Friday, May 22, 2015

the ever evolving bullet blue sky: U2′s innocence and experience

The U2 innocence and experience tour began last weekend in Vancouver. It included Bullet the Blue Sky, a song which had disappeared from the U2 360 tour.

This is fascinating given I have previously written about how Bullet the Blue Sky as a song has evolved over time. In “Bullet the Blue Sky” as an Evolving performance (in Exploring U2: Is This Rock ‘n’ Roll?: Essays on the Music, Work, and Influence of U2) I focus on a number of evolutions.

  • “See the Sky ripped open” describes the origin of the song, back in 1986. Bono asks the Edge to put the conflict in Nicaragua and El Salvador through his amplifier. They stuck pictures around the studio and the song emerged, as a contemporary psalm of lament.
  • “And I can see those fighter planes appears” on the Elevation tour, in Dublin, in 2001. It evolves from a psalm of lament to a moment of confession. A spotlight shines upward, searching for fighter planes, then focuses on both the crowd and Bono. Graphics note the worlds five biggest arms traders – USA, UK, France, China, Russia – which are then linked to the IRA and the British army. What was a song focused on American influence in Central America is now focused on all countries that traffic in bullets that rip on the skies of Ireland.
  • “Outside it’s America,” occurs in Chicago in 2005. A number of song samples (Jonny Comes Marching Home, Gangs of New York) are used. Bono adopts a number of theatrical postures, that reference prisoners blindfolded in the Iraqi war, while a fighter jet is projected behind him. This is followed by a prayer “for all the brave men and women of the United States.” It feels like a prayer of intercession, in which the impact of the war in Iraq is considered.

I then use theory of installation art to understand this evolving performance. I note the use of samples (song snippets, visuals, performance posture) and how these create connections and awaken communal memory. The work of De Oliveria, Oxley and Petry (Installation Art in the New Millennium: The Empire of the Senses) is a rich resource. They talk about the creation of an experiential space which allows “a viewing of the self contemplating the external world.”

I apply this to the evolving performance of Bullet

The self can lament at the external world at Paris; the self can confess at Slane Castle and the self can both confess and petition in Chicago. U2′s use of sampling crafts an experience that allows introspection with regard to how one should act in the relation to the wider world.” (Exploring U2: Is This Rock ‘n’ Roll?: Essays on the Music, Work, and Influence of U2, 94).

The reappearance of Bullet in the new U2 Innocence and experience tour is thus yet another, quite distinctive, evolution. The lyrics undergo a dramatic change, with new verses written to reference not the conflict in Central America but talks in Davos and the use of cell phones. There is a song sample, which needs further discussion. What is most intriguing is what seems to be an interplay during the performance of Bullet between young Bono (19) and Bono (now). He seems to be “patting himself” down. The adolescent is engaging with the rock star, including the rock star so mocked for his social justice activism (including going to Davos).

This adds another whole dimension of “a viewing of the self.” It is a contemplating of the self in the external world, when young, and now middle-aged. This is perhaps what is at the heart of the innocence and experience tour, a self looking back. This introspection can allow a contemplation of what has become. Whether this is lament, confession or intercession depends on the actions of the self.

Importantly, having reflected, having “patted oneself down”, one is now freed to consider not only what one has become, but what one is becoming.

Posted by steve at 11:10 AM

Friday, December 19, 2014

U2 above across beyond: great cover and out

Fabulous cover for just released U2 Above, Across, and Beyond: Interdisciplinary Assessments


It emerges from the 2013 U2 Conference, held in collaboration with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. One of the chapters is mine, “Transmitting Memories: U2’s Rituals for Creating Communal History.” It is one of eight, that explore from the disciplines of organizational communication, music theory, literary studies, religion, and cultural studies ways U2’s dynamic of change has been a constant theme throughout its career.

Here’s the book blurb:

U2’s success and significance are due, in large part, to finding inventive, creative solutions for overcoming obstacles and moving past conventional boundaries. As it has embraced change and transformation over and over again, its fans and critics have come to value and expect this element of U2.

Thanks to the editing and publishing skills of Scott Calhoun, who directs the U2 Conference, is curator for the U2: Made in Dublin exhibit, and is professor of writing and literature at Cedarville University.

If you order directly from the publisher with this discount code — LEX30AUTH15 — you’ll save 30% off the list price. This code is free for the sharing.

