U2’s continuing quest for authenticity

Bono. Gary Hershorn/Reuters

“We wanted to make a very personal album,” U2’s Bono told Rolling Stone upon the release of the band’s most recent album, Songs of Innocence. “The whole album is first journeys…geographically, spiritually, sexually. And that’s hard. But we went there.”

Those first journeys also include some of the band’s formative musical influences, including The Ramones and The Clash, who are examples of stripped-back rock and roll par excellence.

Now, the band is slated to embark on its iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE tour in support of the album.

For this tour, the band is certainly scaling back: they’ll be performing in the relative intimacy of arenas. It’s a stark contrast to the record-shattering production of the band’s last tour – called U2 360 – which was seen by about seven million people in huge, open air stadiums and grossed over US$700 million.

On the surface, it may seem as though U2 is suddenly seeking a return to the simpler times of its early years, both in their sound and their performances.

But for those who have followed the band’s career closely, talk of returning to “roots” of some kind when a new record is released is nothing new for U2. If anything, it reveals the well-worn strategy of a band that seeks to remain relevant even as it ages – a pattern of alternating between radical experimentation and mining the myth of authenticity.

Two poles – sometimes blurred

The first time this trope was invoked was with 1987’s The Joshua Tree and the follow-up album and documentary film Rattle and Hum. For those albums the band, weaned on 1970s punk, turned back to the American triumvirate – blues, folk and gospel – the deeply “authentic” music they felt they’d missed out on growing up.

In interviews from this time, they began their tendency to, off and on, romanticize “stripped-down” rock and roll.

This backward turn came in the wake of the band’s first project with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire.

Interestingly, that album’s atmospheric, experimental sound was enthusiastically embraced by the band as an attempt to switch gears from the hard-driving, guitar-oriented, stripped-down rock that characterized 1983’s War.

The live shows that have supported the band’s more experimental albums have been suitably mammoth endeavors, often taking place in outdoor venues, with every technological bell and whistle imaginable in tow.

But the sound of the group’s music doesn’t swing quite as easily between these poles as their discourse around it would suggest.

For example, the atmospheric, experimental influence is present on Songs of Innocence (The Troubles). Meanwhile, the stripped-back sound can be found on the most “out there” album in U2’s oeuvre – 1997’s Pop – in tracks like Wake Up Dead Man and The Playboy Mansion.

Extravagant productions often accompany the tours of U2’s experimental albums. The band’s stop in Mexico City during its 360 tour drew a crowd of over 100,000 people. Henry Romero/Reuters

The tension of fame

So why frame the process of making an album as a kind of recurring existential crisis? One that seems to require a radical rethinking of musical and thematic direction?

One answer to this question comes from what counts as “authentic” in rock culture: the quest narrative – the constant search for “realness,” for what is perceived to be “genuine.”

Led Zeppelin, for example, “reinvented” themselves on their third album, turning to acoustic folk music. The infamous battle between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards over whether to stay true to the band’s blues roots or move in a more contemporary direction began with their 1983 album Undercover.

But U2 is particularly committed to this narrative. Their need for reinvention, the casting off of what came before, the re-examination of directions, the restlessness, can be viewed as part of a discourse that helps construct U2’s rock authenticity.

I’m not suggesting that their quest is disingenuous. But one only has to look at musics other than white rock to see that the terms of authenticity vary with genre, among other things.

In fact, it could be argued that there’s no such thing as authenticity, except in the minds of those who construct the idea.

For the band, however, there is more to this discursive struggle. Rock authenticity is premised on a revolutionary sensibility – a rejection of authority. And rock musicians who become commercially successful often struggle with how to remain true to these ideals.

The strategy of forever searching for a new sound becomes especially important in these circumstances: there’s nothing that shatters respectability like a commercially successful rock band that rests on its laurels.

Returning to one’s “roots,” though, or being on the cutting edge of contemporary music becomes part of the strategy to maintain credibility and relevance in the wake of unprecedented commercial success – to demonstrate that the ideals on which the band was formed are still driving them.

Could this explain why U2 recently made an (intially) covert busking appearance in a New York City subway station?

U2 recently performed – initially, in disguise – in a New York City subway station.

After all, busking is perhaps the quintessential authentic performance genre – live, unmediated, accessible, risky and non-commercial (if you don’t count the pennies collected in the guitar case).

Glitzy can be compatible with authentic

Interestingly, three out of U2’s last four records have been premised on the idea of “going back to roots” or “stripping down the sound.”

And ironically, these albums have been more commercially successful than the last two attempts at sonic experimentation (Pop and No Line on the Horizon). So one wonders – perhaps a bit cynically – if the “returning to roots” discourse is not only a means of reaffirming rock authenticity, but also a way to sell more records. This is as much an observation about critics and fans (for whom the discourse of rock authenticity is religion), than it is about the band.

For my part, I’ve always found U2’s experimental records and some of the gargantuan tours more interesting and more true to the spirit of rock and roll than their trips back to the past. Pop is a sonic masterpiece, as are Zooropa and Achtung, Baby. The last of these, incidentally, was also a very personal album, chronicling, among other things, the shattering effects of divorce (Edge’s) and the complications of being in love.

In fact, the mammoth Zoo TV Tour that supported Achtung, Baby and Zooropa was one of the band’s most politically astute and successfully mounted social commentaries. In a (self-referential) commentary on celebrity, Bono took on the character of the bloated, leather-clad, shade-wearing rock star. And the main premise of the show was a harsh critique of the desensitizing effects of contemporary media.

Thus, contrary to the well-worn dualism in rock between “small and simple equals good” and “big and glitzy equals bad,” some of U2’s most incisive music and social commentary have come out of the latter.

It seems that “small and simple” (if arena shows can actually fall into this category) is where they’ll land on this tour, but there’s already a hint of where the band is going for the next album. In a New York Times essay written on the eve of this tour, Bono had this to say about Songs of Experience, the album that will follow Songs of Innocence:

We’re keeping the discipline on songs and pushing out the parameters of the sound….One of the things that experience has taught us is to be fully in the moment. What’s the moment? Pop music.

And so the quest continues.