Music for Cultural Zombies: A Meditation on the New U2 Album

by
September 17, 2014

I was the guy at my high school who knew all the hot bands–and the ones who would be hot even though nobody knew it yet.

I remember when I had Queen’s first three albums before anyone had ever heard of them and found out they were coming to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, a mid-size venue for Los Angeles County. I convinced a few of my friends (who I don’t think had ever heard of them) to go with me. “Killer Queen” had been a moderate hit the previous year, but that was all anyone other than me know about them. Then, about two weeks before the concert, “Bohemian Rhapsody” hit the airwaves. There we were, the only ones around with tickets.

At a reunion not too long after graduating from college, an old college roommate came up to me and said, “You know, you used to play music from all these bands that no one had ever heard of. And, a few months later, they would be really popular. “So tell me, what’s going be popular next?” I don’t remember what I said, but I hope it was something like, “Polka. Trust me.”

Then there was the friend at my fraternity, who, upon discovering I was a wealth of knowledge of the pop music world, would grill me every time he saw me about some band or another. I was walking through the lobby of the University of California Library one day and he stopped me. “Okay, I think I’ve got you now.” And he proceeded to formulate some question having to do with a band from Canada which was the only band that had gotten so far on the charts in America–or some such thing. “You can’t possibly know that!”

I looked at him calmly, and said, “April Wine,” as I turned and walked out the automatic doors, leaving him standing there dumbfounded (This is what passed for important knowledge at that time).

I’m trying to figure out how I knew all this, since, at the time, there was no Internet and very little information available on what is now the object of a whole industry. There was Circus magazine, which you could obtain at one of the few record stores around, Melody Maker, a British magazine―if you tolerate all the coverage of British bands that didn’t even have American releases. And then, of course, Robert Hilburn’s articles in the “Calendar” section of the Los Angeles Times.

Los Angeles was a great place to live if you liked rock music, since it was always on everyone’s tour schedule. I saw a lot of bands live growing up there. Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult, Queen, Kiss, Yes, Peter Frampton, Bob Seger, Cheap Trick, Jackson Browne, Al Stewart, The Dictators, Rush, UFO, Talking Heads, the B-52s, the Kinks, Kenny Loggins, Journey, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Gentle Giant, Thin Lizzy, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Sparks, and Be Bop Deluxe. There were others. I saw some of them more than once.

I remember a friend of mine and I going to see Devo at the Whiskey A Go Go before they hit it big in the early 80s with “Whip It.” It was also before they began performing as their own opening act at their concerts without anyone knowing about it. Before the show, my friend Wes and I had a couple hours to kill and we were walking down the Sunset Strip, seeing the sights. Wes had a T-shirt with a picture of the Tubes on it. The Tubes were a moderately popular band in the early 80s. As we were talking, a fairly tall guy walked up to Wes and said, “I like your T-shirt.” It was Fee Waybill, lead singer of the Tubes. They were playing at a club down the street.

I’m thinking about all this now that I’ve listened to the new U2 album that is partly famous because iTunes has released it for free.

U2 is one of the few classic rock bands that is still together and writing new music. Like the Heartbreakers, who also have a new release, U2 is one of the many classic rock bands that believed in meta-narratives. They couldn’t actually provide any, but they at least believed they existed. Aside from disco and other subgenres in pop music at that time that were about little other than having fun (through various means, including sex and drugs), many of the classic rock bands at least attempted to say something they thought might be significant. Most of the time they ended up trying to say too much, in which case they ended up just being pretentious (I’m thinking of Rush here).

Among the most pretentious musical events ever was, of course, the movie “Tommy,” a so-called “rock opera,” with music and performances by the Who. Because it was produced by a popular rock band, everyone was expected to suspend critic judgment and talk about how profound it was, a critical assessment commonly voiced by such expressions as “Oh wow” or “That was so radical” (expressions that were considered high praise among us knuckle-headed teenagers of the time).

Of course, there was nothing profound about “Tommy” at all. It wasn’t really about anything–or at least anything important. But everyone was expected to think highly of it because it was the Who and the Who were cool.

The only rock act of the time that made any real sense was Alice Cooper, and that was only because his act was a Vaudevillian stage play wherein the character he played was shown going to Hell (where, incidentally, he belonged). All of it, of course, was a tongue-in-cheek. No one took Alice Cooper seriously, especially Alice Cooper: He spent half of his stage act making fun of himself, dispensing with the need for the rest of us to do it. I still consider it a favor.

