Fred Johnson. Popular Music and Society. Volume 27, Issue 1. February 2004.
Mass-mediated stardom is no longer new. In some ways such stardom was never exactly new, rooted as it was in a long history of fame (which has been interestingly traced and examined by Leo Braudy in The Frenzy of Renown). However, over the last two centuries, and particularly in the twentieth century, as pioneers of information technology invented and developed tools for electronic mass mediation, a new sort of stardom came of age, rooted in and dependent on the mass media. At this point, having seen a few generations of ultra-visible mass-mediated stars go by, we can begin to understand more about the material processes by which such stars come to be, and by which they are sustained. (Rein et al., for example, have produced High Visibility (1997), something like a how-to manual for would-be mass media stars.) We can also begin to understand how such stars are consumed by the public. It is clear that the biggest of mass media stars become symbolic to the public in strangely divergent ways, sometimes even posthumously. The Beatles, for example, are somehow at the same time symbols of fresh-faced innocence and of ’60s psychedelic culture, of musical innovation, and of music industry cynicism, just for starters. Somehow, a small number of stars-primarily the most successful of mass-mediated stars-are able to remain relevant, symbolically charged, and bewilderingly lucrative over many decades. Among these, the rock band U2 is an interesting case. In particular, U2’s calculated, unhidden, public image transformation, undertaken in the early 1990s, is a marvel of both mass-mediated artistry and mass media savvy.
This paper examines some aspects of the art of navigation in the streams of mass-mediated information. Specifically, I examine the progress of U2 as an example of what can happen to a mediated entity that attracts a great deal of attention to itself. A rock band is especially interesting for this purpose because in the end all popular musicians function consciously and openly as entertainers in a rapidly mutating media environment; yet, at the same time, popular musicians are supposed at all times to be performing as themselves, rather than, like actors, performing dramatic roles. Popular musicians are in a unique position to understand and illustrate the complicated use of truth and fabrication and drama and performance and narrative and counter-narrative and, above all, image to keep an audience’s attention. U2, specifically, has made some of the most effective mediaconscious moves of any popular act, ever. The band’s ability to manage its own mass-mediated image has enabled it to survive for well over two decades as a highly visible mass-mediated entity.
U2 first appeared on the world stage as a band of promising teenagers from Dublin. Their heavily promoted first full-length record, Boy (1980), was reviewed for Rolling Stone by Debra Rae Cohen, who called the band “Irish whiz kids” that “as a new Next Big Thing” from Britain are “only the next best thing to something really new” (Cohen 3). The music was good, though, and U2 was “talented, charming, and potentially (they’re all still under twenty-one) exceptional” (Cohen 3). Lynn Van Matre at the Chicago Tribune had a similar reaction to early U2 and their “small, shaggy lead singer.” Van Matre, too, was doubtful of the hype given U2 by the British press, “an establishment known more for its predictably passionate overreaction than its sense of perspective.” However, U2 seemed “one of the more original among new bands,” and, with their passionate performances, “soaring sound,” and intelligent lyrics, they might well, she thought, be “good for the long haul, rather than just a quick trip” (Van Matre “U2 Brings” 2).
The band’s second record, October (1981), was less well received. Jon Pareles, for one, called it “barely coherent” but added that “sheer sonic grandeur can carry these guys through one record like October” (Pareles October 4-5). Pareles also took an early jab at U2’s idealism: “It’s impossible,” he said, “to take U2 as seriously as they take themselves” (4).
Robert Hilbum spoke with Bono Vox (the shaggy singer, Paul Hewson, later simply Bono) when U2 passed through Los Angeles at this stage, and the interview foreshadows the ways in which people would later perceive U2 (to U2’s dismay). Bono objected to U2’s being identified as a “psychedelic” band (along with the Psychedelic Furs and Echo and the Bunnymen): “I don’t think our three bands have anything in common except that none of us fits into the trends at the moment, so writers in England found it easier to put us all in one category than to find three new ones.” What’s more, Bono continued, “I don’t know why they settled on ‘psychedelic.’ I don’t identify with that music (from the 60’s) at all. Our music has mood and atmosphere, but it’s not drug-oriented. I find drugs very boring.” Bono went on to cite the Who, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Cream, and Bob Dylan as actual influences on U2 (Hilburn “U2’s Bono” 3).
In these early reviews and interviews, a mediated entity called “U2” was being sculpted into a recognizable character. In the Hillburn interview, specifically, Bono tried to be sure that the members of U2, and not the press, would do the sculpting. First, Bono set U2 apart musically. He believed U2’s music to be superior to almost anything else available in contemporary rock. He had already said this sort of thing to Rolling Stone’s James Henke: “There’s a certain spark, a certain chemistry, that was special about the Stones, the Who, and the Beatles, and I think it’s also special about U2” (Henke 1). At the same time, Bono aligned U2 with some of the most admired artists in rock history. And Bono took a stand: drugs were boring; U2 was above clichéd rock hedonism, interested in higher things. Again, Bono was setting U2 apart, this time in lifestyle and life goals and, arguably, morality. These pronouncements can, in some senses, be disregarded as the heady blustering of a twenty-year-old rock singer; but such remarks by Bono were among the earliest signs of what would emerge as U2’s reputation for overwrought self-importance and gravity.
With 1983’s War album, sweeping statements about the power, importance, and inspiring grandeur of U2’s music appeared more frequently in the press. U2’s audience became much bigger, and its reputation for making impassioned political statements took shape. Bill Flanagan remembers that “War declared U2 to be the inheritor of the populist tradition descending from the Who and Bruce Springsteen” (Flanagan “U2” 635). U2 was becoming a people’s band; and War was the first U2 album to crack the Billboard Top 40 (Whitburn 318).
D. Considine reviewed War for Rolling Stone, which gave it a four-stars-out-of-five rating. Now, the critic, not the young singer, made comparisons to seminal bands: “The songs here stand up against anything on the Clash’s London Calling in terms of sheer impact, and the fact that U2 can sweep the listener up in the same sort of enthusiastic romanticism that fuels the band’s grand gestures is an impressive feat” (Considine 8). Also, as John Rockwell reported in the New York Times, U2’s performances remained a thrilling spectacle:
In performance, U2 inevitably loses a bit of the delicacy it achieves on records. But there are gains, too: This is a great live band. Bono is a riveting public personality, leaping and crawling all over the stage and above it into the scaffolding. (Rockwell “Rock” 20)
With the success of War and the live follow-up, Under a Blood Red Sky (1984), the next-best-thing-whiz-kids were dubbed rock and roll peers, had their reputation cemented as a socially and politically concerned unit, and earned the loyalty of a much larger audience. In mass mediation and survival as a mass mediated entity, U2 seemed at that time to be doing very well; and, in fact, they were only a couple of years from the first great peak of their fame. With a combination of major label money, smart publicity, positive critical buzz, and inspirational artistry, the band had become an instantly recognizable media entity.
