Thursday, June 28, 2012

U2 and the Quest for a #1

I love the band U2, of which I've made no secret. I've loved them since the first time I ever heard them. They're my favorite band, and have been for, well, a long, long time. Unfortunately, I missed out on their formative years, because I just didn't listen to that type of music at that time.

I grew up, as most people do, on my parents' music (more specifically, my mother's music). Not that everyone grew up on my parents' music, because I don't remember you all at my house when I was a kid, so I expect that you grew up on your parents' music. My mother was into folk stuff: Simon and Garfunkel; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Bob Dylan. There was a little Beatles thrown in, but I was never into them (my mom still (at least I hope it's still) has the white album and Sgt. Pepper on vinyl). Oh, and the Beach Boys. At any rate, when I finally got into music on my own (at the very old age of 15), I tended toward that kind of music and listened to a "light rock" station that played "hits from the 60s, 70s, and 80s." I was really into Air Supply if that tells you anything. What the station I listened to didn't play was actual rock music which meant that the station did not play U2.

The first time I ever remember hearing of U2 was my junior year of high school. I was dating this girl that was constantly asking me about songs of theirs, especially "Sunday Bloody Sunday." She couldn't seem to hold it in her head that I had never heard of U2 before she mentioned them, and I continued to not try to figure out who they were 1. because she wouldn't leave me alone about them. 2. because her other favorite group was Pink Floyd, and I was certainly not interested in them (thank you very much).

So it wasn't until the release of "With or Without You," a song that the station I listened to would play, that I finally heard a U2 song. I was instantly hooked. I loved that song. I had to know who that group was, and I was kind of not happy to find out that it was U2 1. because my (by then) ex-girlfriend had bugged me about them all the time. 2. because I wished I'd taken the time to see who they were when she was bugging me about them all the time. I dived into all of their older stuff along with The Joshua Tree and 1987 became my own personal year of U2 quite aside from what was going on with them and the rest of the world.

But what did it take for them to finally get my attention? A #1 single. And a #1 single was something that U2 actively sought. They were striving for it. This highlights the question for me of "Is it art if it's commercial?" And that's a whole different discussion, the difference between what is and what is not art, so I'm not really going to go into that; however, it has some bearing on where I'm going with this, so it had to be mentioned.

When U2 first got together, they didn't know what they were doing. Larry Mullen was the only one that really knew anything about music. They were just a bunch of kids that wanted to be in a band. But they practiced hard and learned. Not just learning to make music but learning who they were. That bit, the bit of learning themselves, learning their voice, was just as important as learning how to make music. One was learning the technical skills and the other was learning their specific art, their voice.

Skipping the history lesson, all of this lead to their first album, Boy. Boy and, later, October were received well critically, but they failed to achieve the kind of commercial success that they and Island Records wanted. They were making art, good art, but no one was seeing it. Well, hearing it. They wanted a #1 single, and they set about to get it. They wanted, in short, commercial success.

This is where a lot of people would say they "sold out." They let their desire to be commercially successful destroy their art. (Not that I know if anyone would actually say this about U2, but it would be said about a lot of other people in this position.) It's at this point that a lot of bands, writers, painters, artists of whatever stripe would have sold out. They would have looked around at what was popular and tried to mimic that, subverting their art into something that it wasn't in hopes of becoming popular so that "one day" they could return to what they really wanted to do.

U2 didn't do that. The used their desire for commercial success to drive them to become, well, to become more them. They didn't look around at what was popular in music and try to do that; they just kept pushing to get better. I look at it like what Michelangelo said about his sculpture David, (and this is a paraphrase) "I chipped away everything that wasn't David." I think U2 chipped away everything that wasn't U2 in becoming the band that released three #1 singles from The Joshua Tree. Certainly, they did not pattern themselves after  the things that were popular at the time as often what they were doing was at right angles to what everyone else was doing.

Often people look down on artists that want commercial success. It's as if the desire to be successful somehow makes them less. Makes them, in short, a sellout. Like it's a choice. You can either do art or you can be commercial. The truth is, though, that it's not a choice. Sure, so many of us think that it is that we frequently make it into a choice. For instance, the choice between writing a vampire/zombie novel (commercial) or writing about the long road trip through the desert (art).

The real problem is that too many people never figure out their specific art before trying to get the #1. They don't spend the time discovering their own voice so that they can become more of themselves when they're ready to reach for the goal of making their art a commercial success. Instead, they just strive for commercial success and leave their art behind hoping to go back to it one day.

The truth is that there doesn't have to be a choice. If you know your art, if you've spent time with it, learning it, discovering it, becoming it, when it comes time to achieve, you do that by becoming more "it." You chip away everything that's not "you," and you take your art along with you.

