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Pop Saves the World

U2 wants to make you a better person

For several weeks in the summer of 1993, the video screens of U2's Zooropa European tour displayed the image of Bill Carter, an American writer and filmmaker working in Sarajevo. At the time, Sarajevo was, without question, the most dangerous city in the world. Serbian nationalists had executed a series of shell-and-gunfire assaults upon Croats and secular Muslims in almost every multiethnic sector of Bosnia. Croats erupted in self-defence-turning with equal force on their Muslim neighbours-while NATO rejected a US-led intervention on the specious, shiftless grounds that it could not make sense of who, exactly, was the actual victim.

Carter's journalistic mission was to set up a reliable media broadcast to greater Europe. This proved difficult on a number of fronts. TV stations were bombed on a regular basis, and, across the continent, mainstream media outlets had already dropped the story. Offstage, the city of Sarajevo disintegrated.

Yet onstage, on video screens set up in football stadiums, Bill Carter and his comrades suddenly appeared, reporting on that day's events to thousands of Europeans who had come to see U2 perform. Carter, pale and shell-shocked, stood beside Bosnian mothers who wept and cursed a Europe that had abandoned them. The remote feed fizzed and spat. Carter spoke to Bono, and Bono spoke his encouragement back to Carter and whoever else had braved Snipers' Alley to speak to a packed stadium in a neighbouring country. We're here, said Bono. So are we, said the Bosnians, don't forget.

By all accounts, the experience defined the surreal. Broken waves of shock and compassion passed through the satellite link night after night before the feed cut out and U2 went back to performing. Fans left the show exhilarated and shaken, and the press went nuts.

In Sarajevo, U2 were heroes. But, in the music and political papers of every major European city, the band was vilified for turning Sarajevo's pain into what amounted to a special effect. "Beyond bad taste," wrote London's New Musical Express. "Faced with the horrific description of the situation in Sarajevo, Bono was reduced to a stumbling incoherence that was probably the result of genuine concern, but came across as bog-standard celeb banality."

This took place just over ten years ago. At the time, telecommunications mergers had just given birth to what we now accept in 2005 as an irreparable reality: information in perpetual motion, expanded at all points until "newsworthy" and "trivial" are no longer mutually exclusive but in many cases reversed. U2 understood the contradictions in pausing to identify the real-ities of evil while focusing with equal force on the contrived transmission of that evil-satellite connections and replicating televisions and lounge-act sincerity performed in the theatre of a multimedia blitzkrieg. It was what media experts might have called a "pseudo-event." The word comes to us from Daniel Boorstin's 1961 book, The Image, which decades earlier spoke of pseudo-events as "staged and scripted events that [are] a kind of counterfeit version of actual happenings." Perhaps the press' visceral disgust with pop stars confusing their medium should have been studied as much as U2's decision to include the remote feed: one special effect in a series of special effects. Confronting this confusion, after all, had been the show's point.

Sarajevo's situation dragged out like a wasting illness. For months afterward, Carter and his friends drove to the broadcast station under enemy fire, sending transmissions into the void. All the while, and as before, they blasted tapes of U2's music in the bunkers to (in Carter's view) keep from losing their minds, and to drown out the sound of explosions.

An Irish music critic, now lost to history, wrote a review of U2 in the months before Boy, the band's first album, was released. The critic had heard the first vinyl pressing of the record and seen the band live. He was impressed. He was also sharply prescient in what could be viewed as a too-clever assessment of a band we've come to know well. If, the critic said, the four band members would abandon what appeared to be a strange talent for serious self-absorption, they might avoid coming across as complete prats.

From the eighties onward, political groups and causes-Oxfam, Amnesty International, Artists Against Apartheid, Greenpeace, international debt relief-have competed in the public mind with U2's music. Inside this bubble is the U2 that people love or hate, defend or dismiss. What initially translated as a talent for serious self-absorption became as signature as the Edge's linear guitar effects. Now, after two decades of allowing an Irish rock band to alert me to a great many political realities, I've come to the conclusion that I should be less cynical in calling U2 a bunch of prats.

At its conception, the band had already been shaped by experiences with evangelical Christianity. For anyone confusing the church of George W. Bush with the church of Martin Luther King Jr., evangelism is a particular branch of Christianity that follows a philosophy of direct engagement, of inhabiting the ethics you wish to see manifest in the culture without pounding those you meet into conversion. Out of-but not limited to-this external sense of mission, the band members wrote impressionistic pop songs with a chic sparseness and lyrics that shared headspace with Matters of Serious Importance. U2's conflation of art and ethics never seemed all that "cool," and certainly not during the decade that thrust that word into the common vernacular.