Here’s the table of contents:

Introduction: U2 TRANS- Scott Calhoun

1. Collaborative Transactions: Making Sense (Again) for U2’s Achtung Baby, Christopher Wales

2. Transvaluing Adam Clayton: Why the Bass Matters in U2’s Music, Brian F. Wright

3. Translating Genres: U2’s Embrace of Electronic Dance Music in the 1990s, Ed Montano

4. A Transcendent Desire: In Defense of U2’s Irishness, Arlan Elizabeth Hess

5. A Transmedia Storyworld: The Edge Is One, But Not The Same, Fred Johnson

6. Transgressive Theology: The Sacred and the Profane at U2’s PopMart, Theodore Louis Trost

7. Transmitting Memories: U2’s Rituals for Creating Communal History, Steve Taylor

8. The Transformative Fan: The Bricolage of U2 Live, Matthew J. Hamilton

Posted by steve at 07:55 PM

Sunday, September 21, 2014

processing Palestine

It’s been an intense few days. We landed at Tel Aviv on Thursday and have spent the last few days exploring Bethlehem, dipping our toes in the River Jordan, visiting Orthodox monasteries and walking Qumran.

In between has been the inevitable exposure to the deeply riven conflicts that shape this land. Passing police checkpoints and refugee camps, walking the Separation Wall, reading the experiences of Palestines, recorded on the wall as part of an oral museum project.

In trying to process the experiences, I’ve found “Cedars Of Lebanon” by U2 to be helpful.

First, the complexity, perhaps impossibility of understanding, “Squeezing complicated lives into a simple headline.”

Second, the whiff of hope “This shitty world sometimes produces a rose. The scent of it lingers and then it just goes”

Oddly poignant, given my becoming aware of the Rose of Sharon a few months ago, only to see them for sale today near Jericho. They are a plant that remains dry and dessicated for years. It looks dead. But just add water, and wow. What is dead springs to life, flowers, seeds, then prepares for drought once again. An extraordinary symbol of hope.

Third, the one to one human reactions; “Soldier brings oranges he got out from a tank.” That every encounter between “nations” in conflict is in fact a one to one moment between humans.

Fourth, the final verse. It is pure Bono genius, so let me quote the entire verse

Choose your enemies carefully ’cause they will define you
Make them interesting ’cause in some ways they will mind you
They’re not there in the beginning but when your story ends
Gonna last with you longer than your friends

It’s brilliantly lyrically, the repetition of “c” in line one; the contrast between “beginning” and “end” in line three; the juxtaposing of “enemies” in the first line with “friends” in the last. It’s great poetry. (It’s also superb musically, the significance of this verse highlighted by the delicate edge “hammer on.”)

It’s also deeply Christian. Love your enemies is a concept unique to Christianity. It is a radical approach to conflict, a refusal to let the victor-victim narratives define those who participate. Instead, the inversion of power, the gift given to all participants, to chose how they respond, not in the best of times, but in the worst of times.

Posted by steve at 05:42 AM

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

colours of creation

I believe in the Kingdom Come,
Then all the colours will bleed into one

It’s a line from U2, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking. It’s in stark contrast to some of what I observed today, and have been experiencing over recent months.

Today, the Spice Market in Istanbul. Such richness of colour in the world of spice, so linked to taste, in the food we eat.


In June, in Sydney, an art installation in the main foyer. It included a fan, gently blowing, that allowed the colours to move, touched by the wind. So soon after Pentecost, it seemed a wonderful expression of Pentecost, the wind of God’s Spirit that does not bring uniformity. Instead, as each heard in their own language, it brings individuality, affirms culture, encourages diversity, insists on contextualisation.


Over Christmas, a bead shop in Christchurch. Again, such richness of colour. This time, so linked to play, the creative act that is bead making. So close to Christmas, an expression of the act of creation, in which God lavishes not mono-cultures, but the enormous diversity of creation.


Me things, U2 that you’ve got you’re theology wrong. The colours of the Kingdom are not bleeding into one, but into the rainbow of God’s purposes.

We live in such a rich world. Bring on the colours of creation in all the tables of humanity

Posted by steve at 04:59 AM

Monday, October 28, 2013

Spiritual Complaint: the theology and practice of lament

A new book just out – Spiritual Complaint, edited by Miriam J. Bier and Tim Bulkeley, in which I’ve got a chapter.

