On May 25 Ireland will decide whether to repeal or retain the Eighth Amendment of our Constitution, which recognizes the equal right to life of mother and unborn child. As the date approaches, we are hearing all the elaborate genteelisms and justifications. Only those deluded by hypnotic propaganda—and those who do not care about consequences—can really, truly buy in. “Repeal” is about empowering the strong over the weak, the strident and demanding over the silent and docile.
And yet, I was not surprised that U2 came out for Repeal. It was only a matter of time. The world’s loudest folk band has been heading in that direction for years, its early truth-telling gradually giving way to a jostling for liberal kudos. In 2015, U2 backed another Irish referendum, supporting the bogus idea of gay marriage. As far as they’re concerned, May 25 is just the next step on the continuum of progressiveness.
Yet, the horror I felt on hearing of the band’s support for child murder was not caused so much by what they said as by how they said it. On May 2, they posted on Instagram and tweeted a graphic created by the trendy Maser design firm showing the phrase “Repeal the 8th” squeezed into a love heart, the word “Repeal” writ large in what might be the faintest parody of a baby waiting in a womb: love pregnant with death. Death by euphemism, death by choking with weasel word, death made up to look like life: Repeal.
This was a stance geared for newspapers that refer to U2 as “rockers.” Hours before the start of their US tour, U2 made headlines by breaking the hearts of at least half their fans. It was the tritest thing, a gesture empty, dismal, and unworthy of a formerly sincere and thoughtful group, which used to brood and feel with its followers but now just follows the cool parade.
Edge, the band’s guitarist and spokesman in its most shameful hour, emerged to say almost nothing, and yet far too much. As though wanting to have it both ways, he said that, although he would be voting Yes, he understood “why people might have a problem with that.”
He told the Sun: “I think we acknowledged that it’s a very emotive issue.”
To the Irish Mirror he declared: “It’s huge and there is this huge divergence of opinion and it’s very emotive and I accept that and it is hard to take a stance without having to acknowledge there’s another side to it, but I’m for it—I support Repeal. It’s the smart thing to do.”
The smart thing to do. Like a shrewd investment tip, a word to the wise. Spoken like a man terrified to look a tabloid hack in the eye and utter a principled sentence.
Fans were bereft. One tweeted: “This breaks my heart. I have loved and followed you for 20 years. I still love you but I can’t follow you down this road. My tickets to upcoming shows will go unused.”
Many fans have deplored a once avowedly Christian band coming out for abortion, but the problem is not so much with some offense against their once shameless Christianity. The relationship between Christ and rock ’n’ roll is paradoxical at best, and there is no debt of justice to be assumed in either direction. U2’s real offence is a betrayal of the very roots of the music itself.
A friend of mine says that rock ’n’ roll is purely about sex, whereas I’ve always wanted to think it the music of existential truth and justice. There’s truth in both positions. Rock ’n’ roll is the offspring of the Blues. The generic modern Western rock offshoot is a prodigal son who has long since surrendered to a false sense of freedom and a vacuous ideological program.
The Blues were born in the plantations where slaves in chains worked themselves unto early deaths, hollering out to their brothers over each other’s heads on the line, their cries becoming chants, forming songs, unleashing a music that nobody could have imagined or predicted.
To say that abortion is the slavery of the present is more than rhetoric, because each of the two in its way involves the purchasing of the convenience of one with the life of another. It is never about compassion, or health, or freedom of any kind worth the name, these being just weasel-worded pretexts. In the reality of its everyday existence, abortion is about spilling blood for money, about stamping out innocent but inopportune lives, about pretending there is no judgment, about the white death rising from smokestacks on the horizon, alien clouds with streaks of human in them.
And abortion will go the way of slavery also, when medical science identifies the child’s earliest susceptibility to pain, and posterity will look back in horror at this present moment and every shred of our reputation for human feeling will be in the dumpster of history.
Blues existed to console those who suffered injustice, which is why it merged so naturally with negro spiritual singing and country—itself the offspring of Irish folk songs far-traveled in the hearts of starving emigrants fleeing famine at home—to form rock ’n’ roll. The pain at the root of it all was soon forgotten in a blind pursuit of hedonism. In the 1960s, rock ’n’ roll became mixed up with left-wing ideologies in the groves of academe, pumping out an untenable concept of reality to the soundtrack of the Stones and the Beatles. What began as a crying out for pure existential freedom spawned a soundtrack for posturing, selfishness, and narcissism. The music began to die right there, but everyone was too stoned to notice.
U2 were once good at jockeying the contradictions. They bore witness to the idea that rock ’n’ roll, in its essence, has one foot in the sacred world and the other in the material; part spirit, part flesh; half-holy, half-profane. Thus, perhaps more than any other medium of our time, this music captures and feeds off the contradictory, dualistic nature of modern life—at once an exhalation of something greater and a flirting with nihilism, a cry for help directed upwards from the heart of man’s self-imposed exile from the Mystery.