On one hand, the massive recognition, or (as Daniel Boorstin called it) wellknown-ness, that U2 had acquired was a great asset to them. It brought the band further attention, it brought new fans, and it made the band members rich. However, it also involved them with the strange world of what Boorstin once dubbed the “pseudo-event.”
Meditation and Mythology
Boorstin’s pseudo-events are events created for dramatic effect, to generate attention and (often) revenue. To illustrate, Boorstin tells the story of a hotel that staged an anniversary celebration during which the hotel’s honored, famous history and reputation could be reported and repeated over and over. Reporters and guests were attracted to the event, and a small media circus ensued. However, the hotel’s fame, being so carefully explained by the press, by the hotel’s staff, and by the hotel’s visitors had actually been created via the deliberately staged anniversary celebration. Had there been no celebration, no one would have noticed the hotel’s anniversary: so maybe it was never so famous and honored as it led celebrants to believe. However, the staged celebration ironically provided some of the desired fame, along with that fame’s fiscal rewards (Boorstin 10).
Staging pseudo-events is standard operating procedure in the pop music world. For example, one major pseudo-event in U2’s career was announced by the audacious March 14, 1985, cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Over a dimly lit, somber photo of the band dressed all in black, the magazine’s cover confidently announces: “U2: Our Choice: Band of the 80s.” As Christopher Connelly’s accompanying feature article explains, “In America, [the band members’] names are not household words, and their faces are unfamiliar even to some of their fans” (28). Yet Rolling Stone had chosen to make them the band of the decade. U2 had begun to have some commercial success, but Connelly emphasizes U2’s status as a sort of underdog band on the brink of great success or great failure, and as a defender of rock music in a sea of pop. This storyline was not untrue, since the band had not yet reached the greatest height of its fame; but neither is it exactly true, since U2’s steady positive press and fan support had made it a fairly secure band-not exactly an underdog band. The article includes a short exposition of the band’s personal history, intercut with comments from band members. In simplest terms, Connelly presents an ignorance-to-wisdom, rags-to-riches version of the band’s story-interesting in the telling, unique in its Dublin setting and in some of its religious flourishes, and yet archetypical and familiar.
Boorstin identifies four traits of any pseudo-event. First, the event is staged; it is not spontaneous. second, the event is staged in order to be reported. Third, the event is only ambiguously based on any “underlying reality of the situation.” Fourth, the event is intended as a self-fulfilling prophecy (11-12). Rolling Stone’s announcement qualifies on all counts. In March of 1985, no one, we may guess, was yet looking for any announcements about the band of the decade. Rolling Stone simply created an event, a rock music coronation, around which they could build hype. According to Boorstin, pseudo-events are more interesting than everyday spontaneous events since they have more drama (like that rags-to-riches story), they are easy to stage and restage, they are completely intelligible, they are easy to report, they are convenient to attend and consume, they deliberately give people something to talk about, they are hyped, and-importantly-they spawn further events (37-40). Suddenly, Rolling Stone had made a proclamation mat, without fail, would result in the publication of assenting and dissenting opinions in other media outlets, in turn creating further debate. Moreover, this pseudo-event would create interest in the band and thus result in more interest in buying the band’s music, concert tickets, and other products.
These sorts of events, intelligently and advantageously staged, can produce celebrities, or increase the fame of celebrities. However, such strategies, which may in fact be necessary to mass-mediated stardom, also restrict aspiring celebrities, confining them to certain storylines, attaching them to particular controversies. As a band of artists, U2 would soon discover that they liked neither the restriction of their artistry in a world of pseudo-events nor the not-quite-the-truth, not-quite-a-lie ambiguity of pseudo-events.
High Visibility, the work of communications experts Irving Rein, Philip Kotler, and Martin Stoller, is a long analysis of the nature of high visibility in contemporary culture, focusing on the benefits of being highly visible. The very existence of such a book is a testament to the increased sophistication with which latetwentieth- and twenty-first-century aspirants to fame can approach their task. In many ways, High Visibility is a how-to manual, or an idea-book, describing techniques for the attainment of high-visibility like U2’s (or a lesser version thereof), and at the same time avoiding the pitfalls of high visibility. Against Boorstin’s famous 1960s definition of a “celebrity” as “a person who is known for his well-knownness” (Boorstin 57), High Visibility suggests that a celebrity is “a person whose name has attention-getting, interest-riveting, and profit-generating value” (Rein et al. 15). The authors of High Visibility firmly believe that people in many industries besides entertainment-ranging from the small business owner to the internationally acclaimed scholar-can be molded into workable mass media products; and they believe that the molding of highly visible people can be “systematic and not dependent on happenstance” (Rein et al. 5). With the attainment of high visibility come substantial professional and monetary rewards. However, high visibility can also be a major liability, especially to a group of artists. For U2 in the mid-1980s, the notoriety the band had desired and had systematically sought, and from which it was reaping such palpable rewards, was also about to cripple it as a group of culturally engaged, mass-mediated artists.
U2’s high visibility had made it highly recognizable. “Recognition,” the philosopher John Dewey asserted in 1934, “is perception arrested before it has a chance to develop freely.” He goes on:
In recognition there is a beginning of an act of perception. But this beginning is not allowed to serve the development of a full perception of the thing recognized. It is arrested at the point where it will serve some other purpose, as we recognize a man on the street in order to greet or avoid him, not to see him for the sake of seeing what is there. (Dewey 72)
Dewey contrasts bare experience with his notion of having an experience, which would be a total emotional, intellectual, practical event, with a recognizable beginning leading to culmination rather than a simple, humdrum experience in which one does not engage dynamically with anything and the experience simply ceases. In these terms, the more instantly recognizable U2 became-the more easily they could perpetuate U2 in a series of pseudo events-the less anyone bothered to experience them or their music. There was U2. U2 was the romantic, idealistic, moralistic band with the great, rousing songs about issues. Done.
Thus, as U2 discovered to their dismay, the stars of popular music are in a sense designed as recognizable vessels for cultural myths. The authors of High Visibility recognize this aspect of fame, claiming that one of the keys to high visibility is the ability of the highly visible to embody cultural mythologies: “With the decline of traditional family units and communities, we are relying more on celebrities-not grandparents and neighbors-to embody, make real, and transmit our stories and moral tales” (Rein et al. 146). By the nature of their existence in the pseudoevent-driven mass media, popular music stars have had certain cultural concepts attached to them and are often used to encapsulate debate and discussion of those concepts. By opposing or identifying with signifiers like “U2” and the stories or character sketches they embody, members of a society may represent themselves. In contemporary culture, popular music performers of all kinds are elevated to mythical status, ranging from, for example, English goth-rockers the Cure as representative of down-in-the-mouth existentialism, to U2 as representative of visionary, optimistic idealism. People use their identification with or rejection of such mythical signifiers to tell their own stories.