The book begins in human experience, the recognition that personal and communal tragedies provoke intense emotion. It recognises that in Scripture such emotions were given expression in complaints or laments. Bringing together biblical scholars, liturgists and practical theologians, this book begins to provide a bridge between these worlds in order to enrich our ability to respond appropriately to personal and communal tragedy and to understand these responses.

The writing of the book was a move toward genuine collaboration. Papers were presented in a context designed to encourage fertilisation and thus final drafts were encouraged to engage with the other contributors. It was an attempt at bridge building. Further, many of the writers had connections to the Christchurch earthquakes and thus the book becomes grounded in that reality, including liturgies of lament written for Christchurch (167-169).

There are 15 chapters – 8 explore Biblical texts, 2 explore worship practices and 5 explore lament in contemporary cultures – Maori lament, lament poetry of Burmese Karen refugees, lament in digital cultures, lament in pilgrimage through Israel, lament in rock concerts. The last chapter is mine, co-authored with my Old Testament colleague, Liz Boase, in which we explore the live performances of U2 after the Pike River Mining disaster and Paul Kelly after the Black Saturday Bushfire tragedy. We use the Old Testament genre of lament to analyse these performances and argue that culturally lament still happens, just outside the church. Here’s our conclusion (227):

A consideration of both the history of the performers – U2’s past use of songs as memorial or lament works, and Kelly’s frequent use of biblical allusions within his music – alongside the production commentary of the U2 concert, suggests that there was some intentionality in the creation of these lament contexts. In both cases, the lyrical wording and allusions introduced a markedly “Christian” expression of eschatological hope which potentially provided the language through which new beginnings might be made. These public laments may not resemble the typical biblical lament forms, but they do form a vehicle for the communal expression of suffering and grief.

I think it’s an excellent resource, an example of inter-disciplinary research that connects with everyday reality. What it needs is a number of companion volumes, in which the liturgies are tested, pastorally, and in which further voices are added to this particular human experience project.

Posted by steve at 09:38 AM

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

born to sing: finding joy in U2′s pilgrimage

The Jesus Deck card for me today, drawn randomly from the deck, is 9, Luke. The text is “My soul magnifies the Lord.” The main character is Mary.

She is barefoot. She stands on a road, that loops, turns and seems ready to carry her forward. Her hands clutch her purple clothes close. She seems paused, ready to walk, ready to adventure.

It is a call to pilgrimage. It is pilgrimage, suffused with joy, for she us clothed so beautifully. From her head bursts stars, from her mouth bursts words that magnify. It is a wholebodied venture – feet to walk, mouth to sing, soul to respond.

It reminds me of the words from U2′s Magnificent – “I was born to sing for you” – The Falke Radio mix, from Artificial Horizon is the best, a dance mix that captures so much of the joy in the song. It’s aided by the rhythm of the beat, the regularity and pace of breathing.

I struggle with much religious music. But U2′s “I was born to sing for you” invites me to walk with Mary, to go on the journey of pilgrimage.

With joy.

Posted by steve at 08:10 AM

Thursday, May 16, 2013

I’m in the Flinders Research Spotlight

Flinders Institute for Research in the Humanities have a monthly publication, in which they focus on research achievements. My recent U2 academic conference involvement is currently “top of the fold.”

The words ‘U2′ and ‘academic’ seldom occur in the same sentence. Rock music is often considered adolescent and entertainment. So how can it be academic?

Dr Jason Hanley (Ph.D. in Musicology) has helpfully observed that rock and roll is a cultural artifact. When researched, it becomes a way of learning about ourselves and our world.

It is this potential of music to help us to begin looking at ourselves in the mirror (to appropriate Michael Jackson), that led Dr Steve Taylor from the Flinders University Department of Theology to present a research paper at the second U2 Conference (April 25-28, 2013) in Cleveland, Ohio.

Dr Taylor’s paper utilised the work of sociologist, Paul Connerton, to analyse the live concert performances of the recent U2 360 tour.

