by B. Lee Miller
I spent one semester (okay, maybe more) of my six years as an undergraduate uncertain what I wanted to do with my life. I transferred to a different school and took two courses I just wanted to take, courses I couldn’t afford to take at the much more expensive private university I had been attending: Psychology and Sociology. The Psychology course was the type that had over a hundred students in the class, where the professor just read from the book, and where we took tests over what the professor head read from the book. There was generally poor attendance (the professor didn’t take attendance), except on test days. The Sociology course had about twenty students in it and was taught by a graduate teaching assistant. We had a sociology textbook that looked, cost, and weighed about the same as the psychology textbook, but the course was approached more as a discussion course, which is more possible with 20 students than with 100.
In the Sociology course, we were asked to write a term paper in which we used basic terminology in the study of sociology to interpret some phenomenon. It just so happens that I had spent the last year and a half working at Hastings Books, Music, and Video, and that one video that had caught my attention was U2’s “Zoo TV: Live from Sydney.” That video was made of clips from the last leg of U2’s tour in support of “Achtung Baby,” and then “Zooropa,” which they wrote and recorded during the tour. Now, you have to understand, I was not a huge U2 fan. Yes, I liked “Joshua Tree” well enough, but I didn’t really get what all the fuss was about. When the film “Rattle & Hum” came out – panned for its seeming self-righteousness – I was in high school. I saw it in the theatres. People danced in the aisles. I liked it well enough, but parts of it have grown on me over the years. In any case, the response to that film and album (also titled “Rattle & Hum”) left U2 openly deciding it was time to go away for a while and “reinvent” themselves as a band. The result was “Achtung Baby” and the “Zoo TV” tour.
My brother bought me copy of “Achtung Baby” for my birthday. I listened to it. Like a lot of people, I thought, what is this? There was a mixture of dance, pop, rock, even some overtures to grunge. It was U2 plugged in and untamed (in an era when everyone was going onto MTV Unplugged). After listening to it once, I set it aside as…meh…. My response to “Zooropa” was even more tepid. It wasn’t until, out of boredom, that I rented “Zoo TV: Live from Sydney” that I discovered a real interest in what U2 was perhaps doing at the time. I was fascinated by the film and when given an opportunity to write a school paper on it – in a Sociology class – I took it.
During the first set, Bono appears on stage covered in black leather, his hair slicked back, and with large bug-eyed sun glasses. He is “The Fly,” from the song “The Fly,” and he’s standing back watching the stars fall because of one man’s lie, a blending of Bono’s struggle with his own faith, but also his own role as a pop star. But the first set also pushes back against the criticism of U2’s self-righteousness, as well as of their popularity. In both sound and lyric, dress and posturing, but also by taking to excess the very things they are criticized for, U2 pushes everyone back so that they can be alone on the stage, the only real insiders, even as the fans, who don’t realize they have been made outsiders, express their adulation. Messages are flashed across large TV screens as the band plays “The Fly”: Everything You Know is Wrong, This Is Not a Rehearsal, Taste is the Enemy of Art, BELIEVE, Religion is a Club, Silence = Death, Contradiction Is Balance, Watch More TV. The Fly then pauses for a brief monologue in which he comments that this is a rock-and-roll show, that “you haven’t come all the way out here to watch TV, now have ya’?” The songs that follow, mostly from “Achtung Baby” very clearly engage in cultural and religious discourse, attempting to provide a counter-culture stance from an, admittedly excessive mainstream perspective. Everyone’s an outsider.
However, lest their fans grow weary of being made outsiders, lest they become numb (In a later set, “Numb” becomes an anthem critiquing first-world political-military-economic exploitation of third-world peoples), U2 then walks a long path out into the middle of the crowd and plays an “unplugged” set that includes a cover of Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love”: “I love to watch things on (Zoo) TV.” The Fly has removed his bug-eyes and turned back into Bono, just a regular guy singing about love, faith, hope, and regular people. But when they return to the stage, they blow things up again as they “Bullet the Blue Sky” and a have much larger than life visit on TV from Martin Luther King, Jr., clearly one of Bono’s heroes. Bono and U2 have welcomed their fans back into the fold as insiders celebrating hope. And then the stage goes dark.
When sound returns, we hear a Russian folk song and then the beginning of “Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car.” Bono sits in a dressing room, outfitted in a gold suit, platforms, and gold horns, putting on lipstick – he is Mr. MacPhisto – while the rest of the band are on stage, dressed clean cut in uniforms – offspring of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Fans are both insiders on the allusions, but also on the role of Mr. MacPhisto, which, ironically enough, is to keep the fans at bay. Mr. MacPhisto interrupts the encore with a monologue. Often he will make a call to the President of the United States, but tonight he calls a taxi to take him home. The operator hangs up on him. Mr. MacPhisto, the flashy gold symbol of the excesses of the stardom about which Bono and the ban are ambivalent, has no place in this world.
As Mr. MacPhisto listens to the beep, beep, beep after the operator has hung up, “Lemon” begins: “A man makes a picture/A moving picture/Through the light projected/He can see himself up close”; “A man builds a city/With banks and cathedrals/A man melts the sand so he can/See the world outside.” The Fly/Bono/Mr. MacPhisto/U2 have been the ultimate insiders, have reached the peak of stardom, only to discover that it’s awfully lonely up there on top, that the gold-sequined devil in the mirror has not future, and they are now struggling to be both outsiders and insiders at the same time, to keep their fans but keep them at arm’s length. It can’t be an accident that the final two songs are “With our Without You” and “Love Is Blindness.”
There’s a degree to which the whole concert (or clips of several concerts), caught on film, performs a cultural ritual, fulfilling the desires of the crowd while also keeping the crowd at a safe distance. In a sense, they have attempted to perform the carnival function (a sort of endorsed period of joyous reversing of serious ritual that especially targets representatives of institutional power), but find themselves both the subjects and objects of the critique (and preservation) of power distribution implicit in carnival. They are deeply conflicted, but seem to know it. They want to be adored, but they don’t want the criticism that always comes with adoration.
I still have that paper that I wrote for Sociology 1510 at the University of North Texas and turned in February 27, 1995. The written comments used words like “insightful” and “excellent writing skills.” The best comment, though, was in person, when my instructor said that the paper made him want to go out and watch the video. I wonder if he ever did.