Roland Barthes cultivated the notion of “second-order signification” to explain this sort of mythical storytelling, in which a sign supplied by the culture, such as the image of the Cure or of U2, becomes pregnant with a cultural concept. Barthes illustrates second-order signification by examining a magazine cover showing a black French soldier saluting the French flag. At its simplest, this is a signifier-the photograph-for a signified-the soldier saluting the flag-and together they make up a sign. Yet emblazoned on the magazine, this photograph takes on a cultural weight that would be absent in a different context.
Soldier, flag, and salute imply patriotism; the soldier’s black skin implies that the (according to Barthes) stereotypically exclusive French have successfully included the Other in their society. In this case, the sign itself (photograph of soldier, flag, and salute) becomes a new signifier (the “form”) to which a new signified (the “concept”) of French inclusiveness has been attached, thus creating a new sign (the “signification”) (Barthes 115-16). In the process, the meaning of the original sign is not destroyed but distorted: “the meaning loses its value but keeps its life, from which the form of the myth will draw its nourishment” (118). The history of the sign is not obliterated so much as it is co-opted for use as a carrier of a concept.
Implicit in this second-order signification is a certain amount of malleability, a certain volatility, in the relationship of sign and concept and readers (interpreters). U2, to illustrate, still occupies a place in contemporary cultural mythology; but it is not quite the same youthful, idealistic, ultra-visible, ultra-exposed place that the band occupied in the mid-1980s. Though the band still poses at times as a beacon for idealists, it no longer does so exclusively; and it was crucial that such be the case. To remain relevant, U2’s myth-embodying power had to become something more or something different. As the culture behind the myth evolves, the mythical signifier itself also evolves-or falls out of use and disappears.
Barthes’s definition of myth is broad enough to include a constant succession of minor and fleeting images and events. The magazine cover will have the mythical meaning explicated above only for a France struggling with inclusiveness. In a possible future France, the skin of the soldier might be wholly unremarkable, a state of affairs that might reduce the image to a run-of-the-mill patriotic snapshot, still mythical because weighted with patriotism but not mythical as it was once mythical. In this way, the myths of a living culture are always changing in relationship to the culture. Some mythical “forms” are fleeting; some stay with the culture for centuries. However, all myths change as the culture continues, as attitudes and dispositions change; in a hypothetical future, U2 might somehow represent the polar opposite of idealism.
Barthes envisions this ever-changing status of a myth as a constant rotation in which first the form and then the concept will resurface, both constantly mutating in relation to each other and their cultural context(s) (123). In American Monroe, S. Paige Baty investigates just this sort of mutation through time, looking at many of the Marilyn Monroe mythologies that sprang up during and after Monroe’s lifetime. In the process, Baty makes some suggestions about the progress of a myth in the mass media, which prove useful in conjunction with Barthes’s ideas.
Baty observes that “Everything and everyone has the potential to be remembered iconically” (60). That is, everything and everyone can be transformed into what she calls a mediapheme, “the most common unit of communication in massmediated iconographie modes of remembering.” According to Baty, “Mediaphemes are quick encapsulations; once a story, person, or event is translated into mediapheme form, it ricochets through the channels of mass mediation with ease” (60). Of course, this thinking squares with Boorstin’s theories about pseudoevents and their construction. The authors of High Visibility note, similarly, that the crafters of highly visible images “have learned from the past that certain stories and themes are potentially very powerful” as tools for spreading a story quickly (Rein et al. 26). High Visibility, true to its belief that high visibility can be strategically attained, provides a set of elements from which to concoct a marketable “dramatic reality” (drama, adversity, crisis, mentors, unrelenting talent, a final reward or climax) (142-44); it also lists 22 “popular storylines,” including “first of a kind,” “a great rivalry,” “risks all,” “outrageous behavior,” and the dubious “young dramatic death” (144-46); and it notes Richard Dyer’s list of “nine qualities that can contribute to creating an effective and believable character” for a “star” (197-98).
What Baty calls a mediapheme, then-the thing that is also the engine of a Boorstin pseudo-event and is what High Visibility considers a strategically crafted dramatic reality-is a simple, unambiguous story or character sketch which the general public can understand easily and which the media can invoke with a single word or image. It is recognizable, in Dewey’s sense. The mediapheme, though, is a fleeting representation-one instance of signification staged at a particular moment and in a particular context, something equivalent to the fleeting significance of a Barthes myth.
The job of an individual or group (like U2) which wants to survive as a mediated entity, if it wants to survive in more than one fleeting mediapheme incarnation, is to become flexible-to become an “icon,” in Baty’s terms, like Marilyn Monroe, whose form has been a carrier for many concepts, from youth and vitality to decadence and death. To maintain cultural relevance, the mediated performer must be a potential carrier for numerous cultural concepts in many different contexts in many different times. As Leo Braudy notes of renowned individuals throughout history, “The ability to reinterpret them fills them with constantly renewed meaning, even though that meaning might be very different from what they meant a thousand years before” (Braudy 15). However, to stop being adaptable is to stop being needed and to find oneself (or maybe one’s rock and roll band) ousted from the cultural spotlight.
U2 soon faced the obsolescence problem. By the time they followed up War and Under a Blood Red Sky with another album, The Unforgettable Fire (1984), U2 had noticed its own increasing stagnation as a mediapheme and mythical icon (albeit not in those terms, of course). They had first been mediated as promising whiz kids. Then they were mediated as fiery idealists with a loud love-and-peace message. As Baty might say, these mediaphemes ricocheted easily through the channels of mediation. Their very power-derived in part from their being recognizable-also tended to empty out the content of U2’s messages. There would be the band, there would be Bono talking about a good cause, there would be those four serious fellows: everyone could recognize U2; as a result, few were experiencing the fullness of the band or its messages.
U2, at that time, began to fiddle with the U2 formula, at least a little. For The Unforgettable Fire, the band hired new producers and steered away from the punkderived sounds they had perfected on War. Instead, the band embraced the kinds of rich, varied soundscapes that, as a whole, have dominated their music since then. The period of The Unforgettable Fire (1984) also found U2 making a slight, but detectable, shift in their physical appearance. Before then, they had basically fitted the early 1980s punk motif of “four kids who couldn’t play very well bashing away at their instruments and sweating through their sleeveless shirts” (Flanagan “U2” 632). In photos taken during the Unforgettable Fire era, the band was clearly the same four musicians with the same four serious stares. However, the band was noticeably less “shaggy.” The unruly haircuts were trimmed and groomed. The musicians looked more secure, more focused, more professional, older.