For Dr Taylor, participation in the U2 Conference breaks down the perception of the university as “ivory tower.” It also brings a necessary inter-disciplinary perspective to the work of theology, helping it to reconceive its relationship with popular culture. … full article plus picture here

Posted by steve at 12:16 AM

Sunday, May 05, 2013

original of the species

for my kids

One of the optional events at the U2 conference in Cleveland included a discussion of U2′s music by Rev Kurt Wiesner, an Episcopal priest and U2 fan. He took a reader response approach, that a song can mean more than it’s original, authorial intent. On that basis he showed the video, noted that it was written by Bono for the daughter of a friend. He then asked a number of questions that generated a rich discussion. These included a key phrase, what might the song be saying about growing up, what if the voice of the singer was God talking to us?

Posted by steve at 11:51 AM

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Pop culture, Steve Averill, U2 and the Incarnation

Steve Averill, Senior Art Director at AMP Visual, was one of the keynote speakers at the recent U2 conference. He was introduced as speaking on what it means to turn sound into a vision. It was an important statement, a reminder that music is so much more than sound.

Steve Averill has designed nearly all of U2′s album covers. Many have won industry awards. He structured his talk around album covers, working his way through the U2 album sleeves he has designed. As he discussed colours, font styles, images and influences, you became aware of how much thought, care and imagination go into what we hold, the CD cover, what we wear, the concert T-shirt, what we see, the branding on the U2 publicity.

He noted the quirky eccentricities of the covers – that Bono wanted Bible verses on the cover of All you can’t leave behind, and so they added them in via the airport gate signs, that the picture used on No line on the Horizon was by artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. He was not willing for their to be any branding on his art. The solution was to etch branding onto the plastic CD sleeve.

He showed us the album covers that were influential, the album sleeves the band own, they listen to, they like – The Ramones, The Beatles.

Dr Jason Hanley, who holds a Ph.D. in Musicology, introduced and interviewed Steve Averill. He began by noting that rock and roll is a material culture. When you look at it, when you research it, when discuss it, you are learning about yourself, about your world, about your culture.

This should make sense to Christian theologians. The Incarnation, God coming in human body, is an honouring of the human body, of the senses, of what we see, feel and touch. Pop culture should thus be an easy and obvious area of theological research, both as an exercise in Incarnation, and as a way of helping us see ourselves, our culture, our world.

Posted by steve at 10:02 AM

Monday, April 29, 2013

Head and heart: a U2 conference review

I will remember this U2 conference for the way it brought together both head and heart.

It began for me with Natalie Baker’s fan film and the stories from fans of how U2′s music helped them avoid suicide and assist their healing from childhood sex abuse. Suddenly U2 was more than entertainment and the conference more than academic. It was inviting us into deep places.

It quickly went deeper, with Bill Carter sharing about his engagement with U2 in the Zooropa tour. His stories, of persuading Serbians to drive past sniper alley in order to share, via ZooTv, their story of living through the bombing of their city, took us even deeper, into the humanity that can emerge amongst inhumanity.

Finally, the presentation by Steve Averill was a further reminder that music is so much more than music. His sharing about the development of U2′s albums documented the visual and tactile side of music – the album and CD cover, the merchandising. It was a reminder that music is about communication, the colours and photos carefully selected to try and capture the essence of the music.

There were more many other highlights but for me, I will remember the head and heart being invited to be whole bodied.

Perhaps it was the jet lag. Flying overseas is always a disorientating experience, so perhaps the way my body responded was to seek another heartbeat.

Perhaps it was the venue, more compact, which encouraged more interaction and engagement.

But I suspect there was more going on, an important corrective for the work “academic”, which can easily hide behind footnote and theory, and in doing, so walk past the beating heart and whole body.

Thanks to all those who made the head and heart possible, especially the Calhoun’s.

For those interested, a brief summary of my contribution to the conference is here. And here is my review of the first, 2009, U2 conference.

Posted by steve at 07:53 AM

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Let us in the sound. My U2 conference paper

Some really positive, engaged, thoughtful response to my U2 conference paper this morning.

My argument is that U2 concerts act as corporate memory makers. I used as a theoretical conversation partner Paul Connerton’s How Societies Remember, (whom I blogged about in another context here). He suggests three categories, calendar repetition, verbal repetition, gestural repetition. I applied these to the U360 under three headings

  • Concert-rical repetition, an adaptation of Connerton
  • Verbal repetition, in which I looked at the different between album lyrics and live performance, using the U22 album. This data generated a corporate memory making around remembering the local, remembering the concert history and remembering people past.
  • Gestural repetition, in which I looked at Bono’s gestures, drawing on photos of live performance in From the Ground Up, the official photobook of the U2  360 tour.

