In order to best comment on where U2 and Bono find themselves after the recent iTunes controversy involving the distribution of Songs of Innocence, it is first necessary to take a trip down memory lane, take a peek at Zoo TV, tip the cap to David Bowie, and, through a brief comparison of both Bowie and U2, leave the members of the latter to ask ‘Where are we now?”
Brian Dolinar aptly describes the experiential “shock” the audience underwent at the opening of the ZOO TV tour, which took to the road 22 years ago, in 1992. He writes,
Massive television screens erected on stage tower over the band as they perform, displaying various images from the Gulf War, Soviet propaganda, commercial cuts, political leaders, and also word combinations and phrases such as “enjoy the surface” all of which complement or contrast the actual stage performance. The content present on these oversized television screens is a barrage of short, succinct images juxtaposed against one another in the familiar postmodern pastiche.
As the show progresses, its meta-performativity becomes evident:
Presenting an ambiguous image of fame and stardom, U2 offers a peculiar reaction to postmodern culture, to what Jean Baudrillard sees as an “acceleration of modernity, of technology, events and media, of all exchanges—economic, political and sexual.” Recognizing this acceleration, U2 play the role of performative performers—manipulating and mocking their superstar status.
Foreshadowing Jean Baudrillard’s philosophy of simulacra, Walter Benjamin first identified the manner in which a loss of a sense of aura, of depth and meaningfulness, must be replaced by other interpretations of experience that attempt to explain what remains. One such option is to explore the surface, and exploration of surface is precisely what U2 undertook with ZOO TV. However, 22 years later, in watching Zoo TV: Live from Sydney, the commercial recording of the tour released in 1994, one can see there are additional elements to this postmodern pastiche that also bear closer scrutiny. One such example are the excerpts from Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934) that open the visual component of the show.
Before the band emerges on stage, images of Nazi youth pounding bass drums in rhythmic unison send the U2 audience into a state of excited anticipation, unaware, in the flood of information, that they are responding to the rock show in the fervoured manner that was the desired response of the original Nazi rallies captured in the Riefenstahl film. Then Bono makes his first appearance on stage to the song “Zoo Station,” named after the Berlin Haufbanhof vividly represented in the Bowie-related movie Christiane F. He begins with a goose step and simultaneous Nazi salute, which quickly give way to a comic suppression of same in a parody of megalomania directly lifted from Peter Sellers’ performance in Doctor Strangelove (1964).
Dolinar also notes that as
the Zoo TV Tour is one of visual overload, the theatrical characters that Bono portrays are equally extravagant and overblown … Acting out The Fly character, Bono probes into the ways in which the egomaniacal, rebellious rock star is created and celebrated.
It quickly becomes obvious that the deus ex machine of the ZOO TV experience is David Bowie. Moreover, it is not just for providing the templates of the messianic (Ziggy) or quasi-fascist (Thin White Duke) rock star that U2 are indebted to Bowie, but for the tone, texture and vision of the whole ZOO TV experience. Indeed, Bono said of Bowie’s influence that the latter
introduced us to Berlin and Hansa Studios, and to collaborating with Brian Eno. He introduced us to the high singing beyond the man voice, into the feminine. And the staging, the attempts to be innovative. Bowie wasn’t afraid to use scale to dramatise things.” (Electric Guitar.com)
Having had to reinvent itself after it reached a dead-end in its attempt to frame U2 as the logical culmination of the American Blues, the band turned to Bowie’s legacy, going so far as to hire Brian Eno and record Achtung Baby (1991) at Hansa Studios in Berlin.
The results revitalized the band’s career, not least with the ZOO extravaganza that drew attention to the political and theatrical dimension of the rock concert as both rally and theatre. In the process, U2 suggested that both are surface and self-consciously manipulated events designed to elicit ostensibly spontaneous reactions from an audience all too willing to comply with the will of the ringmaster. As such, U2 questioned the degree of depth remaining in both rock and politics when the theatricality of both forms of representation is so deliberately and easily manipulated at surface level.
