have tweeted or responded to me regarding this series of articles (Thanks to all!). In answer to the question, “Have U2 Changed The World?” I’ve been surprised by the similarity of the replies, which are usually something like, “They certainly changed mine!” I love that.
Perhaps the most important world that U2 have changed is yours. And mine.
The interpretation of a good piece of art is never straightforward. It shifts and varies from person to person. One of the reasons U2’s music is often referred to as the “soundtrack for my life” is because their songs can take on very different meanings in different contexts. One fan will hear “Song For Someone” as a beautiful romantic ballad (as in the I + E tour), while another might experience it as an inspiring song of encouragement in hard times (think about Vincent Haycock’s short film in which Woody Harrelson portrays a prison inmate) and still another hears a message of religious faith (seen in Matt Mahurin’s video portraying Bono on a cosmic search for a mystic light). This is why U2’s music is remarkably relatable to their fans: In addressing their own internal circumstances, as well as incorporating global concerns that are important to them, listeners become participants by interpreting the music and finding personal meaning. U2’s music is often created in three different worlds – first in the souls of the band members, then in the physical world through activism and finally in the hearts of faithful fans. All three are important, and all three evolve as they interact with each other.
U2’s mission has been unique from the beginning. It’s no mistake that this band’s work challenges us on a number of different levels. It’s that way by design – the inevitable outcome of U2’s distinct blend of faith, activism and art. Today, their 40-year career provides a dynamic case study for understanding how fluid each of the different worlds they touch really are. In 2004, as Bono gave the commencement address for the University of Pennsylvania, he offered the graduates a piece of advice that seems fairly representative of U2’s own long and vibrant story: “My point is that the world is more malleable than you think and it's waiting for you to hammer it into shape.” Indeed, Adam, Larry, Edge and Bono, four chancers from Ireland, have shown us again and again that both the artist and the listener, as well as the physical world they inhabit, are partners in a grand adventure to dream up the world they want to live in.
(c) @U2/Neufeld, 2016