While promoting The Unforgettable Fire, U2 began publicly to declare its discomfort with, as Bono put it, “the condescending thing of being a singer-prophet leading the mass” (quoted in Pareles “Contemplative” 25). This undesirable image, said Bono, was part of the reason for taking a new approach on The Unforgettable Fire: “There was a danger that U2 could become a cartoon of itself, a cardboard cutout. That was too one-sided for me. This album is quite blurred; you have to stand back from it to see it” (quoted in Pareles “Contemplative” 25). Bono told Robert Hilburn that, as he saw it, “If [U2] had tried to duplicate the feeling of War to keep that momentum going, we really would have become cartoon characters.” Further, Bono protested,
We’re not trying to act like saints in the rock’n’roll city-on any level. I try and tell people, “How can you be the spokesman for a generation if you’ve nothing to say other than ‘help’?” Listen to our songs, we’re not saying we have the answers to the world’s problems. We’re struggling to find answers and we make mistakes all the time. (Hillbum “U2’s Perilous” 60)
Despite Bono’s protests, though, the tone of U2 press coverage at this time constantly reinforces the idea of U2 as socially conscious, U2 as intense and serious, U2 as the emerging leaders of a growing and increasingly devoted legion of fans: that is, U2 as singer-prophets. It is unsurprising that the sort of comments Bono was making failed to stifle the “singer-prophet” image. Bono said the band were not trying to be rock and roll saints: good, then, they had some humility. Bono said U2 could not be generational spokesmen if they were saying only “help”: but that seemed to be the message U2’s fans wanted to hear. Bono said the band had no answers, that it was struggling to find answers: wonderful, then, because their fans wanted a band that was trying to find answers rather than a posturing, nihilistic band that thought it knew that there were no answers. Bono said U2 makes mistakes, too: even better, because if that were true, then the heroes were, at base, everyday guys to whom their fans could relate. One of U2’s most famous music videos was made for the song “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” from Under a Blood Red Sky, performed live at Red Rocks Stadium in Colorado. To a martial beat and aggressive guitar sounds, Bono carries a white flag from the stage to the crowd as he sings the anti-war song: aggressive surrender, angry pacificism, singer-prophets, singer-warriors, anything but unpresumptuous, nongenerational spokesmen.
That image, that mediapheme, notwithstanding protests from band members, was great for business. Sometime later, after U2’s extraordinarily successful album The Joshua Tree (1987), but just before their image-shifting Achtung Baby (1991), an episode involving a little-known group called Negativland showed not only the power of the U2 mediapheme but also the belief of Island Records, U2’s record label, in that power. In 1991, Negativland released a single called “U2,” which featured samples of U2’s major hit song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” along with clips from behind-the-scenes audio tapes of casey Kasem cursing at his staff between takes. The record was a quirky satire of Kasem’s hypocrisy and U2’s over-sincerity, and it might have reached only a small audience in the end. However, the cover art was designed to look like it might just be a long-awaited new U2 album, and Island Records felt impelled to put an immediate stop to that use of the U2 mediapheme.
Island sued Negativland for “deceptive packaging, copyright infringement, and image defamation, potentially creating ‘massive confusion among the recordbuying public'” (“Reproduction” 2). A Negativiand/U2 saga ensued and is documented in Negativland’s funny and revealing book called Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2, which is a collection of news stories, faxes, letters, law suits, broadcast transcripts, and other bric-a-brac from the affair (along with essays and manifestos against copyright laws). The “U2” record was attacked by Island primarily because of its tricky packaging and because of potential harm to U2’s image, not (primarily) because of sampling. Island did not want Negativland trading on U2’s money-making name, and they did not want, as Negativland’s Mark Hosier put it, to have Negativland defame U2’s character by “associating [the] foul language [which Kasem uses] with the clean-cut image of U2” (Negativland 89). As revealed in Fair Use, the band itself thought Island’s concern was funny and misplaced and unfortunate. (This attitude is clear in, for example, the included transcript, “Negativland Interviews U2’s “The Edge’ for Mondo 2000 Magazine.”) However, Island had instinctively protected the mediapheme that they had spent so much time and money developing. U2’s image was big business, and Island wanted to control that business, to the discomfort of both Negativland and U2. Negativland was onto something, though. They knew that U2 was ripe for parody.
The Joshua Tree, U2’s follow-up to The Unforgettable Fire, would be their most successful album, critically and popularly; but it would also be the album that transformed them thoroughly into a static and confining mediapheme (and an easy target for Negativland). Jean Baudrillard’s theory of the precession of the image provides a useful framework in which to understand The Joshua Tree and the postmodern backlash that that album and era engendered against U2. More thoroughly and directly than Barthes’s notion of the mythical signifier, Baudrillard’s discussion of the image probes the nature of survival in the mass media environment in which U2, and many (or all) other contemporary figures in the media, find themselves.
According to Baudrillard, survival as a mass-mediated icon is survival as a simulacrum of oneself. By complying with the demands of mass mediation, popular musicians place themselves at the mercy of a culture of simulation characterized, in Baudrillard’s words, by “irreparable violence toward all secrets, the violence of a civilization without secrets” (“Precession” 11). So that they can be handled as mediaphemes, popular musicians (and anyone else launched into the mass media) will become, like it or not, simulacra of themselves. (Readers of books like High Visibility may be fully prepared for such a transformation; but the earnest young men of U2 were apparently taken aback by the experience.)
Baudrillard’s conception of a simulacrum is not very distant from Baty’s idea of a mediapheme:
It [simulacrum] is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short circuits all its vicissitudes. (“Precession” 2)
The mediapheme, as an easy encapsulation, also strips away the vicissitudes of the real; or, in other words, it takes a complex person, group, event, or message and reduces it to the simplest, clearest, most immediate terms. It “deters” the real subject by substituting its “operational double,” which is the easier-to-mediate mediapheme, which has the appearance of reality but is easier to recognize and “comprehend” than the real subject. There is no room for complexity if the mediapheme is to move quickly and easily through the mass media; and, therefore, to become a mediapheme is to become a simulacrum designed specifically for quick and easy movement through the mass media environment.
If pop stars resist this transformation, they encounter the ancient problem of the iconoclasts, who (as described by Baudrillard) sought to counter the ill effects of representing God as a graven image (“Precession” 4). The iconoclasts recognized what Baudrillard recognizes when he identifies four successive phases of the image: “it is the reflection of a profound reality; it masks and denatures a profound reality; it masks the absence of a profound reality; it has no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum” (“Precession” 6). Though the iconoclasts might beg to differ, for Baudrillard, we have always already in every way reached the fourth phase of the image, or the fourth phase of reality, which is hyperreality. Not only is the map not the territory, the map precedes the territory, which is merely the map (thus, the “precession” of the image).
