Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Paul de Revere talks about U2, and the effectiveness of their politics.
Bono and U2 have taken on a lot: music, fame, politics, humanitarian causes. It would be easy just to get caught up in the first two, but U2 and Bono press on into causes bigger than their fame or music. However, when they shift into the politics and humanitarianism, it tends to put the onus on the listener, which can be a conflicting and uncomfortable situation when you’re just trying to listen to some pop music in your room. Nevertheless, a die is cast: the personal and political, apathy and empathy, simply feeling empathy and actually acting on it. The personal and political might seem so separate (after all, how does politics really affect our day-to-day lives?) but in the realm of music, especially in U2’s, they’re inseparable.
And I always arrive back at “Where the Streets Have No Name” when it comes to U2’s purposeful collisions of political and personal. The Irish rock and its messianic lead singer may be the single most politically active, and politically effective, forces in music today. The band’s ONE campaign, which works against malaria, hunger, and HIV/AIDS in the developing world (particularly in Africa), is a great example.
The ONE campaign has “helped to secure $107 billion in debt relief for poor countries over the past decade,” according to its website. It has also “played a crucial role in the global campaign that successfully pressed the G8 to … double funding to Africa” and “worked closely with U.S. officials on the creation of the AIDS program PEPFAR and on winning funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria from across the G8; together these programs have helped provide life-saving AIDS medications to nearly 4 million Africans, up from only 50,000 people in 2002.”
U2’s activism and embracing of world cultures, politics, and music has made me a die-hard U2 fan for as long as I can remember, casting a long shadow in my listening and musical tastes. I admire Bono. It’s hard even for a person with extraordinary understanding of policy and interpersonal skills to balance the personal and political and communicate it to people effectively.
Hypothesis: It’s easier to embrace political and social commentary that actually speaks to a person in a way that balances political concerns with shared personal ones, and come off emotionally and intellectually honest. For all of Bono’s sanctimony, it’s truly his empathy for the subjects of his songs that make his music so powerful. The willingness to connect to that is what seemingly makes a fan, like myself, a disciple.
“Spending time in Africa and seeing people in the pits of poverty, I still saw a very strong spirit in the people, a richness of spirit I didn’t see when I came home,” Bono told Rolling Stone in 1994. “I saw the spoiled child of the Western world. I started thinking, ‘They may have a physical desert, but we’ve got other kinds of deserts.’ And that’s what attracted me to the desert as a symbol of some sort.”
Not to romanticize abject poverty, I can’t help but ask: Is there an enviable vibrancy that comes with it? Maybe the idea that there’s nowhere to go but up can be heartening in some way. Or maybe they just shine shit and call it gold, making the best of a bad, really bad, situation? Songs of resolve and devotion, like gospel or “Where the Streets Have No Name”, for the matter, must make that process easier.
U2 collaborated with the Soweto Gospel Choir as part of a promotional campaign for the 2010 World Cup, cutting new studio versions of “Where the Streets Have No Name”, among other U2 songs. I saw Soweto Gospel Choir in concert recently and its ecstatic worship songs brought me a similar “Streets” buzz. Through the poverty and struggle of Johannesburg’s South Western Townships, the choir brings incredible joy.
It speaks to a broader attitude that U2 has toward the developing world — one of compassion and also commiseration. “Where the Streets Have No Name”, like “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Mothers of the Disappeared” from The Joshua Tree, seem so deeply felt by Bono. He seems to include himself in the plight of Argentinean mothers and grandmothers.
If Bono is the rock-star version of Bill Clinton and ONE is his Clinton Foundation, then the “Streets” lyric, “I go there with you/It’s all I can do” is his “I feel your pain.” There’s no use in pretending, by the way, that this line is reflective of anything but a Messianic Complex. It absolutely is. As much as I might sit here and defend U2 and Bono from the sharpest of barbs, I will not contest this charge – nor do I question the same charge against Obama or Clinton.
After all, The Joshua Tree is a gnostic gospel– one of Bono’s ways of telling us everything’s gonna be all right and he will make everything better. Virgin Prunes front man Gavin Friday, who grew up with Bono near the Ballymun flats, is known for outlandish, performance art, acts. So naturally, Friday would give Bono a birthday present of “nails, a hammer and some wood with a note marked ‘DIY’” for his 33rd birthday while on the 1993 Zooropa Tour, according to Irish Central.
Bono considers himself, in the purest way, a member of the human race. He believes that if an Argentinean mother doesn’t know where her child is, dead or imprisoned or God knows what, then it affects all of us. If a child in Africa is dying of hunger, malaria or AIDS/HIV, we all suffer.
In his famous April 1963 letter from a jail in Birmingham, Ala., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
From “One” and ONE to “Pride (In the Name of Love)”, where Bono laments Dr. King’s assassination and praises the short life he had on Earth, Bono preaches what he practices. He does the inverse, too, which is a lot more than most others can say.