For his part, Bowie had always played games with the “style” of politics. On Station to Station (1976), he materialized as “the thin white duke” and a combination of alleged Aryan supremacist references in the song “Station to Station” (“the return of the thin white duke/making sure white stains”), a live tour with monochrome lighting reminiscent of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda films, and damning interview sound bites all seemed to suggest that Bowie harbored dubious political aspirations. Consider the following statements made in 1976:
As I see it, I am the only alternative for the premier in England. I believe Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader. After all, Fascism is really nationalism (Buckley 289)
Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars. Look at some of the films and see how he moved. I think he was quite as good as Jagger […] He was no politician. He was a media artist himself. He used politics and theatrics and created this thing that governed and controlled the show for those twelve years. He staged a country. (Buckley 289)
Yet, three years later, and in response to questions regarding his fascist sympathies, Bowie said:
It is not my position for the kind of artist I am, who tries to capture the rate of change, to adopt any given policy or stance politically because my job is an observer of what is happening and any statement made in that direction [vis-à-vis fascism] were a general reaction and a theatrical observation of what I could see happening in England.” (Buckley 292)
By referring to politics as a form of theatricality Bowie was, typically, “sliding on the surface of things”, to quote a line from U2’s “Even Better Than the Real Thing” (1991). Furthermore, by drawing attention to the critical acclaim heaped on U2’s Achtung Baby and ZOO TV tour in the mid-nineties it is possible to see how Bowie’s ‘70s comments were an attempt to articulate something of the relations at work between the creative arts and politics 20 years before U2 would make this position acceptable, let alone make it a cause of critical celebration.
To quote Benjamin (1985) on the relation between art and politics:
Fascism, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of “l’art pour l’art.” Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetics pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art. (p. 242)
Lucia Sommer (2009) summarizes the conclusion of Benjamin’s seminal essay thus:
Writing in exile in France, Benjamin discerned and proposed as a counter to fascism’s aestheticization of politics—whose inevitable culmination is war—the conscious politicisation of art. To Benjamin, the question was not one of binarism: a choice between “political art” or “non-political art.” He understood all art to be political, the creation of social actors. The choice was whether to continue to produce aesthetic products which concealed their political nature allowing them to fit smoothly into the functioning of the dominant order; or whether to render apparent the interrelationships which made up that order, and thus, to oppose it.
In the late ‘70s, Bowie’s Station to Station tour and the accompanying “thin white duke” persona flirted with the style of fascism in order to impart something of the rock performance ritual from the performer’s point of view. One can argue this was done in order to shake the functioning of the dominant order; to oppose such order by representing fascism as simulacra, as surface, as superficial aura without depth.
Ironically, this was a position that U2 could exploit twenty years later in a decade that had finally come to acknowledge the resonant power of parody. So, in lipstick and make up performing Third Reich take-off, the politicized aesthetics of Bowie and U2 drew attention to theatrical ritual as politics and politics as theatrical ritual. Further, these “theatrical observations” proposed to lampoon and disown the very capitalist machinations that produced the rock tour, new album and the general commercial juggernaut of pop stardom. If not resolve, then at least this post-modern frame helped ease the contradiction generated by performing a subversive politics and making a lot of money in the process.
Interesting, then, that in terms of the critical discourse that characterizes pop music in 2013 and 2014, what we might refer to as “ZOO TV postmodernism” appears to no longer have any purchase, either commercially or philosophically. Rather than notions of self-conscious parody and play, and other ludic variations on creative experience still holding currency, the critical academy has seen a return to more historicized forms of interpretation, in a bid to secure a critical discourse more rooted in established political contexts.
