Feature

Original art by Janice Vogt

Has the Internet replaced God?

When looking at how we worship our smartphones, tablets and computers, it doesn't seem like an altogether ridiculous notion.

But it doesn't take long for the premise to crumble. The Internet is not everywhere — at least not yet. Also, the Internet seems to be a haven for hate more so than love.

That being said, the Internet is responsible for daily miracles.

For instance, a month ago, a publicist working for the legendary rock band U2 contacted me out of the blue with an invitation to The Joshua Tree Tour 2017, the 30th anniversary celebration of a seminal record.

This invitation was hard to believe for two reasons.

First, I am a fledgling local writer who mainly writes about Milwaukee music.

Second, the night before receiving the email my girlfriend’s son asked me to name the band I most want to see live that I haven’t yet.

My initial thought was U2, but I worried about how he might judge me, so instead I said “Bruce Springsteen.”  

The next day the email appeared in my inbox, as if Bono could sense this injustice and called on his angels to make it right.

U2 Twickenham

The Joshua Tree Tour 2017

A special place in my little boy heart

When The Joshua Tree was released on March 9, 1987, I was a few months into my second year on Earth. It is an album that I came to love through osmosis, as my father played it regularly.  

My affection for U2’s music grew as I got older. When I received my first iPod in 2004, it wasn’t the black and red U2 edition, but I loaded it up with their hits.

“With or Without You” remains my favorite U2 song, as it is intricately tied to personal experiences of teenage heartbreak. While I may not have committed the second half of the record to memory, The Joshua Tree is easily my most beloved U2 album.

The Joshua Tree is a result of U2’s fascination with “the American landscape, its people, literature, and myths.” It was written during the heart of the Reagan/Thatcher years — a time of political violence, austerity, industrial decline, and urban decay.

The album expresses the band’s enchantment with the “mythical America” (“liberty and justice for all”) and disdain for the “real America” (government sponsored oppression).

The sweeping, atmospheric soundscapes and poetic, sociopolitical commentary on The Joshua Tree cemented U2’s status as the most important rock band of the era.

In the pantheon of music history, the year 1987 will also be remembered for the birth of Kendrick Lamar Duckworth in Compton, California. Lamar would go on to become the most important musician of our time.

Despite what you think of Lamar’s music or hip-hop in general, no artist in the last five years has brought such poignant, skillfully crafted sociopolitical messages into popular music. Lamar's work speaks especially well on issues of institutional racism, with one of his songs having been adopted as an anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement.  

kendrick dreamer

Screenshot of the music video for "HUMBLE." by Kendrick Lamar

Outside, it’s America

Since receiving the email from U2’s publicist, I’ve been thinking more and more about a connection between the iconic Irish band and the brilliant rapper from Compton, particularly because U2 is featured on a track off Lamar’s latest album and because Milwaukee rapper Lorde Fredd33 covers the Bono hook on his own song. 

According to The New York Times, U2 sent works in progress to Lamar, hoping to land a guest verse for their next album. Lamar ended up using elements of what they sent for “XXX.,” and the segment is reported to be part of a full-length song on U2’s forthcoming album, Songs of Experience.

It’s no surprise that Bono would want to work with Lamar, given the rapper’s unique ability to channel the struggles and frustrations of his community into dark, introspective and anthemic, uplifting music.

In an interview, Bono says of hip-hop music:

“Rage is okay. It’s very important to own up to it and get it out there. And that’s what hip-hop is quite good at — getting out those feelings that people haven’t quite owned up to.”  

Lorde Fredd33 (Cameron Henderson) is Milwaukee’s closest equivalent to Kendrick Lamar, a magnetic rapper who delivers elegiac tales of street life over jazzy, hypnotic beats.

At outdoor festivals this summer, Lorde Fredd33 performed the song "SEARCHIN." in which he sings the Bono part from “XXX.”

“It’s not a place / This country is to me a sound of drum and bass / You close your eyes to look around.”

On his re-appropriation of the lines, Henderson says:

“The chorus is continuously true and things are slightly different in every city. Not sure on Bono’s life experience, but I felt like those words are heard and understood yet lost in translation when said by him.

I still think it was wise to have him on the track for shock value and cross demographics, but it truly felt like he was singing Black America’s story, appropriation at its finest.”

cam pic

Lorde Fredd33

Close your eyes to look around

With only an ingrained love of U2’s music and a cursory understanding of the band’s history, I felt some research was in order in preparation for this piece.

Rather than Google articles or check out library books, I turned to a podcast hosted by comedian/producer Scott Aukerman and actor Adam Scott entitled U Talkin’ U2 To Me?

