If I could, I would let it go.
Tonight I was bored and ended up watching some stuff that's been sitting on my DVR for months. Specifically, I saw the "Stadium Rock" episode of "The 7 Ages Of Rock", a program originally produced for British television that was aired on VH1 Classic back in December. I recorded all 7 episodes but only watched the first two back when they came on. I pretty quickly became convinced that these were just recapitulations of things I already knew, and that my advanced knowledge of the history of rock music made watching these programs a waste of time.
But tonight I was bored and since I've been emotionally fragile lately, it seemed like a program about rock music was a good one to watch and stay pretty emotionally neutral about. The first episode I saw was about heavy metal, and it was exactly what I was looking for--something kinda cool, something about music I really liked, something that didn't stir up any really strong emotions in me. Then I watched the episode about stadium rock, thinking it would be even less engaging and less about music that I liked. I wondered if I'd get bored before the end and turn it off.
What I wasn't thinking about was the fact that a bunch of bands I've really liked over the ages have been hugely popular, and that a lot of what connected with me about them was the sort of emotional sincerity and intensity that made them work for a lot of people. I've never been the sort of dude to make a big connection with Queen or Led Zeppelin, but there was a big segment of the episode about Bruce Springsteen, and that kind of sandbagged me a bit. Hearing songs like "Rosalita" and "Born To Run", even in the background during voiceovers, got me a bit emotional.
But nothing could have prepared me for the emotional wallop I'd receive when they started talking about U2. Now, I don't really listen to U2 much anymore. Even though they were one of the first bands I was seriously excited about as a kid--probably when I was about 11 years old--I've lost a lot of my enthusiasm for them over the years, and I don't really even think they've made that many good records in recent years. For me, their prime ended after "Rattle and Hum", and while "Achtung Baby" and "Zooropa" are still pretty good, even those records are 15+ years old now.
So yeah, don't think about U2 much. And for that reason, it's easy for me to forget just how amazing some of their classic anthems are. As a function of the whole "stadium rock" narrative that the program was constructing, the focus first turned to U2 when Live Aid was being discussed. I have long known that this was the beginning of U2's fame, but as I was only 9 when Live Aid happened, and since I didn't get really into them for a couple of years after that, I've never seen their Live Aid performance. I've heard about it, though, and I know the story: in the middle of an incredibly long performance of the song "Bad", Bono climbs down from the stage, pulls a girl out of the crowd, and hugs her. They slowdance for a minute, and he climbs back onstage and finishes the song. As described in Eamon Dunphy's U2 biography, "Unforgettable Fire", it's apparently a very moving moment, but I'd never seen it. Well, in the middle of this British TV show about stadium rock, there it was: about a minute of the U2 Live Aid performance, including the hug. And suddenly, watching it, I was bawling.
I know to a lot of people Bono is synonymous with overblown pretension, and I know that a lot of people see his attempts at sincerity as out-of-control egotism. I've never really thought that. In fact, I've always felt that, after "Rattle and Hum", Bono kind of freaked out at his own emotional openness during live performances, which is why U2 changed so dramatically at that point. He pulled back because, once they were as famous as they were, it was fucking draining to open himself up for 3 hours a night in front of 50,000 people or so. So he created all these characters and turned the performance into a stage show, and that was cool, I guess.
But for me, the earlier era of U2 is much better. It takes so much more guts to just go for it, to write songs about really intense emotions and then put them out there for everyone to hear, and it's even more impressive than that to perform them live without winking, without ever attempting to belittle the emotional connection that someone might have with a song but instead to maybe even accentuate such a thing. That's what I see in Bono hugging a girl in the front row at Live Aid. But I feel like I haven't explained why I see this adequately enough to make it clear to anyone else. So let me try to expand on all that.
After watching that stadium rock episode, I came up to my room and started working on cleaning it. Part of me has been feeling lately like the messiness of my room is keeping me from functioning very well while I'm in it, specifically preventing me from getting any writing done. So I've been planning to clean it for a while, and I was still kind of antsy after freaking out a little bit due to that unexpectedly affecting U2 footage. It seemed like a good thing to do to burn off some nervous energy and hopefully focus my thoughts and emotions a bit. But I wanted to listen to "Bad", so I grabbed the vinyl copy of U2's "Wide Awake In America" that I once bought for a quarter at a sidewalk sale and put it on. I've owned that EP for years, and I don't think I've ever listened to it before tonight, but I guess I knew when I bought it that there would come a point when I would want it. That foresight came in handy tonight.
As I cleaned my room, I kept playing the first side, the live side, over and over. Just "Bad" and "A Sort Of Homecoming"--about 12 minutes total. I probably heard it 10 times while I was cleaning my room. And I got a bit choked up while listening to "Bad" the first time through, but I figured I'd be OK after that. However, I kept getting emotional about it over and over throughout the night; I'd be OK the 7th and 8th time through but then get upset all over again during the 9th listen. I still wanted to hear it, though, and this is why: because I relate to it. I know from having read U2 biographies as a kid that it's about crappy subsidized-housing tenement neighborhoods near where Bono grew up, and specifically about the sort of drug abuse that happens in places like that, where drugs at first seem like the only escape from your crappy circumstances but soon become the very thing that's keeping you in those circumstances. Nonetheless, though, I see myself in the lyrics. A lot of songs that people write to express concern about the drug problems of other people sound to me like they could just as easily be expressing concern about depression. Drug addiction, after all, is often a symptom of insecurity, low self-esteem, or hopelessness, and so is depression. When Bono sings "If I could, through myself, set your spirit free, I'd lead your heart away--see you break, break away into the light," he's talking about wishing he could help someone break their addiction, but he's not being specific. The addiction could be cocaine, but it could also be feelings of depression, which, let me tell you, are just as addictive in their own way as drugs. See, depression becomes easy after a while. It's easier not to try and make your life better. It's easier to keep turning back to the same self-deprecating explanations for why things don't get better. It's hard to find that courage, to break away into the light. Sometimes it's fucking impossible. And while your friends and loved ones might wish they could do it for you, you can only do it yourself.