Boorstin, whose sympathy would lie with the iconoclasts, looks at much the same phenomenon, only where Baudrillard approaches the precession of the image with almost gleeful acceptance, Boorstin is worried. Boorstin sees the incantatory power of simulacral images, as when he notes that “the Western cowboy” had become “an inferior replica of John Wayne” (14). Similarly to Baudrillard, Boorstin asserts that:
We [Americans] are the most illusioned people on earth. Yet we dare not become disillusioned, because our illusions are the very house in which we live; they are our news, our heroes, our adventures, our forms of art, our very experience. (Boorstin 240)
He frets that, “At home we begin to try to live according to the script of television programs of happy families, which are themselves nothing but amusing quintessences of us” (258). The Real, he feels, is slipping away.
As Boorstin resists simulacral representations of American culture, the iconoclasts resist representations of deity because representation kills “god.” The representation cannot equal the represented, since the sign is never equivalent to the signified. As a result, representation annuls the represented by substituting a simulacrum for what was once the now-murdered thing, which has now been resurrected (albeit falsely) as a simulacrum of itself. The iconoclasts fight against these murderous successions (or precessions); they demand that the murder of the Real be averted by the banishment of images.
Baudrillard posits a step-by-step death-of-god scenario to show how precession works. Attempting to unmask the divinity, worshippers represent it in a simulacrum. The simulacrum then reduces, controls, and replaces the divinity. The divinity finally “exists” as a fourth-phase image, and it becomes dangerous to unmask it, just as it is “dangerous to unmask [all] images, since they dissimulate the fact that there is nothing behind them” (“Precession” 5). (“Strictly speaking,” says Boorstin, “there is no way to unmask an image” (194).) Should the worshippers unmask their simulacral divinity, they will find nothing behind the mask; the god is then dead to them because there is no way to return to a pre-simulacral God. God was always already dead.
The subject at hand, though, is not divinity. It is living human beings whose images have been projected into the mass media. High Visibility is aimed at such people, or at the people who want to be such people. Having instructed its readers in the achievement of celebrity, the book prepares them for the trials of obsolescence. In their discussion of career decline, Rein et al. examine several possible reasons for downturns in mediated careers, those events that empty the power of once-powerful simulacra. For example, they look at “unplanned obsolescence,” such as-at the advent of the “talkies”-the sudden obsolescence of film actors with poor voices. They also look at lack of adaptation to new trends; delinking from powerful associates (as when David Lee Roth left Van Halen); aging out of a field (as did former child and former child-actor Macaulay Culkin); declining ability; poor performance; venue erosion; uncontrollable ego; self-destruction; and scandal (Rein et al. 305-08). After suggesting a series of strategies for managing exposure, for adapting to new conditions, and for shifting into new markets, High Visibility reveals a set of comeback strategies. Among the strategies recommended are appeals to nostalgia, emergence through a new channel (like Martin Sheen’s emergence on television in The West Wing), catching “the cultural wave,” promoting your own problems, and the always-dubious “sudden death” (328-30). At times. High Visibility makes emergence, decline, and recovery sound all too easy and scientific, even including a series of career rise-and-decline charts indicating typical paths. But, in the end, the book conjures the image of a figure struggling desperately to manage the motivational, mythical powers of an ever-imperiled image in a volatile cultural environment. It is the image of a child trying to manage a kite, high in the air. Or it is the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain, trying to maintain the power of his projected image. Each of these metaphors could be applied, in some senses, to U2 as it began to struggle with the precession of its own projected image in the high winds of high visibility.
Baudrillard published Simulacra and Simulation in 1981 (English translation, 1996)-coincidentally, not long after Boy was released. He could have told U2 then what awaited it as a simulacrum of itself. Like all simulacral mediaphemes, the band would be reduced to simplest terms, dispersed efficiently through the mass media, and disregarded as soon as they became uninteresting or useless for representing cultural concepts. Like all players in the mass media, they would become subject to the rules of precession: to unmask “U2” would be to reveal that it does not exist.
U2’s history between The Joshua Tree’s release in 1987 and the beginning of the Achtitng Baby recording sessions in 1991 is the history of a postmodern entity attempting, with futility, to regain first-phase legitimacy. The Joshua Tree made U2 more visible than ever before. With its release, U2 graduated from selling out 20,000-seat venues to selling out 70,000-seat venues (Breskin “Bono” 86). “‘The Money Tree’ was more like it,” quipped rock critic David Fricke of the album which, ten years later, Rolling Stone placed among its top 200 of all time on artistic merit (Fricke “Year” 109; Robins 96). The album was at the top of the Billboard charts for nine weeks, produced two number-one singles, and sold 15 million copies worldwide.
Headlines from the time show clearly the band’s increasingly straightforward mediapheme: “U2 Brings Noble Message to Its Music” (Van Matre); “U2 Makes a Bid for ‘Great Band’ Status” (Rockwell); “U2 Starts National Tour on a Political Note” (Palmer); “Robust and Lean U2 Makes Dinosaur Bands Look Extinct” (Heun); “U2 in the USA: Joshua Tree Helped the Band Conquer America”(an obvious Springsteen reference and comparison) (Britt); “U2 Shows Grace Under Pressure at Tour Opener” (Hilburn); “Wide-Open Rock with U2: Band Makes the Move to Large Stadiums Without Losing Its Energy” (Hilburn).
Tellingly, this career highpoint was also when things started to go obviously wrong for U2. By 1987, it was axiomatic in much of U2’s press coverage that their grand gestures, while inspiring, were also often immature and overreaching. Many began to doubt U2’s sincerity or to become tired of the band’s stoic messagebearing postures. For one thing, as Bruce Britt points out, “Playing coliseums,” as U2 chose to do on the Joshua Tree tour, “seemingly goes against U2’s intimate, humanist stance.” In fact, says Britt, “some have accused the band of greed and opportunism” (24). Inevitably, with the success of the Joshua Tree album and tour, such suspicions become more widespread. Bluntly, did U2 inspire people because they wanted to inspire people or because they wanted to sell more merchandise and make more money! Can so much idealism be lasting and Real? Before their massive success, U2’s simulacral presence in the media made it look like a band of young, earnest, serious idealists. To the old, loyal fans and to new converts, the band continued to look that way; but to dissenters they began to look like grim-faced, self-righteous, nch, rock-star do-gooders.
