“The Fly” on the Stage: Readings and Misreadings of the “New” U2

A Paper Presented to the Music Area of The Popular Culture Association
April 13, 1995

Samuel R. Smith
Center for Mass Media Research
University of Colorado

Up through The Unforgettable Fire (1984) U2 were generally regarded as relentless critics of political repression and religious/ethnic violence, especially as practiced by warring Protestant and Catholic factions in Northern Ireland. They had established themselves by this point as arguably the most socially-conscious band in rock history. Their human rights sympathies found expression in affiliation with groups like Band-Aid and Amnesty International; their enthusiastic participation (along with like-minded “message” rockers Sting and Peter Gabriel) was key to the success of Amnesty International’s mid-1980s promotional tours. They were also enthusiastic participants in other politically- oriented projects – Live Aid and Little Steven’s Artists Against Apartheid are two which spring immediately to mind.

These activities earned the band a great deal of respect among socially-conscious music fans, but Bono (Paul Hewson, the band’s lead singer) was also rumored to have earned a death threat from the Irish Republican Army, of whom the band had been extremely critical. I do not know if this rumor is accurate or is instead just another part of the band’s burgeoning mythology. Even if the threat ultimately proves fictional, the important point for our purposes is that U2’s unprecedented activism makes such a rumor believable. And while these days it seems that every band is a message band, we have to remember that U2 was spreading the gospel before it became “hip.”

Commencing with The Joshua Tree (1987), however, the critical listener could discern a lessening of the overt politicality of the band’s music. Despite the powerful anti-war sentiments of “Bullet the Blue Sky,” which was more reminiscent of War, the songs which dominated and defined the album were more introspective and personal (“With or Without You,” “Where the Streets Have No Name”). “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is an open admission that the band’s spiritual journey had yet to find firm footing upon which to make a stand.

    I believe in the Kingdom Come
    When all the colors will bleed into one
    But yes I’m still running
    You broke the bonds
    You loosed the chains
    You carried the cross
    And my shame
    And my shame
    You know I believe it
    But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

The prayer, plaintively delivered, reads quite simply as an acknowledgment that what has gone before isn’t quite sufficient. In the wake of the band’s next three projects, though, we are encouraged to explore more closely the relationship that exists between religion, politics, and artistic expression.

Rattle and Hum (1988) is a combination live album/rockumentary centered on the Joshua Tree US tour, and it found the band for the first time locked into a highly experimental mode, toying with musical styles like American blues and gospel, and collaborating with artists like B.B. King, Bob Dylan, and the New Voices of Freedom Choir. The political convictions remained intact, however, with live readings of the band’s older material remaining quite faithful to earlier performative interpretations. Especially noteworthy was the band’s unusually emotional “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” their most famous anti-war anthem. The movie release featured the performance captured the night of the IRA’s infamous Enniskillen Remembrance Day bombing, and the band’s rage over the attack led Bono to launch into an extended rant during one of the song’s interludes. It would be next to impossible to watch this footage and conclude that the band’s dedication to its longstanding values was slipping.

Nonetheless, scores of U2 fans were put off by the project’s stylistic explorations, and less political material (the CD contains thirteen new tracks, several of which foreshadow the more personal mode the band would pursue on Achtung, Baby) led some longstanding faithful to mumble about a “sell-out” – and among “alternative” rock fans, most of whom are obsessive about authenticity, there is no more damning accusation. That definitions of “authenticity” vary widely is beside the point. If my numerous conversations with countless U2 fans can be taken as fair evidence, Rattle and Hum was the least popular album the band had released to that point. For many of these longtime fans, committed as they were to the style the band had cultivated on its first few releases, it was only going to get worse.

After a three-year hiatus U2 returned with Achtung, Baby (1991), a project which diverged wildly from the overt politics and straightforward presentation which characterized their work up through 1987. Instead, the lyrical content of the songs was decidedly more personal – of the twelve tracks on the disc, none is easily read as “political.” Most are love songs, although we can see, in cuts like “Even Better Than the Real Thing” and “The Fly” how the band applies its larger societal concerns to personal relationships – in a sense, the revolution is now played out at home.

Even more confusing is the fact that the band’s visual style has changed. In the minds of many fans U2 is defined visually by their famous Red Rocks show – the weather had turned nasty, but the band played on. And there was Bono onstage, jeans and a sleeveless t-shirt, belting out “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” his breath steaming into the twilight. Now, though, Bono wears makeup. In concert he dresses in an absolutely plastic-looking black suit. He gestures grandly, turning 25,000-seat arenas and 100,000-seat stadiums into highly stylized theaters dominated by dozens of television screens. In every imaginable sense Bono appears, on the surface anyway, to be a pop star grown very full of himself. This new image seems constructed to offend every sensibility of the die-hard U2 fan. And the follow-up, Zooropa (1993), finds the band compounding a hundred times over every perceived sin of Achtung, Baby and the ensuing Zoo TV tour.

