The band U2 has three central preoccupations (Christianity, the United States, and commercialism) and three major fan bases (those that have been with them from the beginning, those that bailed in 1988, and those that jumped aboard that year). The two sets are linked by the release of Rattle and Hum, the album that first addressed the band member's status as major rock stars and money makers, and marked a lessening of their endless condescending sermonizing. As a member of the third variety of fan, I can tell you precisely when U2 won me over. At 4:20am whilst I was working as a custodian (I have a depressing job history), I heard the line from "God, Part II": "I don't believe in excess, success is to give/ I don't believe in riches, but you should see where I live." It was the first time I had ever heard them cop to any sort of moral weakness, a big one I mean, not like "loving too much," but actual hypocrisy. They used the money they made telling people off to buy themselves a big fat glass mansion and were beginning to be a little more cautious about throwing stones.
written by Sharon C. McGovern
U2 went underground for a few years following the release of R&H, and worked reworked their sound and look for Achtung Baby. The album was a coherent song cycle, essentially a hero's journey toward enlightenment (the sun) in the form of true, pure, Love--a longtime character in U2's dramas, with frequent distractions by sensuality and materialism (the moon). AB ends in a stalemate between the two impulses with the song "Love is Blindness." The singer makes a conscientious choice to defer the appearance of moral superiority for that of fallible humanity-a Roger Chillingworth pose for that of Hester Prynne. The song contains the line, "Take the money, Honey," and U2 spent the Zoo TV Tour selling themselves hard; but in a conspicuously theatrical way. And though it was refreshing to see them tackle something new, they are just too serious and upright to pull off irony. They clearly are not in the music business just for the cash, and no matter how much chief songwriter and front man Bono prances and smirks, the audience knows their "sell-out" is mostly snake oil.

Not that he hasn't gone to some impressive lengths to sell the sell-out. His work on Zooropa is a subtler, more beautiful variation on Achtung Baby, with more commercial references but better odds for the singer's redemption. For Passengers: Original Soundtracks 1, the entire band went undercover to do an art piece. Pop promised consumerist decadence, but Bono's best lyrics lyrics delivered the same solemn beauty at which he excels. No surprise then that the most successful example of U2 as product was not written by Bono, but by U2 guitarist The Edge.

The song and video "Numb" is the only U2 single written and fronted by The Edge, though his voice can be heard in the background of most of the band's songs. In that capacity, it adds to Bono's vocals a big, vibrant quality, like balalaikas under church bells. "Numb" is a different proposition altogether. In it, The Edge lists in a monotone upwards of ninety negative instructions, with the repeated direction, "Don't project, don't connect, protect/ Don't expect, suggest." It's a syncopated delivery, but not punchy like rap; the melody happens around it. While The Edge intones as if issuing lots of new commandments, Bono sings in his flamboyant "gospel voice" the refrain, "I feel numb/ Too much is not enough." What enervates The Edge innervates Bono.

A simple video, directed by Kevin Godly, illustrates why The Edge-always quiet and reserved-has become battered and numb in a short, abstract history of U2. It begins with a faucet. Its dripping marks the beat, but when the camera pans down to show the water splashing on The Edge's head the image recalls water torture and brainwashing (which would explain his somnambulant presentation). Right off the bat, it shows how something pleasurable and benign, like a drumbeat or participating in one of the world's most successful bands, can seem like abuse.

Pictures: Top, The Edge, ZOO TV Tour
Middle: Bono & Fans
Bottom: Larry Mullen, Jr & Adam Clayton, "Numb" Video

U2's early years are represented by female fans, who coddle and pat him (see similar attention to Bono from his fans, (above), but bass player Adam Clayton visually remarks that they are just blowing smoke by blowing smoke in The Edge's face. The fans become more insistent, kissing him and twisting his face into a smile with their fingers. A little girl runs up and slaps him until she is dragged away. Hands grasping scissors snip away his tank top, leaving him naked (okay, we can only see down to his shapely shoulders, but that's the implication). This is The Joshua Tree era, when U2 reached unprecedented levels of exposure (that album set a record in England by going platinum in 28 hours). U2 filmed and recorded during The Joshua Tree tour, which resulted in the movie and album Rattle and Hum. In this venture, the band paid homage to rock and roll's American roots, and consciously inserted themselves into the history of rock music by singing about blues icons like Billie Holliday, covering songs by The Beatles and Bob Dylan, recording at Sun Studios, performing with BB King, etc. It was a bold move and would have been unthinkable for a lesser band, but their songwriting had matured and their self-righteousness for once took a back seat to personal, even humble, expression. While they reached a wider audience than ever before, many of their core fans detested the project and persisted in describing it as a sell-out. Going back to the "Numb" video, this accusation is amplified by the fact the only article of clothing The Edge is wearing is a hat with a bar code on it-he is perceived as an object to be bought and sold.

You would think that sort of hostility would be too much and he just leave, but then drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. enters the frame on the left and Bono sidles up on his right, caresses The Edge's shoulder and neck and croons in his ear. Clayton approaches from behind holding a length of rope, but his head and neck are out of frame. The grouping is significant. Mullen, The Edge, and Bono are part of Christian sect that Clayton never joined, but which was important to the identity of the band as moral, and yes, preachy. The Edge and Bono are especially closely associated, one of those classic singer-lead guitar player dyads like Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Steve Tyler and Joe Perry. Plus, they are the only members of the band with nicknames that are popularly used and known. Clayton begins to wrap The Edge's head with the rope-surrounded and bound, The Edge couldn't leave U2 if he tried.

To represent the hiatus U2 took after Rattle and Hum, Bono pushes The Edge out of the frame and the dark, empty set is filmed for a good 40 seconds. Eventually, some out of focus figures drift past in the background. Clayton and Mullen have a seat, then move on. The moments pass as slowly in music video time as the years did while U2's fans waited for a new album, and when Achtung Baby was released their appearance and sound were as shiny and new as the jacket The Edge pulls on when he returns to the frame. He is even handed a bunch of roses, perhaps in acknowledgement that U2 recently seemed indebted to the band

Stone Roses. Even the fans are more aggressive, and have a decadent nature-the hands in his face have been supplanted by feet-and where before only women got close, The Edge is now fondled by men as well. A belly dancer, an important fixture in the Zoo TV tour (who later married The Edge), wriggles up into the frame, then out. Finally, a manager looking guy gives The Edge some sort of instruction, which he acknowledges. But at the end of the video he remains sitting, looking into the camera, resigned, numb.

"Numb" was on U2's album Zooropa, which was written and recorded while they were on the Zoo TV Tour as Rattle and Hum was during The Joshua Tree tour, and like that album was largely misunderstood and maligned. In fact, "Numb" was recently featured on MTV's presentation When Bad Videos Happen to Good Artists, where it was jeered by the likes of Pauly Shore and Carrot Top. Carrot Top! Now there is such a thing as a difference of opinion, and then there is where the hell does Carrot Top get off? I don't know where most of you stand on U2, if anywhere at all, but when it comes right down to it, who are you going to trust, me or Pauly Shore? Buy or borrow Zooropa immediately and let me know what you think.

(Written by Sharon C. McGovern)

I Feel Numb"
From Vol. 28
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