THE UNFORGETTABLE FIRE
U2 still rock with a purpose, but charges of hypocrisy call for a response.
Deep in the winter of 1980/1 I had a spiritual awakening which altered the course of my life. I had believed in God, but it was at this time I became convinced of my need to follow Jesus seriously. For most teenagers growing up in the north thirty years ago, it was a symbol of your essential existential angst to wear black at all times and subscribe to soul destroying music by groups whose LP covers would look like scenes from Cold War Gdansk on a grey Monday morning. That winter I came across the music of a rock group little known in Britain which was singing a different tune, one which perfectly described how I was suddenly feeling as a young Christian. I was beguiled.
U2 have come an awful long way since then. Rock music is supposed to be non-conformist, but U2 have always worn their non-conformism the wrong way round. They stormed the music scene singing about spiritual joy and the hope of a coming kingdom. Their earnestness grated on a lot of people in the music world but no-one doubted the courage shown in the song Sunday, Bloody Sunday which made a pacifist stand over the troubles in Ireland at their height, when American audiences were baying for rebel music from a group of young Irishmen.
The lyrics about faith are less overt now, but no more hidden than the allegories of C.S. Lewis of whom Bono is a fan. Aware of their reputation, the group made a conscious turn towards irony and self-awareness in the 1990s which can still manifest itself: Josephine, be careful of small men with big ideas we are warned by their ubiquitous lead singer on the new album No Line on the Horizon. But the sense of cause has never been lost and is perhaps now more counter-cultural than before. The concert at Wembley in August 2009 featured tributes to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy champion under newly imposed house arrest and Iranian street protesters, risking imprisonment and torture under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The politics of the Middle East and south-east Asia are hardly fashionable territory for stadium rock, nor the scandal of African poverty which is only sporadically trendy in our public life but which U2 has not deserted.
The mind-bogglingly vast and versatile stage set for the current tour has raised a few eyebrows as well as turning heads. It has been estimated as stamping a carbon footprint as big as one that would get you to Mars and back and the criticisms have, I suspect, wounded the group. Musician David Byrne has questioned the integrity of their position on African poverty in denting the environment like this. This tour may be the last of its kind. However, it raises a wider question about integrity and professional life.
The term professional is so watered down today that it amounts to little more than doing a job to the best of your ability. The original Latin, professio, suggests that, to be professional in anything, we should be able to point to a meaning or an ideal which is higher than the job itself. Those who seek to do this will be judged by this standard – and sometimes found wanting. Hypocrisy is considered one of the worst of all secular sins today but the way people guard against it harms ethics in public life. Many choose not to espouse any lofty ideals to avoid being labelled a hypocrite if they fall short. A good society needs these ideals to thrive, but we are so busy judging others for not matching up to their aspirations that we are retreating from the rhetoric we need to better ourselves. On this account hypocrisy is an overrated vice and may sometimes be merely the sad but necessary evidence that we still cherish standards we do not always reach. I do not say this to justify U2 but to highlight an unsettling trend in public life.
U2 will soon be taking their stage set across the Atlantic, where they are appealing to their U.S. fans to help them off-set their carbon emissions. Someone once suggested to me that the world to come should be a place where you can worship God to the tunes you love, not the ones that are chosen for you. If so, then there was for me at Wembley a teaspoon’s foretaste of what lies ahead:
I was born to sing for you
I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up
And sing whatever song you wanted me to
I give you back my voice
After thirty years in the business, the fire is still burning.
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