U2 were not natural-born rock ’n’ rollers. Raised in middle-class estates in an area of Dublin where the rivers had been concreted over to build houses, they went in search of the roots of this music that entranced them, scrambling in the mud of the Mississippi for the blue notes that would resonate with the ineffable parts of themselves. They had no particular skills, just raw instinct, street smarts, and five loaves and two fishes’ worth of inchoate talent. They couldn’t play other people’s songs, so they wrote their own, strange lolloping tunes that sounded like they had been made by teenagers from outer space.
They were gauche and naïve. The British rock press hated them, so they went to America, read their way into the spirits of the originals, finding tones and harmonies to match their hearts’ desire and writing songs around them that were like the missing links of the rock ’n’ roll story. Within a few years, they fetched up on the cover of Time as the Greatest Rock ’n’ roll Band in the World. The four Dublin neophytes became the darlings of the dinosaurs, like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and B.B. King. And they really had broken the code, producing two of the greatest albums to grace the pantheon, The Joshua Tree in 1987 and Achtung Baby four years later.
In the beginning, three of them had been born-again Christians. The exception was Adam, at the time the band’s Dionysian token, now the saintly one abed with his cocoa while Bono burns the candle down the dens of Bacchanalia, his arm around Noel Gallagher.
It’s hard to say where they stand with Jesus these days. He’s still there in (some of) the lyrics, but sometimes you get to thinking that the U2 trajectory looks more and more like a belated discovery of the delights they eschewed in youth, a front-loading of the piety of age followed by an eruption into delayed adolescence.
In the beginning they wore their hearts on their album sleeves, unabashedly proclaiming their faith in songs like “Gloria,” “Tomorrow,” and “40.” After their third album, War, the Christian element became more subtle, and remained so. With Achtung Baby, they went ironic, adapting the Berlin industrial harmonic clangor developed by Bowie and Eno for Low, Heroes, and Iggy Pop’s masterpieces The Idiot and Lust for Life.
“Never trust a righteous man who looks like one,” Bono once warned me. Nobody was as acutely aware of the contradictory elements at play in seeking to play rock music in the name of Jesus. “Christian rock” had, to say the least, a bad image. But U2’s ironic self-reinvention was an enormous success, with many of their most vehement critics hailing the new “secular” U2 and celebrating that they had put all that Christian guff behind them. In truth they had merely dressed it up in hipper clothes.
But Achtung Baby was the beginning of a Faustian pact, struck at the end of a very tricky tightrope. Next, U2 entered an experimental phase that threw up numerous distinct possibilities. Pop, their 1997 album, was too diverse to be a popular hit, though it contained some of their finest work, and possibly their best song, the psalmsesque blues hymn “Wake Up Dead Man,” a blast of rage at God in the hope He might show Himself in His own defense. And perhaps it was the lukewarn response to that album that caused U2 to steer back into the mainstream in search of the essence of whatever it was that had worked for them in the first place. Panic set in, leading to U2’s creative descent into self-pastiche, while commercially they surged forward in leaps and bounds.
In the end, all you could say is that they settled for less than they promised. Having become themselves by remaining aloof from rock’s narcotics and narcissism, they gradually settled deeper into the embrace of the vacuity they had eschewed. More and more, their public stances seemed to be about attitude, about being cool, about remaining top of the league. Gradually, heartbreakingly, they went native, nestling deeper and deeper into the cultural Marxist groupthink. The band’s corporate Repeal gesture is but the culmination of all that, a final and self-disgracing embrace of the very antithesis of the music they had redeemed.
A quarter of a century ago, I wrote a book about U2, or rather about the country they emerged from: Race of Angels: Ireland and the Genesis of U2. The final chapter, “The Horse With the Long Neck,” is less than a page in length, comprising mainly a quote from Bono in which he gives voice to his greatest fear for U2. That fear, he says, is that the band will, when the history of the music is written, be deemed an evolutionary anachronism:
A hundred years now looking for the horse with the long neck. They have the giraffe, they have the horse. But they don’t have the horse with the long neck. What they say is that there are efficient stops along the way of evolution. Basically that there is a horse out there with a long neck, but there wasn’t enough of them for the chances of leaving behind a fossil. And that’s what I’m worried about. We don’t want to be that horse with the long neck.
His words turned out to be prophecy. U2 has settled so determinedly into the mainstream of contemporary rock culture that it has now finally waived the role of re-evangelizing the music’s sacred roots, and is accordingly all but redundant. Once a band uniquely capable of standing against the seduction of the material, U2 has become indistinguishable from the herd it has latterly so assiduously courted, volunteering for enslavement to fashion, cool, and emptiness. Horseman, pass by.
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of nine books, and a playwright.