And there’s not much good you can say about Kiss, but at least there was no pretense to their unadulterated hedonism.

When it comes to popular culture you have to be thankful for small things. Bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, and Genesis, although they never pretended to say much that was very compelling (well, maybe Pink Floyd did), their attempt to say something could at least be taken as a bow to the idea that there were things about life worth saying that had some importance in this life and, sometimes, beyond it.

They at least tried to say something big, and if they couldn’t find anything particularly big to say, they said it big. In fact, the lack of any substantive message was more than made up for by the size of the show. Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” tour, and virtually all the concerts of groups like Yes and Genesis (when they were led by Peter Gabriel), were huge spectacles. They were big, bold, and gaudy.

Nostalgia for metanarratives

I wonder what it says about us now that bands no longer make much of an effort to actually put on a show? Today’s rock bands don’t even attempt to say anything big. They have small things to say and they expend little effort in saying them.

No one writes a song like John Lennon’s “Imagine” anymore, a song which evokes a wholly different world. In one sense that’s good, since I can’t imagine any world in which I would less like to live. I don’t want to live in a world in which there is “nothing to kill or die for,” or where there is “above us, only sky.”

But what’s worse than living in a world in which songwriters write songs about worlds that are not very good worlds is a world in which no one writes songs about other worlds at all.

We don’t live in a world in which songwriters can’t write such songs; we live in a world in which they won’t. It’s not that they can’t say anything big because they don’t know how; rather, it is because they don’t believe there is anything big to say.

Many of the rock bands of the 70s and 80s were pretentious because what had to say was less important than they seem to think it was. Now it is considered pretentious to say anything important in the first place.

In Jean Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, he defines postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Our culture now doesn’t believe there is any one narrative in which we can all participate, but only smaller, subnarratives under which we gather only briefly and for some small comfort, before having to disperse back to our atomistic individuality. “The narrative function,” says Lyotard, “is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, is great goal.”

We got the world John Lennon hoped for. Unfortunately it is a world in which a song expressing hope for such a world could not be written.

What we are left with in a world without metanarratives is a world in which there is nostalgia about a world with metanarratives. Has anyone noticed the recent blizzard of shows about “the 60s”? Why are we engaged in this frenzy of nostalgia for the 60s?

I’ll tell you why.

We look back longingly on the 60s because it was when John F. Kennedy announced his vision for putting a man on the Moon. It was when Martin Luther King, Jr. led the Civil Rights Crusade and the March on Washington, D.C. It was when Lyndon Johnson launched the Great Society programs. there were grand causes and

What do we do now? The big, bold imaginative quest, like the Apollo program of the 60s and 70s, is too expensive, or too troublesome, or simply not realistic. It doesn’t address any of our current priorities, the chief of which is what benefits me personally. The safe, comfortable little individualistic world in which we live militates against it. We got what we wanted: a bottomless pit of information and goods from anywhere on earth. We’ve got air conditioning microwave ovens, and wide screen TV.

Was there something else we needed? Comfort kills culture.

Our contracted imaginations are simply incapable of even formulating any kind of grand vision. And we try to find causes big enough for crusades, but they’re getting harder and harder to find. All the cultural walls have been scaled. All the barriers have been broken. All the cultural landmarks have been removed.

And besides, isn’t The Walking Dead coming on in a few minutes?

The best we can do is something like gay rights. But that’s a poor excuse for a crusade. Despite the comparisons with African Americans, gays were never enslaved, they never had to live in separate neighborhoods or go to inferior schools or had to drink at separate drinking fountains.

Never happened.

Discrimination against gays is largely a myth. In fact, they’re wealthier than everybody else on average and have political clout way out of proportion to their numbers and are celebrated at every cultural juncture by the media and entertainment industry. The only danger they are in is suffocation due to over-adulation.

The gay rights movement is nothing more than the muscle twitch of a tired, dying culture.

And then, of course, there is Woodstock. How many television specials have we had now celebrating what was, essentially, a big, over-haired, drug-induced orgy? The attempts to exalt an event in which a whole bunch of spoiled, overgrown adolescents show up and behave, well, like spoiled, overgrown adolescents are nothing short of comic. But at least if you take away the pretense of “freedom,” you can see what kind of society modern liberals really want.

