A rock band shouldn't....

While I see the main task of this blog as tracking theologically-informed discussion of U2's work, I think I am ready to take a break from being a guide to others' Christian or Biblical reflections on No Line on the Horizon and make a few posts myself this week. Not a review, but some things that have struck me personally.

First, a more general comment on the black and white reactions to the album. One of the many very negative reviews complained that throughout it, "Bono usually sounds like he's speaking for us on subjects we wouldn't bother to consider." This comment has come to mind several times as I've gotten to know an album which definitely speaks for me, and on subjects that I consider constantly -- subjects which in my worldview are so central that I can't think of many I'd rank higher.

Now in one sense that disconnect is nothing new. It's no secret that some of the preoccupations traditionally seen as appropriate to pop culture have never been of much artistic interest to U2, whereas some of the preoccupations seen as gauche or taboo draw them in -- nor is it a secret that many people can't stand that fact. If you are one of those people, my guess is that you will especially hate NLOTH. As I have said to some friends, this is U2 distilled, 120-proof U2, synthesizing their previous work and considering very U2ey subjects in a very U2ey way. (As opposed to in a "classic U2 sound" way or a "the 90s redux" way or a "gotta get on the radio" way. See, I also think people who prefer to interpret the band through only one of the diverse titles under which they get pegged down -- U2 of the Joshua Tree, U2 of ZooTV, U2 of the Stadiums -- are less likely to enjoy this album. You gotta accept it all this time.)

But the particular NLOTH red flag to the bull, I'm beginning to think, is not just its distillation of the essence of U2 (bad enough!), but also its, if you'll forgive a technical Biblical studies term, Sitz-im-leben. This album speaks quite clearly from where the band actually stand: men nearing 50, mostly with long-term families, long-term experience in discipleship, long-term experience in staying in community, and enough perspective to have not just sorted through priorities but also reflected on different modes of addressing them. Statistically, this Sitz-im-leben is pretty rare in the West these days, and vanishingly tiny among the rock 'n' roll world. How many people today create or consume pop culture from the context of even one 33-year relationship, let along a whole gang of them? How many people today create or consume pop culture from the context of a complex spiritual worldview that's been slowly ripening in subtlety and breadth of application for even one decade, let alone three? If you already really like U2, you'll follow them there anyway and see what's on offer, but if you don't....

So no wonder listeners to whom that Sitz-im-leben is foreign, who don't resonate with its insights or imagine it having a valid place in rock 'n' roll, would find connecting with No Line on the Horizon very difficult, and see its whose essence as uninteresting and remote from anything anyone normal would "bother to consider."

This doesn't explain all the negative press, but I think it explains some, and really, it isn't that big a surprise. One of the reactions to U2 has always been "a rock band shouldn't do this." But in the end, haven't their violations of the list of things "a rock band shouldn't do" been the source of their power? From my vantage point, what's going on now is one more example.

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