All of which seemed to generate, as I said, some really rich conversation. So it looks like it has the legs to turn into a publication, either in Journal of Religion and Popular Culture or in the book that is intended from this conference, and which will accompany Exploring U2, the book that emerged from the first conference.

Posted by steve at 05:21 AM

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Let me in the sound of U2 conference

The last few days of my sabbatical and I’m heading Stateside, to attend the U2 conference.

I’ll collect my T-shirt.

I’ll present my paper – on which there has been quite some to-ing and fro-ing. It has taken a bit of detour as I wrote it, and is now focused on how U2 act as corporate memory makers, through analysis of U2′s live performance, including Bono’s physical performance gestures.

I’ll check out the conference and enjoy the input including Steve Averill, U2′s designer and Bill Carter, the journalist who provided U2′s links with Sarajevo during the dark days of the Bosnian war, plus the other academic papers.

And I’ll return, flying back Sunday. A very short trip stateside.

The last U2 conference (which was the first and also had a T-shirt!), was a whole lot of fun, so expecting the same.

Posted by steve at 07:53 AM

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Easter with U2: overview

It began with a question.

As many things do.

As I walked into church for Maundy Thursday, I wondered what U2 song, if any, might connect with the themes of this day? Which quickly prompted another question, could this extend over Easter? Which made for a personally rich Easter, as I found new ways to understand and appreciate the Christian story.

Here is the result:

Overall, looking back, I was surprised at the personal connections I made through the process. For example, Easter Monday and the image that emerged around busking as a kingdom sign – the improvisation, the public witness, the fleeting nature. Another example was Easter Sunday and seeing the Resurrection with the saints, the importance of belief as it is embodied in another.

Another surprise was the serendipity of the internet. I discovered on Sunday that Steve Stockman, author of Walk on: The Spiritual Journey of U2, was also, this Easter doing it with U2.

But could I do it again? If Easter with U2 (Easter@U2) was a pop culture lectionary, could it sustain a 3 year cycle? I doubt it, not without heading into abstract themes – betrayal, sacrifice, loss, surprise – that would have no specific lyrical references to Easter. Which has left me pondering. For all the hype in some Christian circles about the “spirituality” of U2, this snapshot would suggest they are hardly drawing from the Christian narrative.

U2 have produced 12 studio albums, at an average of 10 songs an album, that means a total of 120 songs. I drew on 4. That is not many, especially when the Easter narrative is so central to the Christian story.

I am not saying they need to. Christian art doesn’t need a cross to make it Christian. And I might be missing some other songs. But 4 out of 120 is not many. Which means I end where I began. With a question! :) (But a great soundtrack to keep me company.)

Creationary: a space to be creative with the lectionary (in this case, visual images on themes of pilgrimage). For more resources go here.

Posted by steve at 02:20 PM

Monday, April 01, 2013

Easter Monday with U2 (Bono and Glenn Hansard actually)

Make me a channel of your peace.
Where there is hatred let me bring your love.
Where there is injury, your pardon, Lord

At the funeral of Sargent Shriver, in January, 2011, Bono sung. It was an old Franciscan prayer, in a duet with Irish busker, Glen Hansard (of Once fame). Glen and Bono blog together each Christmas in Dublin, raising money for charity (see here for an example).

But this is a very different affair. This is a funeral, and together they offer us Resurrection hope. “And in dying that we’re born to eternal life”. (Full lyrics here of the song here).

Sargent Shriver was married to Eunice Shriver, and the U2 song “With our without you,” that appears on the U22 CD, the official record of the 360 tour is dedicated to her. She died in August 2009, during the 360 tour. It was Eunice, a tireless worker for justice, who opened doors for Bono when he fronted the Jubilee 2000 campaign.

Since Resurrection is not only for life, but also for living, it is an important reminder on Easter Monday – a call to be peace makers and healers.

For entire U2 at Easter catalogue

  • Maundy Thursday is here,
  • Good Friday is here,
  • Holy Saturday is here,
  • Easter Sunday is here).

For more of my U2 and theology reflections check the backcatalogue. For another popular culture take on Easter, see my Holy week at the movies.

Posted by steve at 10:14 AM