During this period I have had countless conversations with U2 fans (and former fans) – in a sense I can probably be said to have conducted a hundred informal interviews on the subject. Over and over in these conversations I keep hearing that U2 has sold out, has been sucked into their own fame, has become a part of the capitalist abomination that is the recording industry – that they have become “mainstream.” It is apparent from the tone and tenor of these critiques that Dr. Jameson, in spite of the faults I have elsewhere found with his analysis, is not alone in his unwillingness to move beyond form and into a close perusal of content.

U2 might well have altered the style and thrust of their message, but I do not believe the substance of their last two or three projects supports the conclusion that they have sold anything out. First, we should note that as their audience has grown (especially in the wake of The Joshua Tree) its character has changed. Kids who became fans after hearing “With or Without You” and “One” are likely to be different from fans attracted to the political rage of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or “New Year’s Day.” Bono and the rest of the band seem like bright enough men – it is entirely likely they have noticed this evolution. For this reason, we are probably safe in assuming that the band is aware of their commercial success and its qualitative implications.

A studied examination of the last two albums, along with the videotaped live Zoo TV (1994) performance in Sydney, Australia, indicates that the band is acutely aware of the commercialism of the culture in which it makes its living. “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” for example, points up the consumerist ideology underpinning Baudrillard’s notion of simulacra – commercial culture promises us products which are better than reality (Storey 1993). Bono is clearly aware of the false promise of consumerism and technology, begging his lover to “give me one last chance/We’ll slide down the surface of things.” Such indulgence in the shallowness of the consumer media playground is not without devastating implications, and Bono lifts directly from Greek mythology in promising, a few lines later, that “the sun won’t melt our wings tonight” (U2 1991). In many respects U2 suggests the same things about late capitalist culture that Jameson does. The critical difference is Jameson’s out-of-hand dismissal of popular art – say, for example, rock – on the basis of its surface shallowness. Here, though, we very clearly see the artifice of postmodern rock being deliberately used for purposes of irony. Where Jameson (1984) discards such work as pastiche, by taking a closer look we realize that there’s nothing blank about the band’s appropriation of the parodic style.

Central to U2’s recent work is an understanding of persona. Some see the changes in Bono and conclude that he has become their worst pop star nightmare. In doing so, they accurately interpret the differences between the compelling character onstage in during the Unforgettable Fire tour and the posturing, strutting Zoo TV presence. What they have failed to perceive is that while Bono may have, at one point, been portraying himself (or perhaps “Bono” is best read as a character portrayed by Paul Hewson), the character onstage now is most decidedly not Bono. In fact, Zoo TV has featured at least two distinctly different characters – the televangelist of the black plastic suit and the mirror ball, and Macphisto, the self-indulgent devil who panders the glories of shallowness and celebrity. (I do not believe Bono used Macphisto at all in the US legs of the tour. According to interviews and radio features he was afraid the American public wouldn’t understand the subtle irony of the character. He should perhaps have worried the same thing about the televangelist, for it is this persona which has evoked the hostility of the people with whom I have spoken.) Macphisto (the reference to Mephistopheles, the Lord of Lies, is certainly no coincidence) is the sarcastic voice behind such biting Zooropa numbers as “Lemon” and “Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car.” In the latter, especially, it is hard to fathom a “sell-out” reading – Macphisto reassures that “Daddy won’t let you weep/Daddy won’t let you ache/Daddy gives you as much as you can take” (U2 1993). Again, the culture of materialism and excess seems under attack, and one is fully justified in wondering if Bono isn’t taking a fairly contentious swipe at his newer, younger fans, many of whom have no real sense of the band’s history. If this is the case, as it seems to be, then the older fans’ failure to perceive this subtlety piles another layer of irony onto an already hefty pile.

The magnificence of these personae are on full display in the band’s Sydney show last year, however. And it is in this live performance that I believe we get the best evidence for the substance hiding beneath the bombastic surface. The concert intro as spectacle matches as anything I have ever seen. The stadium is packed to the brim. The stage is dominated by three huge video screens and several smaller ones, and a narrow runway thrusts the proscenium deep into the heart of the crowd. The concert is introduced by a mad explosion of montage on the video screens: public and political figures, sports, historical footage, product advertisements, political symbology, all intercut with videotext asking “WHAT DO YOU WANT?” in numerous different languages. After a period, Bono (in televangelist mode) is elevated to stage level in front of a flickering blue screen – this image, meanwhile, is projected onto other screens, and the slightly disorienting result is that, for a moment, it is unclear which of the backlit Bonos is the real one. From here, a raw, fuzzy guitar intro propels the band into a powerful, if relatively conservative, reading of “Zoo Station.” Notable, though, is that Bono’s persona at this point is determinedly flashy, playing the crowd with grand gestures and a general body language very unlike the more tightly-wound presence familiar to the group’s older fans.

