book cover imageExploring U2: Is This Rock ’n’ Roll?
by Scott Calhoun (ed.),
Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2012, 276 pp., hardcover, $60.

Music is better heard than described. So the Scott Calhoun-edited Exploring U2: Is This Rock ’n’ Roll? naturally suffers from handicaps in a way that The Unforgettable Fire or Achtung Baby does not. Alas, for some fans of the Dublin quartet U2, it has never been about the tunes. Aside from the inherent difficulties in words attempting to evoke sounds, Exploring U2 stumbles in imagining its subject as everything from political conscience to church to charity to marketing brand to Irish cultural ambassadors. Many people who find music boring find U2 exciting.

The book’s essays stem from a university conference on a rock band. Never does academese sound as silly as when its opaque jargon tackles accessible pop. Rachel Seiler writes, “U2’s music is rich with potential for transformative learning through challenging taken-for-granted assumptions, creating spaces for open dialogue, and developing critical perspectives; it can promote a culture of peace by integrating and valuing complexity and intimacy, relationship, and interconnection and by articulating a need for fundamental changes in values, attitudes, and behaviors for critiquing oppressive structures and developing alternatives to cultures of war characterized by violence, authoritarian decision making, exploitation, and the image of the Other as enemy; and it is useful for Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed by heightening empathy for and identification with the Other and challenging the ‘education for social control’ model known as the ‘banking approach.’” One wonders if the author regards the period as one of those “oppressive structures.”

On the flipside, Stephen Catanzarite explores U2’s role in bringing him to conservatism, and his conservatism bringing him to Russell Kirk. He concedes that U2, like much of rock musicdom, probably identify more with the political Left, and that “aside from a penchant for destroying television sets,” Kirk had little in common with rock stars. But he nonetheless tries to make a connection between the music he listens to and the writer he reads without really convincing the reader of that connection. One thinks of Weathermen sifting through “Yellow Submarine” or “Subterranean Homesick Blues” for marching orders—or Seiler imagining Paulo Freire as the Bono of academia. Catanzarite notes Kirk too, has Irish roots, intellectually at least, in the person of Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman. He believes there is some common ground between Kirk and U2, at least in their common conviction that in “an age when moral relativism, scientific materialism, and biological determinism seek to consign the idea of objective reality to the ash heap of history, U2 has had the audacity and simplicity to proclaim its belief in ‘three chords and the truth.’” Ultimately we learn more about Kirk than U2, but Catanzarite’s approach may prove promising.

The best pieces reveal something about U2’s music rather than the author’s political enthusiasms.

Neil McCormick, a rock critic long acquainted with the band, outlines the recipe that made U2, well, U2. He cites the Emerald Isle’s seventies status as a pop-culture outpost as help rather than hindrance in fostering originality: “Irish isolation from rock trends was surely a huge advantage.” He credits U2’s inventiveness on the presence of an inventor within the band: “The fact that the Edge turned up at the first rehearsal with a homemade guitar was just a tantalizing hint of what was to come.” Perhaps of greatest importance for McCormick is that U2 has always had the same ingredients in Adam, Larry, Edge, and Bono. By way of comparison, The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, and Guns N’ Roses each has more ex-members than U2 has members. U2 has never had its Yoko, its band-killing overdose, its disintegration through litigation. They may have played a rock cliché on the Zoo TV tour. But the same four guys for thirty-six years and counting is anything but done to death.

Kevin J. H. Dettmar’s “Nothing Succeeds Like Failure” sees the roots-rock Rattle and Hum album as a catalyst for the creative upheaval of Achtung Baby and beyond. “Rattle and Hum ranks up there with the great miscues in rock history,” Dettmar holds. “The band threw itself ‘into the arms of America’ (the phrase that closes ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’); America threw it right back, rejecting the perceived musical imperialism of an Irish pop group that ought to have known better.” But the “it” America threw back was cash, placing Rattle and Hum on Billboard’s top spot for over a month. One wants to buy into Dettmar’s criticism given how poorly the album has aged. And even then its success owed more to the band name on the album than the music within it. It was the rare instance of an act known for its musical transience overstaying its welcome. Dettmar is perhaps guilty of projecting his decades-after-the-fact assessment on real-time reviewers and record buyers. But when he archly calls “Desire” “an original song that sounds for all the world like a cover,” and makes an emperor-has-no-clothes characterization of the experimental post-Rattle and Hum U2 as “falling back, after three albums, into a kind of adult contemporary complacency” in the 2000s, the reader surely finds his a tempting narrative.

Musicologist Christopher Endrinal explores the 1990s sonic restyling that provided U2 a sound unique not just from competing bands but from its past incarnations. “That decade saw vocal layering become a defining characteristic of the band’s sound, in addition to the Edge’s distinctive guitar echo and delay, the propulsive percussion of Larry Mullen Jr., and Adam Clayton’s rich bass lines,” Endrinal writes in the book’s standout essay. “It provided an avenue for Bono to create his Fly and MacPhisto personae, and it allowed the band to add even more complexity and richness to its already intricate and multilayered sonic signature.” The strident ’80s rockers’ reincarnation into ’90s industrial Eurotrash club-kids owe much to the contrasting high-low vocal registers on “The Fly,” “Ultraviolet,” “Numb,” “Do You Feel Loved,” and other tracks on Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop. The University of Massachusetts-Lowell professor notes, “Out of thirty-four songs that compose those three albums, eighteen (approximately 53 percent) employ vocal layering. In fact, there are more songs in this style period that use vocal layering than there are in the band’s other three style periods combined.”

Exploring U2 is a lot like its subject. When it’s about the music, it commands attention. When it’s not, tuning out is effortless.  

Daniel J. Flynn is the author of Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America (ISI Books, 2011).