While they describe their show as “the comprehensive and encyclopedic compendium of all things U2,” U Talkin’ is essentially a comedy podcast in which two friends discuss their love of U2 in between dick jokes, a panoply of “side podcasts,” and other non-related tangents.

(Full disclosure, I am a big fan of comedy podcasts. The first thing I wrote out of j-school was an ambitious, 4,500-word history of comedy podcasts for which I interviewed Aukerman and other luminaries.)

Binge listening to U Talkin’ U2 To Me? was an absolute treat. The podcast may be oozing with postmodern irony and 13-year-old-boy humor, but it deepened my appreciation for U2.

U Talkin'

U Talkin' U2 To Me? fan art

I also learned things about the band by listening to U Talkin', like the fact that Bono’s mother died tragically when he was just 12 years old. Not surprisingly, U Talkin’ converted many indifferent listeners into U2 fans.

Most incredibly, the notoriety of U Talkin’ landed Scott and Aukerman an exclusive interview with U2. The idea that they would actually get to sit down with the band was a punchline when they started the podcast. But as Aukerman said on the interview episode, it speaks to the power of fandom.

Leading up to the U2 concert, I binge listened to another podcast called Dissect. Produced by Cole Cuchna, Dissect is “a serialized music podcast that breaks long-form musical analysis into short, digestible episodes.” The first season is dedicated to Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly.

Dissect can be understood as an in-depth audio dissertation incorporating music, interview clips and sample material. It analyzes every song measure by measure, inspecting each lyric and reference in scrupulous detail, while putting it all in the context of the album's overarching narrative and major themes. Dissect elevates the art of the concept album.

Cuchna says of his motivation behind the podcast:

“In a world creating and accessing more content than ever before, we’ve quickly become a scrolling culture, hurriedly swiping through this infinite swath of content that seems to replenish without end. Dissect was created to counter this cultural shift.”

The first season of Dissect solidifies Kendrick Lamar’s role as the preeminent voice of his generation. The ratio of information per minute varies dramatically from U Talkin’ U2 To Me? to Dissect, but both podcasts speak to the power of fandom and the merits of new media.

Dissect pod

CHURCH.

My original invitation from U2’s publicist was to their Minneapolis show at the new U.S. Bank Stadium. Due to a schedule conflict, I opted instead to travel south to Indianapolis for a performance at Lucas Oil Stadium on the eve of 9/11.

As my girlfriend and I walked along Capitol Avenue in downtown Indianapolis she noticed that St. John the Evangelist Church — the city’s oldest parish — was open.

“Do you want to go to church?” she asked.

“We are,” I replied.

After all, live music has that power.

I hold no formal religious affiliation. Rather, music is my church.

No activity or entity or institution offers the ability to transcend the ego and achieve peace in the unity of existence quite like the experience of live music.

Lorde Fredd33 excels at this sort of spiritual communion through music, particularly his visceral performances with the New Age Narcissism band.

U2 has built a reputation around their abilities in this department, with Bono having achieved a sort of messianic status.

Church

The Joshua Tree Tour 2017

On a recent Sunday night in Indianapolis, U2 delivered yet another soul-stirring spectacle. Bono even offered a prayer:

“Our prayer tonight is that we have one of those evenings, that none of us forgets. In the words of one of your local geniuses, a night where we get ‘as close to the edge as we can without going over.’ Kurt Vonnegut. So we can ‘see all kinds of things we can’t see from the center.’ An epic night of rock and roll, that’s our prayer.”

The band performed with no video assist on the first four songs, just as they did on the original Joshua Tree tour in 1987. Each song was pre-Joshua Tree, beginning with the smash hit “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”

During the performance of the tour’s titular record U2 was assisted by the largest and highest resolution LED video screen ever. It stretched from sideline to sideline.

Longtime collaborator Anton Corbijn produced gorgeous videos to accompany the music. Artfully augmented live video of the performance was also projected on the massive screen.

One of the more interesting uses of the screen was the Salvation Army brass band performing on a new arrangement of “Red Hill Mining Town.” The visual roll call of trailblazing women — incorporating local female leaders in each city — during “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)” was a gracious stroke.

Given the scope of U2’s global philanthropic efforts, Bono strives to be nonpartisan. But amid this wave of nationalism, bigotry and hatred, it’s become impossible to sit on the sideline.

U2 slyly expressed their feelings about our president through a clip from an obscure 1950s TV show called Trackdown, in which a conman named Trump comes to down and proposes to build a wall.  

The band claims the tour was inspired in part by similarities they see between our political moment and the late 1980s.

In a recent email interview with Rolling Stone, Bono calls out Trump directly.

“In a world where people feel bullied by their circumstance, sometimes people fall prey to a bully of their own."