In truth, U2 may have been at one moment or another all of these things; but mediation as a simulacrum, which demands total transparency-no secrets and no complications-made “U2” exist in the most uncomplicated way possible: good or bad, giving or greedy. The graven image was loved, or the graven image was hated. The more frequently simulacral U2’s unqualified goodness was unmasked, the more frequently it was shown that the U2 mediapheme was an empty idol with nothing behind it.
U2 avoided the limitations and career dangers of these binary, good-bad perceptions only until the media and the public stopped perceiving them as developing artists-stopped perceiving them as “on the rise” and started perceiving them as “established.” The important thing, up to the time of The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum (which followed it), was that U2 was always becoming something new: they were endearing but overpromoted whiz kids (Boy), they were maturing but powerful rock and rollers (October), they were anthem rock heroes (War), they were artists (The Unforgettable Fire), they were stoic and mature (The Joshua Tree).
With The Joshua Tree the press could hardly stand it anymore: Anthony DeCurtis declares, “Bono’s half-hopeful statement that ‘U2 will be the band that’s always coming and never arrives’ is about to be proven wrong in spades” (DeCurtis “Truths” 60). DeCurtis undoubtedly meant well, but he was predicting trouble: the final categorization of U2, its enclosure in a single mediapheme, the completion of its simulacral image, and the exposure of that image as false and empty.
In its own eyes, the band’s direction had been toward roots music, simplicity, and honesty (Breskin “Twentieth” 100). The result of that self-perception was 1989’s Rattle and Hum, an album, film, book, and tour that paid homage to U2’s musical heroes. On average, the press was not supportive. Bill Ranagan reports that U2 “claimed the record was meant to show that even [U2], the biggest band in the world, were still fans” (Flanagan U2 5). If that was U2’s intention, they failed in the eyes of many. A major reason for their failure is that late-80s-U2 was too deeply stamped into the mass media consciousness. Jon Pareles, in 1997, remembers that “in 1988, U2 reached a dead end with Rattle and Hum. As it strained to create the sound of integrity, it ended up with awkward emulations of American blues and soul” (Pareles “Searching” 1). In Greg Kot’s words, “The Rattle and Hum movie in particular was described as overblown and self-righteous, and the consensus-even among many of the band’s longtime fans-was that the band had grown a little too big for its britches” (Kot “That’s Bono” 5).
If, to pick just one example from the Rattle and Hum movie, one can perceive the image of Larry Mullen (the drummer) sitting on Elvis Presley’s motorcycle at Graceland as a sign of his-and U2’s-reverence for Presley, one can just as easily see Larry Mullen on Elvis Presley’s motorcycle as U2 using their status as rock stars to do something that ordinary people cannot do. From a detractor’s point of view, the members of U2 have the audacity to pretend this use of their rock-star status is actually a mark of humility. At least, detractors might complain, when less idealistic stars use illegal drugs and drive cars into hotel swimming pools, they are blatantly, straightforwardly, honestly abusing the privileges of their position, not pretending that everything they do is thoughtful and righteous.
The band had not intended to make an overwhelmingly serious statement with Rattle and Hum. “It was actually quite frightening,” Bono told Greg Kot in 1992, “We’d do interviews and think, ‘Well, that was fairly balanced/ and then we’d see all the quotes used in the story were the serious ones. We were going down this tunnel where we were being allowed less and less to be what we are” (Kot “That’s Bono” 4). Analysts of mediation and news making are well aware of the phenomenon Bono is describing. Murray et al. have described it in terms of news-making “templates” (crediting the term to Wall Street Journal Atlanta bureau chief Amanda Bennett). In short, often the news that is reported is the news that was expected. Newsmakers expect “dog bites man” or “politician lies,” or “rock star outrages”; such stories conform to a typical sense of what ought to happen. While “man bites dog” may occasionally make headlines, more often, news makers provide stories with the expected angle, the prepackaged mediaphemes, ready to mediate (Murray et al. 29-30). Likewise, according to Bono, writers covering U2 found exactly the U2 they were expecting to find; the band was pre-inscribed-simulacral U2 was preceding Paul Hewson (Bono), Dave Evans, Larry Mullen, and Adam Clayton everywhere they went.
As the band now readily admits, by 1989 the U2 mediapheme had become stagnant, overdetermined, and irritating in many ways. The band felt this stagnation acutely, and the result was their self-imposed layoff after their 1989 New Year’s Eve concert. Simulacral U2 had gone as far as it could go, unless U2 was to continue as an irrelevant, greatest-hits machine, and U2 was not willing to be that sort of monster (Flanagan U2 4). Bono finished the Dublin New Year’s Eve show with an announcement that the band would take a break: “We have to go away and dream it all up again,” he said, foreshadowing the band’s later honesty about rock stardom as a fantasyland of simulacral images.
Among popular musicians, there have been many different responses to the precessional problem, from those who seem to master the simulacra with high-profile image shifting (Madonna, U2), to those who try to avoid the simulacra by keeping a low profile (Seattle’s Pearl Jam), to the bewildered acts that find themselves unmasked, empty, and thrown down at the pop cultural wayside (Milli Vanilli, New Kids on the Block).
Rein et al.’s advice for such situations includes a nod to what “has become conventional wisdom among image planners and their clients”: “disclosure that a change is under way compromises an aspirant’s image” (186). It is better, according to the conventional wisdom, for potential fans to believe always that a star’s success results from hard work, talent, and charisma, rather than from cynical image manipulation. But with his New Year’s Eve revelation, Bono had already violated that rule. The image-making coaches also advise test marketing any proposed massive image change in small, unnoticeable ways, so that, if it fails, it will fail quietly, rather than spectacularly (201). Furthermore, High Visibility’s discussions of character formation usually insist on a degree of roundness and believability for any new mediated image, for any sculpted character mediapheme. In the early ’90s, U2 would violate all of these rules with their bold, public self-transformation.
The band had tried to engage in dear, dynamic communication. They had tried to reinject their image with meaning by producing more of certain kinds of information about themselves: by supporting the likes of Amnesty International, by paying homage to their heroes, by speaking out about their political concerns, by avoiding any signs of thoroughly enjoying the perks and excesses of stardom. None of these gestures could make U2’s mediapheme any more Real. In the defined and delimited world of the mediapheme-driven mass media, information intended for clarification cannot counter the effect of reductive simulacra. Says Baudrillard, “Rather than producing meaning, [information] exhausts itself in the staging of meaning” (“Implosion” 80).
