The establishment conformity of Bono
Rock music was not meant to be profound
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Christmas comes but once a year, and when it does it brings not only good cheer but a raft of cheesy movies and a wheelbarrow full of celebrity memoirs. This year is no exception and, for those of my generation, the arrival of one such by Paul Hewson, aka Bono of U2, is likely the one that will catch the eye in the airport bookstore or the Amazon homepage.
For Christians who came to faith in Britain in the early ’80s, U2 was hugely influential, combining proper rock music (as opposed to the Christian kitsch kind) with apparently deep spiritual lyrics. In retrospect, however, those of us who jumped on the “U2 as profound and Christian” bandwagon were guilty of a serious category error.
This became evident to me in 1987 when I heard them play on their Joshua Tree tour at Wembley Stadium. They were supported by Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground and another Irish (or perhaps better Anglo-Irish) band, The Pogues. There was no doubt which Irish band stole the show, and it wasn’t U2. The reason was simple: Shane MacGowan and his pals understood something about rock music that seemed to have passed over the heads of Bono and the boys: rock music is about having fun. Try to make it profound and it rapidly becomes a strange mix of preening self-importance and pseudo-profundity. It can also lead people to mistake gibberish for depth and even error for truth. Bono, unfortunately, never seems to have grasped this.
Rock music is intrinsically trivial, and I say this as a rock music fan who has been to more concerts than I can remember. Rock began as teenage rebellion in the affluent post-war years and was rapidly commodified. The very concept of “teenager” emerged as part of a perceived commercial market. Rock became pre-packaged and safe rebellion. That we now have Sir Mick and Sir Elton, that Led Zeppelin was honored at the Kennedy Center, and that Bruce Springsteen can do a podcast series with President Obama, tells us much about how rock has become part of the conformist establishment in the west. Even punk rock, the ultimate in pop music iconoclasm, eventually sold out to commercial interests, as critic Stuart Jeffries has recently argued.
Now, as a phenomenon, rock music can tell us much about our culture, but it is nonetheless an intrinsically trivial and permanently adolescent medium. That is why Bono in his sixties and Sir Rod Stewart in his seventies still dress like teenagers. Yes, it has made some fine social contributions—Live Aid in 1985, for example. But again, it was not some intrinsic quality of rock that made the contribution. Like anyone who runs a marathon for charity, the stars simply gave of their time and talent to raise money. Commercial status meant they could do it on a grander scale, that is all.
U2 emerged, of course, at the perfect time. It was the moment of the rise of postmodernism as a cultural mood, with its emphasis on pop culture and its prioritizing of surface over depth. Bono’s ability to draw on biblical themes in his music gave all the appearance of theological sophistication and even orthodoxy, something seized upon by young Christians at the time.
But where did it lead? Well, it surely did not lead to anything approaching an orthodox Christian anthropology. U2 intervened in both the debate about gay marriage and Ireland’s discussion of abortion, in both cases on the wrong side. And in the classic contemporary fashion: not with profound arguments but superficial appeals to emotions, again reflecting that postmodern ethos of style trumping substance, feelings trumping truth.
As Bono declared in 2015 when Ireland voted for same sex marriage, “Millions turned up to vote yesterday to say love is the highest law in the land. … If God loves us, whoever we love, wherever we come from, then why can’t the state?” Profundity, rockstar style.
With the launch of Bono’s memoir, I suspect the church, at least the church of us fifty- and sixty-somethings, needs to brace itself for a round of nostalgically grounded reflections on Bono the profound Christian, Bono the deep lyricist, Bono the prophet. In which case it is worth remembering that fame and the aesthetics of celebrity are often seductive and can pull the audience in directions incompatible with the faith. Most now acknowledge, for example, that celebrity pastors are a problem. What we need to remember is that the problem is not the fact that such people are pastors. It’s the “c” word, not the “p” word that is so dangerous.
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