And if you want to see something other than old reruns of it, just go to a college coed dorm hall.

But what about space, the final frontier? It’s too expensive to explore, and besides we need the money to prop up Medicare.

We can’t do culture big anymore. All we can do is admire the past era in which we could. Which brings me back to the new U2 album.

What is U2’s “Songs of Innocence” about? It’s about nostalgia for meta-narratives. U2 is a classic rock band that has lived past its era, “chasing down the dream before it disappears,” as Bono sings on the first track. To speak to the current culture it can no longer evoke the great; it must instead evoke the era in which the great could be evoked. “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” is not about greatness, it is about the memory of thinking things could be great.

Of course, I remember the first Ramones album. I had it before anyone else. One listen to “Blitzkrieg Bop” on the radio and I was on my way to the record store. But I grew out of it: I not only grew out of liking it, I grew out of the idea that it was worth liking.

But we live in a culture that refuses to grow up.

“The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) is Bono’s nostalgic reminiscence of hearing the punk band the Ramones for the first time. It begins with an anthemic chant, much like the Ramones’ cartoonish “Hey, ho, let’s go” from “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Then the crunching electric guitar chords, and then the oversimplistic drum beat―Ramonish fixtures all.

The Ramones were the quintessential nihilist band. They may have invented torn jeans and T-shirts of the kind that you can now buy in high-end stores for some ridiculous price, I’m not sure. From the way they visually presented themselves to how they played their instruments bespoke the philosophy of nothingness. Joey Ramone sang in a mock monotone, Dee Dee Ramone played an intentionally unremarkable bass, Tommy Ramone played pretty much the same no-frills drum beat in every song. Then there was Johnny Ramone, the guitarist of the band who bragged that his guitar playing style (such as it was) was entirely without blues influence, which was just another way of saying it was devoid of human subtlety. It was a styleless style.

And by the way, the blues thanks Johnny for disassociating himself from it.

Everything about the band evoked a senseless and sterile world in which human feeling had no context and human aspiration no place. A broken relationship was reduced to “I don’t want to walk around with you,” anger to “Beat on the brat (with a baseball bat),” and all the while they just wanted to be sedated. I don’t want to attribute too much intelligence to the band, but knew exactly what they were doing.

And boy did it play. In modern culture the demand for nihilism is bottomless.

Rolling Stone Magazine famously designated the Ramones one of “The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.” Yes. You heard that correctly. Then again, that probably says as much about Rolling Stone as about the Ramones.

So why would Bono so admire Joey Ramone? At first you’re tempted to think that the high tone of a song about something as mundane as the lead singer for a punk band is slightly comic, but when Bono sings that he “woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred/To a song that made some sense out of the world,” you begin to realize that there comes a point in the lives of many people in my generation when you either grow out of the attraction for the shallow appeal of the music you listened to when you were young, or you have to take it seriously and come to terms with what much of it really is.

If the song you liked asked you to Rock and Roll All Night and Party Every Day, it’s a little easier to shrug it off. You realize it is just silly and debased and you try not to think too much about it so you don’t end up unconsciously whistling it all day.

But in what way did the Ramones “make sense out of the world”? You could only say that if you just accepted their nihilism outright, something Bono seems explicitly to professes when he says, “I was young, not dumb/Just wishing to be blinded/By you…”

Make no mistake, Bono knows how to fashion a lyric:

We use language so we can communicate

Religion so I can love and hate

Music so I can exaggerate my fame

And give it a name

But the irony is that the worldview championed by the likes of the Ramones is the very thing that has ended up making groups like U2 obsolete and irrelevant. U2’s concerts were never quite the big productions of many other classic rock bands, but they at least wanted to be about something. They and musicians like them are less and less able to communicate to a culture that rejects the grand narratives they were once able to voice. But, hand it to them, they’re smart enough to know what they are still capable of doing, which is to reminisce about the time when this could still be done.


Martin Cothran
Martin Cothran is the editor of Classical Teacher magazine and is the author of Traditional Logic, Books I & II and several other textbooks on logic and classical rhetoric. He also serves as senior policy analyst with the Family Foundation of Kentucky.