U2 and the Religious Impulse

Take Me Higher

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Scott Calhoun
Bloomsbury Studies in Religion and Popular Music
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , August
     2018.
     256 pages.
     $85.00.
     E-Book.
    ISBN
    9781350032552.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This edited volume branches out from the established subcategory of popular music research known as U2 studies. While we see conferences and volumes devoted to a particular popular music artist, (e.g., 2016’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”: The Music and Lyrics of Billy Joel: A Public Musicology Conference at Colorado College), the number of U2 conferences and scholars is more akin to the level of scholarship seen with classical music figures. 

Reading the text, the authors ascribe a power to the artists that is not unique to U2. Many fans experience a similar devotion to the church of Bruce Springsteen, for example. Further, the religious aspect of the experience of U2 fans is given undue weight from the start, with Scott Calhoun’s introduction, “U2’s Sacrament of Sound,” declaring that fans have told him, “U2’s music subdues us. We are overcome. We are cleansed, healed, and empowered. We are lifted up and persuaded to do that what could not do before” (1). Multiple authors, in their reverence, apply a level of reification to the band and its message, and give a high level of weight to Bono’s front-man role that parallels that of a religious figure. Notably, the strength of U2 as a symbol of social justice–a theme deeply intertwined with religion–does not stand out in the book.   

While the effort and interest of all the contributors is clear, there are numerous stylistic choices that are off-putting and detract from the authors methodologies. In particular, Steve Taylor’s use of acronyms to refer to U2 song and album titles (MW for “Mysterious Ways” and AB for Achtung Baby) is confusing to the reader. Similarly, Mark Peters’s thoughtful critique of a “theology of U2” against his argument for U2’s work as “religious humanism” (188) loses strength by simply listing off song titles with subjective themes, (e.g., “other songs that I find beautiful”) using his specific criteria (193). Without a lyrics book in front of the reader, the list lacks power, particularly given multiple authors’ recognition that U2’s song titles often belie an entirely different lyrical theme. Peters’s song list would have been well served by a chart like Mark Meynell’s (Figure 6.2, 102) that explicitly displays the place of different songs and their connection to shame and change. Christopher Endrinal details his twice-reworked methodology before settling on the evolution of musical gestures in U2’s songs, but his final theoretical argument lacks strength.        

The volume’s strongest chapter is “‘Hold On to Love’: U2’s Bespoke Exoticism of the 1960s,” by Nicola Allen and Gerry Carlin, with their examination of “several of [U2s] songs conduct[ing] revisionings of musical history that become acts of beautification” (69), noting that “effectively, the band take[s] a rebel song, exorcise the naïve elements in it, and then reinstate its power” (71). Putting U2’s music into conversation with popular culture of the 1960s, (e.g., Charles Manson’s connection to the song “Helter Skelter” and the spirituality Jimi Hendrix evoked in his music), is intriguing, but the goal of using “a kind of commercial exorcism of the darkness” to come closer to “communal love” (68) gets lost within the chapter’s subtopics.

Overall, the specificity of the volume is much narrower than others within this series. Expansion of the text to a broader theme that included other spiritually-driven contemporary rock artists would have made for a more satisfying addition to the collection.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amanda E. Daly Berman is Visiting Lecturer in Music at Salem State University.

Date of Review: 
January 21, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Scott Calhoun is Professor of English at Cedarville University.

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