As the song ends the video monitors light up with “EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG.” As the band then launches into “The Fly” we reach, quite early in the show, what proves to be the band’s critical master stroke. As the band performs the song, the screens are appropriated by a rapid-fire barrage of videotext – as many as perhaps twenty words or phrases are flashed onto the screens in a single second, while others are drawn out over several seconds, one presumes for effect. The words and phrases themselves are curious in places. A string like “WIFE / VICTIM / RAPE / FOOD / SEXY / WAR / BLOODY / KIDS / TRASH / MOM / FRENZY / FISH / COLOUR / NIGGER” makes no apparent sense – you merely have random words generated and presented in, as Jameson might predict, a blank pastiche.

Other sequences, though, appear more substantive. In one procession we get this string repeated two or three times: “CHARGE IT / WEAR IT / DEBT / DOUBT / HYPE / HOPE.” This is closely juxtaposed with another repeated string: “GUN / PUSSY / SCHOOL.” This last part is obscure, perhaps, but the debt string appears purposive in light of both the consumerist theme I assert above and the context in which the word “charge” will recur later.

In addition to word bursts, the audience is presented at intervals with phrases which range from the hopeful to the platitudinous to the sarcastic and cynical. “THE FUTURE IS FANTASY; SUPERFICIALITY IS GOD; AVOID CONFLICT; IGNORANCE IS BLISS; IT’S THE REAL THING; CONSUME LATER; DO NOT ACCEPT WHAT YOU CANNOT CHANGE; CHANGE WHAT YOU CANNOT ACCEPT; BELIEVE EVERYTHING; DO YOU BELIEVE ME; YOU ARE A VICTIM OF YOUR TV/HATRED/APATHY/SELF; IS THIS ALL WE GET?; YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE; WHAT DID THE FIRST PUNK ROCK GIRL WEAR TO YOUR SCHOOL?; WORK IS THE BLACKMAIL OF SURVIVAL; I WANT IT NOW; BE GENTLE WITH ME; THIS IS NOT A REHEARSAL; ENJOY THE SURFACE; FREE MANDELA; THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT; AMBITION BITES THE NAILS OF SUCCESS; IT COULD NEVER HAPPEN HERE; TASTE IS THE ENEMY OF ART; BELIEVE” (with the “BE” and “VE” fading, leaving only “LIE”); “MANIPULATION IS ART; YOU ARE NOT IMMUNE; EVERY ARTIST IS A CANNIBAL; CELEBRITY IS A JOB; DEATH IS A CAREER MOVE; MOCK THE DEVIL AND HE WILL FLEE FROM THEE; REBELLION IS PACKAGED; RELIGION IS A CLUB; CONTRADICTION IS BALANCE; I’D LIKE TO TEACH THE WORLD TO SING; GUILT IS NOT OF GOD; TOMORROW BELONGS TO ME; EVOLUTION IS OVER; SILENCE = DEATH; DEATH IS INEVITABLE; EVERYONE IS A RACIST EXCEPT YOU; ROCK AND ROLL IS ENTERTAINMENT; WEAR A CONDOM” (U2 1994).

The cumulative effect is numbing. The pace of the bursts makes catching and processing everything impossible, and in this sense U2 has quite successfully presented a microcosm of our mass mediated consumerist everyday lives. We are literally assaulted by sales pitches – I have heard estimates of anywhere from 1600-3200 per day – and seemingly no institution is innocent of contributing to the noise. In the videotext above, we see that most elements of our culture are represented – corporations, religions, advertising, schools, art, criticism, all are in some fashion called on the carpet.

The problem is that the form allows for no consideration of depth. All messages have been democratized, and the sublime is diluted at every turn by the ridiculous (“wear a condom” is potentially life-saving advice; “I want it now” is the impulse which arguably necessitates the condom message). On the surface, then, meaning has been rendered unknowable, and in the final moments of the song we find the band cynically undercutting sloganeering and the shallow ideology of social change. “IT’S YOUR WORLD YOU CAN CHANGE IT” is projected on the screens, then recycled over and over in a rapidly accelerating loop (in total this phrase is looped at least thirty times in twenty seconds, with one burst probably looping it fifteen-twenty times in five seconds). Upon seeing this the crowd explodes in a frenzy of cheering – on the heels of such a confusing mush of mixed signals, we shouldn’t be surprised to see idealistic young U2 fans seizing fervently upon a moment of hope.