It follows that only whatever is entirely hidden is saved from volatilization by simulacra. Baudrillard invokes the mummy of Rameses, which was safe in its tomb for centuries until our science brought it to light. Then, it began to decay. “We only know how to place our science in service of repairing the mummy, that is to say, of restoring the visible order, whereas embalming was a mythical effort that strove to immortalize a hidden dimension” (“Precession” 7). This, again, is our culture’s violence toward all secrets. This is our culture’s fascination with the personal lives of its celebrities, with the work of paparazzi and tabloids and with information in general: all things must be named, all secrets must be exposed, even though they become simulacral and meaningless when exposed. The Wizard of Oz must have his curtain drawn back. U2’s particular problem, as artists, was that to produce their art, which depended on media exposure, they had to have an image; but their image had become a constraining liability. How does one deliberately dismantle a simulacrum once it is made?
U2 struggled with this question as they began recording Achtung Baby in 1991. They had to find out if it was “possible, ten years into their public lives, to construct masks that [would] allow them to say exactly what they [were] thinking in their songs while providing some sort of protection for their personal lives” (Flanagan U2 6). To break the power of their now-toothless simulacrum without destroying their career, the members of U2 had to unmask U2-unmask that version of U2-without eliminating U2 itself. It would be like unmasking the idol of divinity only to find a different divinity underneath: the simulacrum is discredited, but something else remains.
U2’s members decided that to discredit the old simulacral U2, they needed to appall it. If simulacral U2 had always to be serious and self-righteous, then they would have to become brash, outrageous, careless, big-money rock stars. Bono reflects that, in the 1980s, U2 thought success was “the big bad wolf.” Says Bono:
I felt gagged. If I wrote a song about the Gulf War, then that would be making money out of war. I couldn’t write a song about faith and doubt anymore because that would turn me into the preacher in this glass cathedral of rock and roll (Flanagan U2 56).
In the 90s Bono decided “the only way was, instead of running away from the contradictions, I should run into them and wrap my arms around them and give ’em a big kiss” (Flanagan U2 57).
The U2 of The Joshua Tree, as the media portrayed it (and so made it), would have been outraged. That is to say, whether or not the members of U2 would actually have been outraged by U2’s new image had they considered it during the ’80s, the mediapheme that dominated perceptions of U2 during the ’80s was of four musicians who would have been outraged. It is impossible (or at least very funny) to imagine the members of the 1990s U2 as companions of the members of the 1980s U2. The 1980s U2 is too austere, the 1990s U2 too prone to camp.
This project of killing one simulacral U2 to incarnate another simulacral U2 was inspired, in large part, by the mass media itself. In 1987, Bono had already said that “the difference between what is real on the news and what is surreal on Miami Vice has become blurred” (Breskin “Bono” 87). In the ’90s, Bill Flanagan witnessed this scene: “Bono sits at the TV transfixed, amazed that CNN is broadcasting [the Gulf War] live twenty-four hours a day, and that he-like millions of TV viewers-finds himself watching war as if it were a football match.” Flanagan was also with Bono when he saw an interview with a young pilot who is asked about what the bombing looks like from the plane. “It’s so realistic,” says the pilot (Flanagan U2 13). Bono was amazed and excited.
As part of the mass media, U2 had always been involved in the blurring of lines between the real and the fake. How much of a U2 performance was real emotion? How much was performed emotion? How much of what the members of U2 said in interviews reflected their Real selves, as perceived by people who actually interact with them on an everyday basis? Where does Bono stop and Paul Hewson begin? Where, really, is the Real?
U2 had tried to become “Real” in their mass-mediated environment, and a simulacrum of U2 (always already) overtook them anyway. Meanwhile, behind the media icon, the full complexity of U2 was lurking. The first step 172 took toward tearing down the 1980s U2 mediapheme was overturning the band’s somber visual presentation. Dave “The Edge” Evans, U2’s guitarist and most humble persona, became a “psychedelic thug,” complete with “oversize knucklebuster rings,” “pants covered with elaborate studded patterns,” and an “evil-looking thin mustache and goatee” (Flanagan U2 31-32). Adam clayton (the bass player) and Larry Mullen became futuristic cop figures. Bono became The Fly, dressed in a leather suit and big, bubble-eyed sunglasses. During the tour, Bono also incarnated The Mirrorball Man, a sort of shining used-car salesman, and MacPhisto, a Mephistopheles character complete with face paint and pointy devil horns.
These characters had an interesting ambiguity, somewhere between the believable and the discreditable. In the early ’60s, Boorstin wrote about the image of a modern American kitchen and its irrelevance to anyone living in the developing world instead of in a prospering Western industrialized nation. At an agricultural fair in Delhi, he had seen a mockup of an American farm kitchen. It was intended as a little simulacrum. However, it was not a simulacrum that the average Delhian could place him or herself inside. The illusion did not work. It was not complete; for this audience it was not in any sense imaginable as a real kitchen (Boorstin 243). Like that kitchen, Bono’s Fly was not quite a believable character. The Hy could not be fitted smoothly into perceptions about the reality of Bono and his band. It was obviously constructed. Bono was obviously having fun. Bono had been that serious young man going on and on about spirituality, so how could he be this? Yet the image had a believable element, something that made it ring true, since there had always been the suspicion that Bono and company had been putting everyone on-actually having fun, though they acted grim-actually full of rock excess, though they pretended to be ascetic. The Zoo TV characters are deliberately incomplete and ambiguous (counter to the advice of Rein, et al.). By playing simulacrum against simulacrum, creating a tension between the fake and the fake, they point out the elusiveness of the Real. They make it difficult or impossible to find Oz’s curtain and pull it back.
Those were visual changes. The change in music was a different matter. According to producer Brian Eno, “Buzzwords on [Achtung Baby] were trashy, thrmomvay, dark, sexy and industrial (all good) and earnest, polite, sweet, righteous, rockist and linear (all bad)” (166). In a sense, then, the sounds would reflect the new look. But the songs were not inelevant. The songs examine artistry, desperation, hypocrisy. They are not light fare. Though U2 left behind their blatant search for roots music, though they embraced electronica and complex recording methods, they did not abandon serious songwriting.
On stage for the tour-called Zoo TV-the band surrounded itself with giant video screens that broadcast “not just U2 but commercials, CNN, whatever’s in the air” (Flanagan LT2 31). The screens also dazzled crowds with “aphorisms and cuss words flipping a mile a minute across [them]: “‘Call your mother, I’d like to teach the world to sing, Everyone’s a racist except you'” (Flanagan U2 61). The show opened with a video prepared by multi-media montage artists Emergency Broadcast Network (EBN), who were pioneers in the use of audio and video splicing for “multi-media sensory assault” on multiple screens. EBN collected images from among “the huge quantities of seemingly random information received through basic cable television” and converted them “into high-energy music videos” (TVT Records). Their Zoo TV opening video featured footage of George Bush, Sr., manipulated so as to make him chant the words to Queen’s classic rock song, “We Will Rock You,” along with commentary on the Gulf War. “Why rock out now?” Bush appears to ask. “The answer is clear. These are the times that rock men’s souls. I instructed our military commanders to totally rock Bagdhad. And I repeat this here tonight: We will, we will rock you” (“Emergency”). The clash of high and low culture here, of humor and seriousness, of mockery and commentary, characterized the tour as a whole. At a cost of $125,000 a day (Flanagan UI86), the tour raised the stakes for all stadium tours, and its information overload concept was a far cry from the old stark and serious U2 tours. It was deliberate rock and roll excess.
