January 30, 2002

What's Wrong With Vague?

Cross-posted on @U2.

A recent front page article on MSN's Slate.com sought to balance the stifling accolades the band has received this past year with some mild criticism at the expense of U2's lyrics and "political" credibility. Slate's criticism is levied at the idea that U2 and, in particular, Bono is able to fool fans into thinking their vague songs and lyrics have profound social and political meaning and laugh all the way to the bank.

It's my opinion that this does happen quite a bit in U2's '80s work, but it's nowhere near as conniving and calculated as this article would like us to believe, and if so, no more than any other pretentious and egomaniacal artist. For U2, these are age-old criticisms and generalizations and not all of them are true; many of Bono's lyrics on U2's '90s work are very personal pieces with universal appeal.

Author David Plotz makes a point in the article when he says that Bono's lyrics are full of unspecified "I"'s and "you"'s. The vast majority of them are, and this is the first (if not only) step into lazy lyricism. Bono himself has said that it's hard not to do that when trying to write lyrics for U2's music; the big, bold, two chord wonders demand lots of simple vowel sounds flying over them. However, a couple of their '80s tunes do stand out despite this: "I Will Follow" is a kind of mashed together pastiche of his faith in God plus a coded elegy for his mom, who died when he was 14; "Gloria" marks the point where Bono figured out he could write a religious song as pop tune, simply replacing "God" with "you" and presto! pop love song. Lots of other times he uses "you" as in "you know," suggesting conversation.

But none of this really gets exciting in terms of lyrics until U2's '90s material, wrongly derided, in my opinion, by many as "disastrous." Maybe for their bank books (those tours cost millions a day to run) but not, as conventional wisdom would tell you, in the lyrics department.

The 1991 album Achtung Baby itself is near perfect, on a relative Bono scale, in reinventing the way he writes lyrics. They've always walked the line of vagueness, and the nondescript pronouns are still here, but even a cursory glance at the lyric sheets gives away a few things: "The Fly" is a phone call from hell, with the narrator an angel spouting cynical truisms who "shines like a burning star" when "falling from the sky"; "Until the End of the World" is a fairly ordinary relationship tune until you realize the "I" is Judas and the "you" is Jesus, supported by various surrounding are they/aren't they Biblical allusions to the relationship between prophet and disciple. The album, arguably U2's best, is chock full of Bono's best work as a lyricist and is appropriately backed by (for U2) music of wild noise, dirty sex, and elegiac (instead of celebratory) abandon.

The follow-ups get close, but not as uniformly.

1993's Zooropa contains "The Wanderer," lyrically the best coup on that album, giving away the whole ideology of their work in that decade -- sinning to salvation, experiencing all there is to do in the world before repenting. Bono effectively sings this in disguise, getting Johnny Cash to stand up and deliver his lyrics in that booming-across-the-plains voice of God. "The First Time," earlier in the set, alludes to that same sentiment -- "My father was a rich man, he wears a rich man's cloak/Gave me the keys to his kingdom coming, gave me a cup of gold/He said 'I have many mansions, and there are many rooms to see,' but I left by the back door and I threw away the key," sung resignedly over that same old ethereal backdrop.

U2's supposedly throwaway contribution to the 1995 Batman Forever travesty, "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me," is a weird but sharply apt commentary on religion and stardom, in that kitschy arrogant Bono way. The kicker line is "They want you to be Jesus, to fall down on one knee, but they'll want their money back if you're alive at 33." That cliched notion of the best rock stars as messiahs, living fast and dying young, is, if you can believe it, simultaneously celebrated and skewered by our erstwhile arrogant poser.

1997's Pop album has plenty of trifles, but the much-maligned "Discotheque" is not one of them, especially when you consider that whomever the character is in that lyric, he is quite desperate and beyond hope, preferring the superficiality of discos and raves instead of actually dealing with his life. "Please" and "Staring at the Sun" are terrific and better "Sunday Bloody Sunday" updates, mostly because they're more personal, but the standout tune on this album, overlooked by everyone until they reprised it briefly on the Elevation tour, is "Gone." Ostensibly a rebuttal to the fame-sucks school of reluctant superstars like Cobain (who only had a guilty conscience) and especially the self-proclaimed arbiters of cool in the indie-rock scene, the lyric proudly declares "I'm not coming down!" -- from stardom's heights, apparently. "I" is Bono himself, and "you" are all the folks who judge his work.

Any of this is of course open to wild (mis?)interpretation, but I think that's one reason for the lyrics being so vague: anyone can find whatever they want in them. It's something I've tried very hard to reconcile with the story-tunes of Springsteen and Dylan, especially when I try my own hand at this kind of thing. You don't want the lyric to be too personal for anyone else to relate to, but you also don't want it to be so vague as to be fluff. Bono's fallen off the fluffy edge for most of his career, but when he actually tries, he's pulled off a few zingers.

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