Bono Does America Again

Tue Jun 06 2017

Bono has had a thing for this concept that he calls “America” ever since U2 first visited here in 1980. I grew up in the ‘80s myself, and where I lived, patriotism was incontrovertible. As far as I knew, everyone in the world saw the U.S.A. as the land of opportunity, freedom, all that shit. I can’t really say if it was still true in the ‘80s or not. I assume that it was a truth for some segment of the population at some point in the past 240 years.

At least in the current state of human society, things like opportunity and freedom depend largely on government, and if there’s one thing the left and right can agree on in this country, it’s that our government is broken. No matter who’s sitting in the White House, the government doesn’t operate according to the best interests of the majority of its citizens. So maybe you’ll forgive me if I’ve lost all my patriotism.

I don’t go to U2 concerts for the politics, but I don’t begrudge Bono his various soapboxes. He has perhaps been more visible as an activist than a musician for the past couple of decades, which bothers a lot of people. His presumed tendency for self-aggrandizement also bothers people. I have to say when you project motives onto pop stars who have no actual impact on your life, whose minds you cannot know, it says more about you than about the celebrity. But Bono’s probably okay by now being every hipster’s whipping boy.

I confess that Bono bugs me sometimes, too, and I’ve been all in on U2 basically since I could discern my own tastes in music. On the band’s last tour, he really bugged me. I attended three of the four iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE shows in Chicago in 2015, and the self-indulgent autobiographical bent of the first sets grated on me more and more each night. (I wrote more about those shows here.) Furthermore, at a time when I could’ve used a little pointed proselytizing, Bono was up there appropriating tidbits from the news in painfully calculated stabs of melodrama. “America’s not a country, it’s an idea!” he shouted night after night. ‘The idea is dead, though, Bono’, I thought, night after night.

The poor bastard just can’t win, even with a diehard like me.

I imagine nationalism must be virtually inescapable for an Irishman. Your particular landmass is still split into two: one autonomous chunk and one chunk still ruled by a country that treated your ancestors like rodents. Whichever side of the political or religious or socioeconomic divide you fall on, your Irishness is inseparable from your identity. I chide myself for it, but I can’t even separate my identity from my own Irish heritage. Still I can’t fathom the inner conflict of an Irish citizen grappling with nationalism. I’m probably only connected to that culture because the country I was born in has no identity of its own beyond capitalism and systemic racism. It’s too damn big to unite under any one culture or ideology, even if the government weren’t hopelessly corrupt. 

U2 played a few spotlight mini-gigs last fall, and Bono was throwing out some anti-Trump rhetoric. Like most of us, he was certain there was no chance that that human abomination would actually become president. U2 were reportedly on the verge of releasing part two of their current album cycle, and the election pulled the rug out from under them. On one hand, it’s pretty funny that Trump’s victory invalidated an album that was going to be called Songs Of Experience; maybe they should’ve just renamed it Songs Of Misguided Idealism. Still, I have to respect them for taking a step back and acknowledging the sea change in the world, and I can’t fault them for being taken by surprise, that’s for sure.

The fans had been promised a tour, though, so rather than carry on with promotion of an album that was no longer forthcoming, they threw together a 30th anniversary tour for The Joshua Tree. It’s not my favorite U2 album, but as a fan, you can’t possibly not like it. The added bonus is that I could go in this time knowing that the two Soldier Field shows were going to be virtually identical and not get my hopes up for setlist surprises like last time. I still refrained from researching, though.

Thanks at least in part to my lowered expectations, I enjoyed this run more than the i+e Tour, though it was tough contrasting this relatively lo-fi stage setup with The Claw that invaded Soldier Field the last time U2 dropped by in 2011. That 360 Tour truly delivered the best conceivable stadium concert experience, while this Joshua Tree outing did not boast pristine sound nor a decent line of sight for most folks. U2 tours usually take years to engineer, and this one clearly did not, but as you may have picked up on at some point over the years, my eyes are usually closed if the music’s any good, and the sound was good enough, so no major points deducted. Historically, back-to-basics has been a good move for U2.

Another thing you may have picked up on about me is that I generally don’t care for play-a-whole-album shows, mainly because they tend to be very constricting, but that’s hardly an issue in this case, since the typical modern U2 show is just about the least spontaneous type of performance there is. I was happy that the album was sandwiched inside, the way Springsteen did Born To Run back in 2009, rather than its own separate set. It was odd hearing “Bad” so early in the set Saturday night, though! I need to get a little more emotionally prepared for that song! In its place on Sunday was “A Sort Of Homecoming”, in a pretty radically reimagined format that I found exhilarating. Otherwise, the main sets were identical both nights, aside from Bono banter.