As earlier in their career, the reception of U2 at this time can be grasped by flipping through headlines: “U2’s Daring Descent into Darkness” (Hilburn); “U2 Loosens Up” (Kot); “Dashing and Demanding: With a Superb New Album, U2 Reinvents Itself” (Cocks); “U2’s U-Turn” (Hilbum); “The Unpredictable Fire Bums On” (Hilburn); “That’s Bono as in Boffo: He and a Righteous U2 Turn to Glitzy High-Tech” (Kot); “A Chastened U2 Comes Down to Earth” (Rohter); “U2 Finds What It’s Looking For” (Fricke).
With a new, though very strange, U2 mediapheme ready to “ricochet through the channels of mediation,” U2 could have its vengeance on the music industry and the mass media. Baudrillard describes the vengeance of the dead in a scientific context. It works like this: science explains objects and so gives them meaning; however, as all explanations are reductive, the scientific explanation kills the original object and resurrects it as a simulacrum of itself; since the simulacrum is not Real, neither, now, is the object of science; therefore, since science gains its importance from the objects it studies, and the objects it studies are un-Real simulacra, science is made meaningless (Baudrillard “Precession” 9). In the same way, the mass media gains its importance from the objects it studies, but when the objects it studies turn out to be empty simulacra, the mass media turns out to be the carrier of empty messages. The mass media are discredited as purveyors of the true. (In fact, this phenomenon is probably more of a problem for mass mediators, who depend on their images for legitimacy, than for scientists, whose work may be valued for its practical results.)
Taken as a whole, as a huge and infinitely interconnected machine, the mass media emptied U2 of meaning by pointing out the inconsistencies, faults, halftruths, and un-truths in the 1980s U2 mediapheme. But U2 was able to return this sort of treatment to the media, discrediting the media’s previous version of U2, while at the same time preserving a new sort of U2 for themselves and their fans. U2’s image shift was more than the sort of savvy media-play recommended by Rein et al. Starting with the fact that Bono announced the coming image change, rather than hiding it, U2’s image shift was a meta-media play that brilliantly exposed and called into question the very mechanisms and modes of operation of the mass media.
To do this, U2 made it absolutely obvious that the Real U2 could no longer be pinpointed and, in fact, never had been pinpointed in the first place. They unmasked their own simulacrum. As a result, the old simulacral mediapheme of U2 was discredited, because if U2 could so convincingly be this set of excessflaunting, kitsch-loving rock stars, then they must never have been that set of humorless, self-important, flag-waving bores-what had been known as U2 could now only be seen as, at best, one aspect of U2. U2 had unmasked the old U2 simulacrum and showed that the Real U2 was not behind it.
At the same time, U2 unmasked the old simulacrum by employing what is actually just another simulacral U2-the trashy, throwaway, dark, sexy, industrial U2. How could this U2 be the Real U2? Baudrillard points out that one cannot pass from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City without being aware that these realities are too different and too separately complete for either one to be really Real (Baudrillard America 2-3). In the same way, one cannot look from 1987’s Bono to 1993’s Bono and believe that either one is really Real. Add to this ambiguity the fact that the songs of Achtung Baby themselves are deeply probing, serious, poetic endeavors, and yet another U2 is raised: the serious song-writers and musicians. Where is Bono? He is not the old Bono. He is not the new Bono. He is not The Fly or The Mirrorball Man or MacPhisto. Where is U2? Are they serious or not? Both. The cartoon video for 1995’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” includes a funny, telling scene in which Bono pulls mask after mask from his face: Bono, The Hy, MacPhisto, Batman, Bono, and so on-but never Paul Hewson, the man who became Bono. The band had successfully freed itself from a one-dimensional mediapheme and in doing so not only revived its career but also a achieved a new and greater range of creative freedom. If U2 was still at the mercy of various templates or mediaphemes for “U2,” then at least it had multiplied and diversified the number of “U2” templates in circulation, guaranteeing for years to come the band’s ability to embody a wide range of cultural myths, to create controversy, to generate pseudo-event after pseudo-event.
Since Achtung Baby and the Zoo TV tour, the band has mostly prospered. (The band’s website, http://www.u2.com, provides a detailed timeline.) The Zooropa album (1993) followed on the heels of Achtung Baby. With Brian Eno and others, the band members formed a side project called Passengers and released the ambient album Original Soundtracks 1 (1995). A version of Bono’s story/screenplay, Million Dollar hotel, has been filmed by acclaimed director Wim Wenders. U2 has undertaken two massive world tours, the kitschy and expensive PopMart tour and the less elaborate, more intimate Elevation tour, in support of two other new albums, Pop (1997) and All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2001). In all of these endeavors, as in other less highly visible endeavors, the band has been essentially successful. In 2001, a decade after the transformation of the early ’90s, U2 was the most lucrative outfit in the music industry (LaFranco et al. 65).
All this time, as in the past, U2 has been an activist band, lobbying for various causes. Most recently, and perhaps most remarkably, Bono’s efforts connected to Jubilee 2000 and the Drop the Debt Campaign have put him in touch with leaders ranging from Harvard’s Jeffrey Sachs to U.S. President George W. Bush. Bono appears to have actually become a convincing expert on the issues he supports, and he is earning the respect of a wide array of world leaders. He is also, always, acutely aware of how he is manipulating and using his image in the media. He readily admits that he became a mouthpiece for the Drop the Debt Campaign not because he is the most knowledgeable or proper spokesperson but because his visibility gave the cause visibility. He was right. As coverage from Business Week to Rolling Stone attests, the Bono angle made the drop-the-debt story more interesting, and more apt to receive more column inches (e.g., DeCurtis “Bono”; Barro).
The calculated effect of Bono’s presence on the Drop the Debt Campaign reveals once again the mass media savvy that has allowed U2 to stay in the rock music business for so long. An examination of U2’s use of and movement through the media since Achtung Baby could go on for many more pages and would range from political demonstrations, to the staging of tours, to a nice self-parody on Fox’s The Simpsons. A smart bunch of wizards are lurking behind the U2 curtain, keeping U2 both relevant and elusive; and, judged by U2’s longevity and continuing relevance, and by its corresponding ability to embody so many different cultural myths at once, or in succession, U2 is one of the most powerful mass-mediated icons yet produced by the mass media culture.