U2 American flag

The Joshua Tree Tour 2017

The idea of America

Perhaps no idea since the Renaissance has held sway over our world like the idea America.

It is simple and alluring — a new land where you can be free.*

This is what drew my grandparents from Ecuador to the shores of the Third Coast in the 1950s, and my family from Bavaria half a century before that.

Upon reading the fine print, though, we start to see the true nature of this idea.

*But first, we must murder the natives, take their land, and enslave Africans. Then, when the Africans have won their freedom, we must continue to oppress them through political, social, cultural, and financial institutions.

Reconciling the “mythical America” — the ethos of “liberty and justice for all”— with the “real America” — the insidious mechanisms of an immoral nation — is an ongoing battle for those of us born here.

The Joshua Tree is a quintessential work of art for its meditation on this battle. And what better time to reflect on the idea of America than now?

With all due respect to U2, no one in contemporary music holds a mirror up to the United States of America — or himself — like Kendrick Lamar. And his live performance is an emotional and technical display on par with U2.

I have not seen the DAMN. tour, but in the summer of 2015 Lamar and his band commanded a hysterical Summerfest crowd, aided by home videos and other images from Compton.

Back in Indianapolis, Bono took a subtle jab at Trump’s anti-immigration crusade when he brought up the topic of “dreamers.”

“Let me say on behalf of every Irish person who has ever found safety and sanctuary in the United States of America, ‘Thank you very much.’

“We’re the original dreamers. And it feels like this America was built by dreamers, built for dreamers, and I hope you think the Irish have done OK by you over the years.”

Here Bono represents European immigrants, those who found a place where they could be free to work and worship as they saw fit — the “mythical America.”

By contrast, Kendrick Lamar represents the Black American experience, those stolen from Africa and shackled by institutions since slavery — the “real America.”

I reflected on these conflicting ideas of America throughout U2’s performance at an NFL stadium on the eve of 9/11.

The NFL has traditionally been used to promote the “mythical America,” but due to a powerful and daring gesture by Colin Kaepernick, the NFL and its players have recently brought attention to the “real America," drawing the ire of President Trump.

While watching Bono and the boys galvanize 40,000 plus people from a football field I realized that the athletes taking a knee during the national anthem on similar fields is not, at its core, a debate about free speech or respect for the flag.

The real issue with athletes taking a knee is about acknowledging that racism is alive and dangerous in America.

Those — like President Trump — who want athletes fired for taking a knee during the national anthem refuse to recognize the existence of racism in America.

It is possible that these people are so privileged and isolated that they have never seen or experienced racism themselves, yet they insist on eradicating even the suggestion of it from their sacred vessels of entertainment.

As Kendrick Lamar wonders on the song “XXX.,”

“Is America honest or do we bask in sin?”

kendrick silouette

Kendrick Lamar at Coachella 2017

Keep it on a high note

Barack Obama’s presidency was historic for many reasons, most notably for how it represented a reconciliation of our nation’s sins. His election was fueled by hope and love, a reshaping of the “mythical America” truly accessible to all.

The extent to which Obama was able to work within and reform the insidious mechanisms of the U.S. government is a topic for another discussion. That being said, I can see how a cynical mistrust of institutions could make you skeptical of U2.

Their Indianapolis set concluded with a rousing performance of “One.” The giant screen encouraged concertgoers to donate $10 to the Red Cross, as Florida and the Caribbean were reeling from Hurricane Irma. "One" is also the name of U2's international nonprofit that works to end poverty and preventable disease, mostly in Africa.

A lot of people hold it against U2 for trying to use their cultural influence to affect change in the world. I’m not entirely convinced this is a bad thing, and it is clearly something Kendrick Lamar admires.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Lamar says of Bono:

“[He] has so much wisdom and so much knowledge, in music and in life. Sitting on the phone with him, I could talk to him for hours. The things he's doing around the world, of just helping people, is inspiring.”

Lamar’s legacy may be defined by his ability to continue speaking on the “real America” while promoting an inclusive version of the “mythical America.” In this way, Lamar can help keep the spirit of Barack Obama alive, which was, in many ways, negated by Trump’s election.

“City of Blinding Lights” was the one song I wished U2 had played when I saw them in Indianapolis. Hearing the song may have been bittersweet, considering its association with Obama’s campaign.

The following lines from “City of Blinding Lights” could be read as a message from America to our former president.

“What happened to the beauty inside of me? / And I miss you when you're not around.”

Before bidding farewell in Indianapolis, Bono offered optimism. 

“The whole world has a stake in this idea called America. We need America to succeed, to thrive, to prosper, and it will.”

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