As far as the Joshua Tree portion, they played it with very little deviation from the script. I was incredibly moved by “With Or Without You” the first night; don’t ask me why. There was surprisingly little improvisation in “Bullet The Blue Sky”, usually a showcase for both Bono and The Edge to experiment a bit, but not on this tour, apparently. “Red Hill Mining Town” was augmented by prerecorded horns à la the Record Store Day remix. Side B was really the more exciting portion for me, since none of those tunes get played much in the latter years, and obviously “Exit” was the biggest thrill; having come of age on Rattle & Hum, I felt like I’d been waiting my whole life to experience this song live. 

There were some minor miscues on Saturday night that seemed to be smoothed out on Sunday, making for a somewhat more energetic performance, and the crowd’s singalong efforts were much improved on Sunday as well, especially on the set-closing “Mothers Of The Disappeared”. Bono was in absolutely stellar voice both nights, and I'm still hoarse from trying to keep up with him. 

Aaand Bono had to start in on the pro-America crap, didn’t he. “This is a great country!” he cried multiple times throughout the weekend. Seriously? On Saturday it took the wind out of my sails. Yes indeed, there were plenty of Trump voters there, surely. Does that mean you have to pander to them? When you’ve made it clear in the past that you find his divisive rhetoric self-evidently unsound? You have this forum, and this is how you choose to exercise this power? Grrrrrr.

Same shit on Sunday. All this faith in a ship that’s clearly sinking. He sounds like fucking Obama. Then it hit me. Maybe I’m the problem here. I wanted Bono to lash out at Trump; why? Don’t I get enough of that on social media, day in, day out? Judgment, judgment, judgment! I’ve let these cynical bastards on the internet who have faith in absolutely nothing poison my attitude towards people I have no valid reasons to lose faith in, whom I’ve always respected. This is not who I am. How did I let this happen?

My mind went back to something Bono said during Saturday’s show: “We’re all still trying to figure this out.” I’ve given in plenty of times over the past year to the impulse to express my frustration and disbelief in the form of mockery and bitterness and disdain towards anyone who supported Trump. It’ll probably happen again. Most people I talk to regularly are still in disbelief to a degree. Cynicism creeps in. But cynicism stems from a feeling of superiority. Here was Bono talking about everyone being welcome at a U2 show, no matter who you voted for.

I’ll tell you what, that is fucking bold. That is a bigger man than me right there. We've reached a point in this country where your opinion is mapped out for you based on your social status. There's no longer any audacity in taking a side; it's in acknowledging the humanity in your supposed enemy. Finger-pointing, belaboring your hatred for Trump, that’s easy. Extending an open hand and an open mind to people whose ideals you believe to be wrong? I’m still not there. I still have an awful lot of bitterness towards everyone who voted for Trump and every single bought-and-sold politician in the country. I don’t know if I could offer this kind of acceptance to those people, but it’s something to work towards. In "real life", I think and talk a lot about the illusion of separation. It is my sincere belief that we are all one. But I do get stuck in us-and-them. And here I am accusing Bono of pandering when what he’s preaching is what I actually believe.

We all seem pretty clear on the effects of anti-muslim rhetoric in promoting radicalization, but we don’t want to acknowledge the effects of snide intellectual disdain in galvanizing white nationalism. We think that our self-evident truths are more important than an attempt to bridge the divide. Fighting intolerance with intolerance does not seem to be working. I know I’m not the first person to make this connection. I know a lot of us are puzzling over this dilemma, how to get others to listen, and how to get ourselves to listen to them. I don’t have the answers, but deep down I know that Bono’s stance is unity and compassion, and I know I believe that these concepts are more powerful than their opposites. It may not always feel like that right now, but what do you really want to feed into? In the end, I trust an open mind over a closed one.

I’m not saying I’ve become a patriot now. I still think nationalism is doing way more harm than good, here at least. Maybe my attitude towards the U.S., though, is a sort of reverse-nationalism that’s also not helpful. Maybe I need to let go of the conditioning that patriotism is ignorance or xenophobia and allow people to believe in “America” if they want to. Like any religion, it can be devious, but people need to feel like they’re a part of something. There could be worse things, after all. Like it or not, I am a part of this.

Otherwise, if the loving arms of Uncle Sam still leave you cold, and the openness of the U2 community isn't your thing, there's always the gleeful malice of the anti-Bono internet crusaders. I’ll never understand it but I can tell that it’s a fun chest-thumping activity for them. We all have egos and they all flare up in different ways. The power to bring joy and spiritual uplift to millions of people around the world for decades is a difficult thing to understand, even for us fans. For my part, nothing but gratitude to Bono and the boys for bringing us there yet again, and for challenging my preconceptions yet again, and for still trying to figure this all out right along with us.

Oh, and the new song they played in the encore on Sunday was pretty great, too. The end.
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