In the philosophy departments of universities, that quite democratically makes their presence felt in the music press, Badiou has replaced Bakhtin, Žižek has politicised Lacan, and Derrida has been displaced by a re-territorialized Deleuze. The result is that the trickle down effect to music papers and fan blogs, as graduates become professional writers, betrays a new suspicion of cleverness as any sort of exculpatory rationale for bad taste. For example, consider these two comments on Bowie’s Nazi pronouncements in a 2013 Q magazine Bowie special:
With such a thorough unfixed and mutable sense of being and personal identity and a constant public demand for new “characters,” it’s probably not surprising that [Bowie] went a bit nuts in the middle of the decade: the period […] of Station to Station and the most sinister of all his personae in the form of The Thin White Duke; […] of interviews ranting about Hitler. (Murray, 2013, p. 60)
Take the global political mood, add his fascination with Nietzschean supermen, his enthusiasm for Occult Reich, JH Brennan’s 1974 account of Nazi mysticism, and a destabilizing quantity of cocaine and it is no wonder that he started quacking on about a new Hitler. (Lynskey, 2013, p. 80.)
In 2013 two music journalists refer to Bowie’s Hitler comments at “ranting” and “quacking”. No mention is made of such comments being a “theatrical observation” on the subversive power of playing with the authenticity of Nazi imagery. It seems that traumatic political history has reasserted its authenticity as a process that requires explication and explanation, and understandably so.
In this regard, Badiou advocates for the arrival of the “Event” that will finally shatter simulacra, and so transform the contemporary social order. And he can prove it by set theory! Additionally, within this new philosophical discourse, there is a desire to expose contradiction. Žižek’s excellent Violence goes some way towards exposing how nostalgia for the past maintains a voracious capital machine in the present. Likewise, “Lenin is on sale again” for both Badiou and Žižek, who seek to replace the “Po-Mo” play of signifiers with recognition of a developing historicity that will transformed old school Communism into a new and ethical force for good. Whether fans know it by its technical name or not, “Dialectic Materialism” is back in pop criticism, and with a vengeance.
The impact of this philosophic repositioning on both the content and critical characterization of the most recent work of Bowie and U2 is of note. Both Bowie and Bono characterised the introduction of their respective new albums by drawing attention to the past to ask questions of the present. Bowie dropped “Where are We Now?” on an unsuspecting public by means of a YouTube upload which features old film footage of the apartment he shared with Iggy Pop in Berlin in the late ‘70s. The song’s dominant refrain—where are we now?—suggests a sense of loss, both of the past and of direction in the present. However, it concludes with the refrain “as long as there’s fire”, suggesting that as long as Bowie’s creative juices flow, there’s still music to be made.
Elsewhere on the album, some songs suggest Bowie’s past with references to visiting “Finchley Fair” (“Dirty Boys”), and on the song “Heat” the narrator tells us that “my father ran the prison” in such a subjectively exposed un-Bowiesque lyric as to suggest there might be much auto-biography on this album. After careful scrutiny, however, within the context of the album as a whole, the brush with the past is discreet and there are plenty of other more familiar recurring tropes from Bowie’s mythology. These include aliens in “Stars are out Tonight”, drugs in “I’d Rather get High”, and inter-textual references to artists such as Mishima (and his dog) in “Heat”. The album artwork itself whitens out the central, facial square of Heroes, his famous Berlin album; the implication being that The Next Day is a return to and reevaluation of the past, and also a relinquishing of its allure in favour of the new. Contemporary themes are also demonstrably present. “The Next Day” address clerical child abuse (albeit through the lens of medieval torture) and school shootings appear to be the order of “Valentine’s Day”.
All the while, Bowie remains a thin white distance from interpretation. Speculation regarding any personal disclosure remains moot as Bowie chose to release the album without comment, or commentary, leaving interpretation and evaluation to the listeners. In effect, he didn’t appear as a mediating voice or interpreting agent (beyond his appearance in five videos to accompany the album’s release!). This is in keeping with his general artistic vision in which the listener is privileged with interpretive space in which to maneuver.
Responding to a Q magazine suggestion that he has never been in complete control of his material. Bowie is on record as saying “Absolutely. As Roland Barthes said in the mid-‘60s that was the way interpretation would start to flow. It would begin with society and culture itself. The author becomes really a trigger.” In light of this privileging of interpretive space to others, it could be agued that the nostalgic tone that characterises Bowie’s reappearance in the musical fray indicates a desire on the part of his fan base for a return to a meaningful past in which a vital and regenerative Bowie is positioned. It is not, in the final analysis, an impulse necessarily entertained by Bowie himself.