Their musical aesthetic reflected the Clash, the Jam, the Ramones and John Lydon's Public Image Ltd.-but the uncoolness brought about by such a naive political mission was all U2's own. Nothing clever or wink-wink about them; Bono waved a big white flag in concert until that gesture convinced you U2's moral sensibilities were as vital to the experience as the piano line to "New Year's Day."

And they were. That big white flag: Zooropa was, in fact, a deliberate effort to rethink this image, since whatever good their political mission might have fostered had been completely undone by widespread suspicion of the chosen medium, the aesthetics of Big Rock.

Skepticism of music (or celebrity) as either a vessel for or companion to political stances has been an accepted trope for so long now that it could perhaps stand a little rethinking. Consider the alternative: pop music that refuses to lend its ever-expanding, unbelievably large and deathlike grip on the public's attention to anything other than its own value as entertainment. There's something equally nihilistic and utopian about this.

One is reminded of a clever conceit in the otherwise abysmal Bret Easton Ellis novel American Psycho. The serial-killing protagonist loves Huey Lewis, Whitney Houston and Phil Collins, and waxes rhapsodic about their crisp musical brilliance as he's murdering co-workers with an axe. Ellis' connection of a sociopath's lack of deep empathy with Huey Lewis' lack of deep anything reminds you how a particular sort of eighties music formed the context in which U2 emerged as an alternative. The ethical essence of "alternative" has been the band's constant, a spirit nurtured by true contrarians, and one reason they continue to mix ethics and aesthetics without blinking.

The great American moralist Joy Williams once claimed that art should deliver the future in advance. If one thinks of time on a horizontal, then U2 has been constantly stepping to one side. There is ethical as well as aesthetic power in this method. When the Human League was huge, U2 did Boy. When they were accused of being a serious bunch of prats, they wrote and recorded War. When Huey and Whitney were all radio and television would broadcast, U2 did "Pride (in the Name of Love)." When hair metal could get no bigger, U2 put out "With or Without You" as a single. When U2 could get no bigger, they dressed like hoboes and released an album of live tracks and covers in order to pay genuine respect to a tradition of American music. (This backfired horribly, but the band came to understand that.) When their image had overshadowed everything they held dear, they demolished that image. When the reactionary sound of early-nineties grunge was hailed as the future of rock, they created Zooropa. When the European media gave up on Sarajevo, U2 pointed this out, but also found the next available camera and used it.

Now, in the reign of Bush II, U2 has delivered an album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, that seems to address very few of the world's political troubles head-on. From a band that established its mission ages ago, this decision could be read as political anyway. In form and content, the album is optimistic: a collection of songs dealing explicitly with loved ones who have failed us, or whom we have failed, of threats to love and sanity in a time as loveless and insane as any in recent memory. And in the month or so after the American presidential election, U2's presence playing those very songs on a flatbed truck cruising down the streets of New York City was one of the stranger and more hopeful acts of an otherwise lousy year. The reason was simple: because it's them.

I've heard one fan describe them as saviours. I've told this fan that that's some seriously fatuous crap. I've gone back through the albums, listening to "Seconds" and "Love Is Blindness," and paid close attention to the new album's "Sometimes You Can't Make it on Your Own" with an uncomfortable suspicion that this fan was half-right. I've listened to "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" and realized-like Radiohead's Ed O'Brien-that this comes from a band whose members are into their third decade together, a period that normally begins a process of ungraceful aging and self-parody. They have maintained a remarkably solid grip on the public consciousness and have used that to their advantage in a manner that's never been duplicated.

By turns proud, pompous, brilliant, important, messianic, portentous, deep, shallow, washed up, annoying and flippant, they are unconcerned with image and manipulative of same; they have sold out (I don't remember what this meant, originally) and too often wear sunglasses, proving their sold-out status; their lead singer gives speeches in foreign capitals; they realize they're pop stars.

U2's spotlight, in other words, has always been harnessed, often deflected and in some cases refracted. I recently watched 1989's Rattle and Hum and richly enjoyed seeing the black-and-white U2 try against all odds to keep their music from being mere entertainment for more and more consumers. And maybe that's a stupid, pratty thing to do. It's clear that the band paid a price for this decision long ago.

What U2 gained in exchange was a strange kind of trust. Following the flatbed down Broadway, fans and non-fans alike experienced a pseudo-event-or its opposite, I'm not exactly sure. There they were, Adam and Larry and Edge and Bono playing the new album. Cameras covered the show. Commentators reported on the event with pregnant pauses, as if waiting for something more to happen. The spotlight was there. This band, after all, could be trusted to deliver what it thought was most appropriate. In this case, what was needed was music. And the music, incidentally, was great.

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