Yeah, yeah, I know, that doesn't guarantee that you get the #1. But, then, nothing guarantees that you get the #1. But, if you do, no one can call you a sellout, right? And you're still you. I think that's the key to all real success and to being happy in your success. The ability to become more of who you are, not becoming something you're not.

Learn your art. Become your art. Become more you.

I really wish I could give you my top 10 U2 songs or something, but I can't get it down to 10. I even like Pop and Zooropa, if that tells you anything. I'll think more about this one and, maybe, give you a top 10 countdown at some point.


  1. Andrew, this is a lovely post, one, because I love U2, as well, and wasn't introduced to them until The Joshua Tree. It is still one of my top 10 fave albums of all time. Right up there with Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and, yes, Jewel.

    Two, I recently purchased a self-help type book for my Kindle--You Are A Writer (So Start Acting Like One) by Jeff Goins--and he touches on this very thing. To write for you, write for the love of the craft, write because it makes you happy like nothing else. Not for the market, not because you think this is what people will want to read. Once you practice your art for you, you're home free.

    Great post.

  2. Some wise and deep thoughts this week!
    Sometimes bands do sellout, but often it's more a process of fine-tuning a band's style until they are polished - and that just happens to be marketable as well as good.
    And I was never a fan of U2, although my wife loved them, until "Beautiful Day."

  3. And thought I'd add that while I am perfectly happy with commercial success as a writer, it would be different with music. As a guitarist, I'd go more for the artistic. Progressive rock isn't very commercial anyway.

  4. "The real problem is that too many people never figure out their specific art before trying to get the #1." Bam. Wisdom. The people who really rise to the top tend (granted, aren't always, but are OFTEN) those who have created something honestly unique. I may hate Jeff Koons, but nobody else does what he does. Same with Jay-Z. I don't have to LIKE someone's art to understand when it's genuinely their own, and people really respond to that. They always have. I think you're absolutely right that developing your own art often becomes "developing any kind of art I think will get me rich." (HA!) We prize individuality, but when it comes to success somehow we then go right ahead and forget that in our pursuit of the magic number one.

  5. I used to love U2 in the 80s (showing my age, I know). I was lucky enough to see them twice, but haven't listened to anything from them for years. Maybe I'll hunt for something on YouTube and get nostalgic.

    Your message is right on the mark - makes you take a deep breath and realise what's important.

  6. I grew up on my mother's music too. (I don't think my dad had music.) She was big into the Beatles but I still managed to stumbled on to U2 anyway.

    Brilliant band. Great post.

  7. I must be in the same age group as your mother. I was listening to the same music she was. My mother's music was Louis Prima, Sinatra, Perez Prado, and 40s and 50s pop.

    Though I was aware of U2's arrival on the music scene, they didn't catch my attention until 1983 when the "Live at Red Rocks" concert was broadcast on TV. I was riveted. It was one of the most dynamic concerts on film I had ever seen. Bono definitely displayed his star quality. I became a big fan after seeing that.

    Tossing It Out

  8. Andrew this is a great point. Some connect success with "selling out." But someone once said if a movie (or sing) is popular it connects with something in the audience. That's the goal of any artist I think.
    - Maurice Mitchell
    The Geek Twins | Film Sketchr
    @thegeektwins | @mauricem1972

  9. Alyssia: You can't write for the market; it changes too much.
    Joshua Tree is still my #1 of all time.

    Alex: I think I fell down a deep hole.
    What's wrong with "Beautiful Day"?

    Jericha: I think we prize the idea of individuality much more than the thing itself. At least these days. It would be nice to see more people learning to be themselves rather than struggling to become like everyone else.

    Amanda: Oh, man! Get on that! U2 it up!

    M.J.: They are a brilliant band. And thanks!

    Lee: It is a great performance. I have that on, um, VHS. I should probably replace that...

    Maurice: Yeah, making a connection is a good thing (even if it is Twilight (I suppose)). I don't think you can do that when you're trying to fake it.

  10. Hey Andrew! I got your name from Lee's blog..this is a fantastic post..I've never been a U2 fan, I still don't really care for them at all, but I totally agree with what you're saying...success does not necessarily mean that someone has 'sold out'...success is good, after all, it's hard to pay the bills with pockets full of dreams...most people would love to make a living at something they love to do, something that is their become your art, and then make your living being your art...that's ultimate! George Burns said something like, "If you can make a living doing what you love, you'll never work a day in your life."
    Great post!

  11. Eve: Glad you found your way over!
    It is hard to pay bills with dreams; it's too bad in a way. I can dream lots of cool stuff!