And Bono balances it all somehow– precariously, delicately. He’s not perfect. There’s any number of reasons why he might fail. The first time I saw U2 live in Atlanta (a city still very much in the shadow of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Era) in 2006, he was boo’ed for invoking the National Rifle Association’s name, pointing out how its ranks were fewer in number than the ONE campaign. In the realm of personal/political, love can flee as quickly as people’s snap judgments. He can go from loved, messianic figure to rock-star agitator in a flash because he transcends an obsessive, crazed celebrity culture and a political culture that’s chattering and omnipresent, yet some feel alienated by its process. Though in his primary role as a rock star, Bono takes a classic politician’s tack: that of a happy warrior. That persona amid dueling agendas crosses wires with folks more engaged in rock-star/celebrity worship than projecting hopes, dreams, and expectations onto false-prophet politicians. As if there’s really a fundamental difference between the two. Again, this is where the personal and political are one in the same and there is no need to keep them separate because you can’t. But despite this duality, Bono, a rock star, balances a sincerity and spectacle in his causes. Those causes are what “Where the Streets Have No Name” encapsulates.
“An interesting story that someone told me once,” Bono told Propaganda (No. 5) in 1987, “is that in Belfast, by what street someone lives on you can tell not only their religion but tell how much money they’re making – literally by which side of the road they live on, because the further up the hill the more expensive the houses become. You can almost tell what the people are earning by the name of the street they live on and what side of that street they live on. That said something to me, and so I started writing about a place where the streets have no name…”
So if in ‘87, “Streets” was about fighting income, inequality, and classism, then 25 years later, it can symbolize a struggle and longing on a global scale. People who don’t have electricity or actual streets, know the English lyrics (at least phonetically) to “Where the Streets Have No Name”. I would know. I’ve seen it. Last year, at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, where I attended two shows as part of the U2 360° Tour, and both times, the enormous Spanish-speaking audience lost their minds to the anthem.
That’s some serious worldwide fame right there and it makes it easy to forget who Bono was and still is: Paul David Hewson. Hewson came from modest means as a kid in Dublin that went to parochial school with his U2 bandmates. He lived near council housing (or “housing projects” in the States) of Ballymun flats as a child, which he draws from in “Running to Stand Still”. “I see seven towers,” he sings as the song’s omniscient narrator, referring to the seven structures of Ballymun. “But I only see one way out.”
“It was through the Ballymun Flats that Bono first became aware of the lives of those without hope,” wrote The London Independent in 1991, “a concern that was later to take him to the refugee camps of Ethiopia and to war-torn El Salvador.”
Photo by JC Morand
Ethiopia, it turns out, is where Bono wrote the lyrics to “Where the Streets Have No Name”. According to Neil McCormick’s U2 by U2, the song’s lyrics were birthed on a humanitarian visit with his wife, Ali Hewson. Bono jotted down the lyrics on an airplane barf bag while staying in a village, likely with dirt floors and, again, no electricity or, for that matter, streets.
It makes me wonder that if you have a truly grand, wonderful, life-giving song like “Streets”, you have to start with a humble beginning– a barren desert, a destitute village of back-breaking poverty– like a redwood growing from a tiny acorn.
Consider that when listening to “Where the Streets Have No Name”, U2, and supposedly empty gestures from activist artists. Consider the background of the artist and the struggle they went through– what they’ve seen. Consider the Irish Catholic/English Protestant religious war in which the members of U2 grew up in the middle of, as referenced in “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, a humanist beseech for peace stemming from the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre in Northern Ireland.
“If you grew up working class, that shit doesn’t leave you,” Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock told Spin in 2004, speaking of Michael Moore. “That approach to a work ethic doesn’t leave you and that view of the world doesn’t leave you.” Unless you’re intent on forgetting, or traumatically suppress that kind of memory, you don’t forget.
“Where the Streets Have No Name” has impacted my life so much that it’s my favorite song ever. I can’t forget it. I mean, like, every time I listen to it, it knocks my head clean off. I could put it on 22 times in a row, which is exactly what I did as I wrote this, and find a new moment of the song to get worked up over.
The chiming, arpeggiating guitar fades in, and I start weeping like a family member just died. “What’s wrong?” people ask me when they see my reaction to the song. I’m not sad. I’m not heartbroken. I don’t need your pity, I just need your understanding. “Do you understand this song? Do you get what it means for the world inside and outside of you? Do you feel anything when you hear this?” I feel like comedian Paul F. Tompkins in a retelling of his rant on his You Should Have Told Me stand-up special about Ann Margaret’s “You Needed Me”. “You don’t even get it!” he screams, then lowers his voice to a whisper. “I’ve been inside that song.”
Make no mistake, I’ve buried myself in “Streets” many times, and I’ve always valued that kind of uninhibited passion in music. All music, I feel, should have some kind of personal passion behind it. But as motivated as it should be by that passion, it helps when the music also speaks to something bigger than just oneself at the same time.
There’s so many things to consider when looking at a song. Subtext, context, content, and intent are all so important; the bones of the song (its structure, tone, production, etc.) and so on. But I judge the overall quality of a work of art on one overriding quality: how much does it evoke from me? It doesn’t make me terribly objective, but it’s an earnest lens which I wish were used more often in criticism.
To evoke empathy, brutal, unrelenting empathy, is a powerful, consuming thing. And it can make you look foolish. But we all need to be a bit more earnest and ridiculous. Say what you feel, even if it’s embarrassing. Especially if it’s embarrassing. “The right to be ridiculous is something I hold dear,” Bono sings on “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight”. It’s good for the soul.
It’s all we can do.