However, it only appears that this phrase has been presented over and over in a reaffirming cycle of hope. In fact, the third and fourth loops replace “change” with “charge” – “IT’S YOUR WORLD YOU CAN CHARGE IT.” Again, consumerism is challenged, and this time it is challenged within the context of U2’s traditionally positive social-consciousness. They have always been a band spreading the rhetoric of change, but here they undercut the message, implying that the potential for change is undercut by rampant consumerism. We are, it seems, mortgaging much more than our financial futures. As noted, the song began with “EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG”; fittingly enough, as the final chord fades into the crowd’s frenzied cheering, the monitors resolve into “WATCH MORE TV.”

We might read this performance as a subtle, yet pointed indictment of a culture hijacked by television and its attendant consumerism. The shallowness of the culture is certainly evident in every facet of the presentation, and Bono’s televangelist and Macphisto indulge in a decadent wallow which, at the very minimum, paints an unseemly picture. Macphisto’s appearance, ninety minutes in to the show, signals the coming-out of the self-indulgent parody. Gold-suited, gold glittered platform shoes, washed out pale makeup and bright red horns – “Look what you’ve done to me,” he tells the crowd. “You’ve made me very famous, and I thank you.” He then announces that his time among the audience is almost over (we’re into the encore at this point) but he is leaving a legacy in his wake. “I leave behind video cameras for each of you.”

But there’s more. For the people of America: “I gave you Bill Clinton – I put him on CNN, NBC, C-Span.” He thanks the people of Asia, “without whose tiny transistors none of this would be possible.” The people of Europe he has united – when he came among them they were bickering and fighting, but now they are “all hooked up to one cable, as close together as stations on a dial.” He has given the people of the former Soviet Union capitalism, “so now you can all dream of being as wealthy and glamorous as me.” And in the bitterest irony: “people of Sarajevo, count your blessings. There are people all over the world who have food, heat and security, but they’re not on TV like you are.” Macphisto’s is the unapologetic, sweet speech of the marketplace, but we the audience are clearly encouraged to recognize him as the Prince of the Power of the Airwaves. The message is bitter and unmistakable, and is wholly inconsistent with the question that launched this inquiry – has U2 sold out?

The counter-question, then, is this: has U2 recognized the hopelessness of the situation and given up? The answer here is more complicated. On the one level we can see that the band has, for now anyway, abandoned the Big Social Issue approach which defined their early work. Broad calls for peace and sharing have been replaced by the intimacy of the interpersonal. And it is in these smaller love songs that we can still sense the band’s power and intensity. Achtung, Baby‘s haunting “Love is Blindness,” the next-to-last number of the show, finds Bono summoning a young woman out of the audience. As The Edge offers up a brooding, impassioned interlude, Bono clutches the woman tightly, moving around and around in a desperate slow dance. He holds her as her sings the final verse, and only after the last strains of the song fade does he release her. It is hard to maintain cynicism at this point – the moment is both compelling and beautiful. And if we track the thematic and emotional trajectory of the performance we see that what began as spectacle, brilliant surface and bombast, has concluded in the deeply meaningful and personal relationship of two people. Fittingly, the final number is a wrenchingly pretty cover of Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.” Thematically, at least, this suggests that the journey from the social to the personal is an inevitable one. And if we can believe the power of the intimate moment, meaning is not beyond our reach. What has been lost in the grand political arena has been found, safe and secure, at home.


Sources Cited

Jameson, F. (1984). Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism. New Left Review, 146 (Jul/Aug), 53-92.

Storey, J. (1993). An introductory guide to cultural theory and popular culture. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

U2 (1983). War. Lillywhite, S. (Prod.) (Medium: Audio Disc.) New York: Island Records.

U2 (1984). The unforgettable fire. Eno, B., & Lanois, D. (Prods.) (Medium: Audio Disc.) New York: Island Records.

U2 (1987). The joshua tree. Eno, B., & Lanois, D. (Prods.) (Medium: Audio Disc.) New York: Island Records.

U2 (1988). Rattle and hum. Iovine, J. (Prod.) (Medium: Audio Disc.) New York: Island Records.

U2 (1991). Achtung, baby. Eno, B., & Lanois, D. (Prods.) (Medium: Audio Disc.) New York: Island Records.

U2 (1993). Zooropa. Flood, Eno, B., & The Edge. (Prods.) (Medium: Audio Disc.) New York: Island Records.

U2 (1994). Zoo TV live from Sydney. Mallet, D. (Dir.) O’Hanlon, M., & Oldham, R. (Prods.) (Medium: Videotape.) New York: PolyGram Video.


This paper may be downloaded, copied, and distributed as long as its authorship is fully and properly attributed.

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