The music has a role to play here, too. "Bad" is based around a really simple song structure, in which The Edge plays a really simple rotating guitar riff and the rhythm section builds up to crescendoes, then quiets back down afterwards, several times. The song's most intense buildup, about 2/3 of the way through, coincides with a part of the lyrics in which Bono starts listing all of the bad feelings that the person he's singing to gets trapped in: "This desparation, dislocation, separation, condemnation, revelation, in temptation, isolation, desolation." When the buildup reaches its crescendo, he sings "Let it go!" It's a very powerful confluence of music and lyrics, and I've always gotten goosebumps from it, but at the same time, it's not that simple. Sure, "let it go, and so fade away" is an awesome idea where depression and hopelessness are concerned. One would like to be able to let go of addictions to negative substances, be they physical or emotional. But I feel like, in writing "Bad", Bono was smart enough to recognize that this is not an easy thing to do. Hence all of the comments about "If I could, I would"; he knows he can't. The song is a gesture of solidarity, at most, an expression of concern and an attempt to let the person it's directed to know that they are not alone. But he can't save them--letting them know that he cares is the most he can do.
And I feel like this is the context in which the hug exists. Coming as it does right after the big crescendo I mentioned before, coming after the last time in the song that he says "Let it go", the hug is just an extension of the supportive emotion that the rest of the song expresses. I know from the Dunphy book that he was doing this at pretty much every show during that era, that "Bad" had become a centerpiece of their live sets, and that, since they were typically playing much smaller venues than Wembley Stadium, where the Live Aid performance happened, it was pretty easy for him to wade into the crowd at that point in the song and hug someone. And doing so is more than just a physical act--it becomes a greater symbol, a hug for one person in the crowd because there isn't time for him to hug everybody. But I've always understood the gesture to mean that he wishes he could.
When I was in my mid-20s, Andy Greenwald published a book called "Nothing Feels Good", about the then-burgeoning emo culture. At the time, Dashboard Confessional was the biggest of the emo groups, and Greenwald's book focused heavily on them. Although I didn't like Dashboard Confessional too much, I was still interested in what the book had to say, because I grew up in the earlier, underground version of the emo culture. Funnily enough, it was Greenwald's book that got me into Taking Back Sunday, and led me to like a lot of the more mainstream emo bands that I'm into now. But anyway, the reason I brought this book up is because Greenwald talks extensively in the book about the way teenagers experience music, and how he felt this was affecting Dashboard Confessional's fanbase. He himself found the overwhelming sincerity and emotional openness of Dashboard Confessional's music a bit off-putting, as if it was a bit tasteless to just let it all hang out that way. However, in his experience writing about the band and their predominantly teenage fans, he found that the same elements of their music that bothered him were often the most important elements to Dashboard Confessional's teenage fans. He ended up concluding that, because the teenage years are tough times, emotionally speaking, full of experiences that have extensive effects on a person's psyche, that teenagers relate to music that is dramatic, sincere, and open, because they're trying to figure themselves and their own emotions out, and haven't really learned how to cover them up and tamp them down enough to experience them more tastefully. By extension, he figures that one's emotional landscape generally settles down by the time one enters adulthood, and teenage music fans who wanted the open displays of emotion that mark groups like Dashboard Confessional calm down and no longer look for this sort of thing in music.
Ever since reading that book, I've been hyperaware of the fact that I experience music in a manner Greenwald would describe as teenaged. I'm 32 years old right now, but I'm still having a lot of intense emotional experiences on a day to day basis that are hard to deal with. I'm still looking for music to make an overt, sincere connection with me on the basis of those very emotions. Maybe there are a lot of adults out there whose lives become calm and sedate once they hit their mid-20s or so, but it hasn't happened for me yet, and I wonder a lot of times whether it ever will.
I think the fact that it hasn't is a lot of what makes me still love U2's "Bad", still connect with the overt dramatics of their Live Aid performance of that song, and still think that the sincerity of early U2 is something to be appreciated in their music from that era, not something to sneer at and look down on. This is probably also why I still have a lot of sympathy for a guy like Bono, even though these days he seems like more of a laughingstock than anything for most of my peers. I don't really like what U2 releases anymore, but I'll probably always have a place in my heart for their first 8 albums or so, and I'll probably always respect them, and Bono in particular, as artists.
It seems to me that for a lot of people, it's easy to get cynical about Bono and plenty of other performers like him (Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance, another band I unabashedly love, springs immediately to mind). It's easy to look at the elements of U2's music and performance that I've always seen as sincere and emotionally-motivated gestures as pretension, egotism, and a desire to be worshipped. I think the difference between what other people see in Bono and U2 and what I see in them really derives from where we are in life. It's easy to be cynical about music, and about musicians, when you don't need it, and you don't need them. It's the difference between what for them is background entertainment and what for me is often a virtual lifeline--the thing that is saving my life on that particular day. At times like the one I'm currently going through, a song is sometimes the only thing that makes me feel OK enough to keep on living. Maybe if I could have a little more emotional distance on the subject, I could better evaluate whether Bono is sincere or just pretentious, whether "Bad" is an incredible song or just overblown melodramatics writ too large.
I don't know if I'll ever get there. But really, I don't mind that much. If I need these songs to save my life, so be it. At least I can always count on them to be there, to give me a virtual hug at my lowest moments.
U2 - Bad (live, from "Wide Awake In America")
U2 - Bad (at Live Aid--full performance)