Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Photo: Sam Jones / Press Photo

Songs of Simulation and Discouragement: Bowie, Bono, and Authenticity

With its Apple-sponsored free public release, U2's Songs of Innocence betrays just how far the band has come from their past, despite its attempts to bring back a Dublinesque vision.

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.

Music DVD: U2: Zoo TV Live from Sydney

Artist: U2

Label: Island

US Release Date: 2006-09-19

UK Release Date: 2006-09-18


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

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.

Artist: David Bowie

Album: The Next Day

Label: Columbia

US Release Date: 2013-03-12

UK Release Date: 2013-03-11


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.

How can Bono’s words hold true when Apple and U2 are the establishment?

No such ambiguity exists in relation to Songs of Innocence. Upon the album’s release, U2 finds itself in the middle of a backlash as a result of Apple dropping its new album into all iTunes accounts this month. This has prompted a debate both about invasion of privacy and about the ethics of free music giveaways in light of an unsustainable industry already severely impacted by free file sharing and downloading.

Artist: U2

Album: Songs of Innocence

Label: Island

US Release Date: 2014-09-09

UK Release Date: 2014-09-09


Moreover, U2 is trumpeting its bleak and troubled Dublin youth as the reason for the new album’s authenticity as rock and roll, whilst at the same time proudly announcing Apple have paid them $100,000,000 USD for the product. So in the non-competitive nano-second it takes Apple to push nine figures from credit to debit column, U2 pushed the capital accumulation pole of the age-old “idealism versus commercialism” debate that dogs the band to a hitherto unknown limit.

Bono has mustered the defence that the manner of the album’s first public appearance is “punk” insofar as punk was meant to “stir things up and annoy people”. But this line of thought mixes up the relation between “punk” and “establishment”: How can Bono’s words hold true when Apple and U2 are the establishment? In fact, arguably the people most annoyed by the punk claim are old punks themselves, amazed at the elasticity that Bono can bring to what is otherwise generally recognized as a solidly left-wing and anarchic denomination. Rather depressingly, last week, old punks critical of U2’s strategy found themselves labeled as “haters” by the man in the spotlight.

Can the centre hold in such a contradictory state of affairs? Certainly, one can imagine Bono hankering for the illegitimate legitimacy of the Fly persona at this moment in time. He is doubtlessly aware that the decadent Roué, with one mischievous smile and a wink behind his wraparounds, might succeed in satirizing the outraged privacy infringement claims currently emanating from the iTunes generation. This is a generation that, on the one hand, has no qualms about downloading music and film illegally, but, on the other, finds itself indignantly opposed to receiving one free album.

Alas, expediency has required the retiring of the Fly, and with him the whole edifice of Walter Benjamin’s critique of aura in favour of returning to an authenticity founded in the real of lived experience. Apparently, this authenticity can be captured in the studio and transferred in its essence, drop by drop, or groove by groove, or bite by bite into the digital download of truth. The problem is that to understand Walter Benjamin is to be forced to recognize that pure aura, pure authenticity, is no longer the preserve of modern art, and certainly not in the form of a pre-capital, or capital-free memory untainted by the economics of exchange value.

So it is surprising, then, that an Irish Times interview conducted on the day of the Apple promotion announcement sees Bono wax lyrical about U2’s Dublin roots and the influence they have exerted over the content of Songs of Innocence. He tells Brian Boyd that the song “Crystal Ballroom” is based on McGonagles of South Anne Street, once a showband ballroom and then, in leaner times, a rock and roll venue which hosted a young Nirvana, Sonic Youth, The Golden Horde and U2, among others. Tellingly, of the club, Boyd then adds in parenthesis that it is “now knocked down.”

The journalist’s reference to this material erasure is instructive. For just as the edifice that was McGonagles has been demolished, so too the critical notion that the members of U2 embody and/or articulate modern Irish experience has taken a battering. In part, the reason for this is a decision to move its business affairs from Ireland to Holland, despite the former suffering through the ongoing financial recession, and thus deprived of the considerable tax dollars U2’s revenue would provide. This proved doubly “annoying” to a people accustomed to a long history of Bono exhorting them to make financial sacrifices for Africa, Bosnia, Chernobyl, Sellafield etc. The result, at present, is that U2 is perceived as existing at some remove from the bosom of the Irish hearth.

Perhaps in response then, in this recent interview, Bono flits from reminiscing about McGonagles to thoughts of his mother and how “her spirit was with us today” as U2 launched its new album. Elsewhere in the interview, he mentions how, near his home in Finglas in the garden of artist pal Guggi’s house, there was a cherry blossom tree that seemed “the most luxurious thing” in the otherwise desolate urban landscape of Cedarwood Road. In the song written about Cedarwood Road on the album, Bono describes it as “a warzone in my teens.” Most intriguingly, the singer explains the background to new song “Raised by Wolves” and chooses to place himself near the epicenter, give or take a bike ride, of one of the three bombs that claimed the lives of thirty-three people on the 17th of May 1964:

“The bombs were set to go off at the same time on a Friday evening, at 5.30pm,” says Bono. “At that time on Fridays in 1974 I would have been at the Golden Discs shop in Marlborough Street, just around the corner from where the bombs exploded. But that day I had cycled to school so didn’t get the bus into town afterwards as usual.”

There is something both very poignant, and yet deeply paradoxical, about this story. Reminiscing about (almost) dying to see real records on a digitally released download that uses as design image a plain white, old fashioned album sleeve is so completely to miss the point of ZOO TV as to suggest the contradiction must be evident to its perpetrator.

But more than this, and for the record, there is a reality on the flip side to this bomb anecdote. Having the marketing power to drop an uninvited album into the record collection of 500 million people is not rendered unproblematic by talking of your love of old record shops. Likewise, just as one bomb does not a warzone make, no matter how closely you position yourself to its presence, or place in Irish history. Citing the incident forty years later does not turn U2 into a phoenix regenerated through the cleansing fires of the past. And it seems that after the abstract indulgence of No Line on the Horizon a return to genuine emotional depth has now been deemed necessary. As Bono tells the Irish Times:

Jimmy Lovine, a former U2 album producer, said something hard to me. He said, “You’re a long way from where you live.” And that hurt. I live in Dalkey but I’m from Cedarwood Road, and I know what he was saying about me when he used that line. It was really embarrassing for me to hear that. And that is precisely why this album is Dublin-centric.

Presumably in response to Lovine’s observation, on “Cedarwood Road” Bono sings “you can’t return to where you’ve never left”. However, the reality of the new philosophical pragmatism suggests that artistic integrity is not to be achieved through multi-million dollar financial arrangements with Apple, nor posing on the African Savanna with Louis Vuitton luggage. It may be in realizing that the place to start, as one of Blake’s famous successors wrote, is at the bottom of the ladder in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Filthy or otherwise, the heart’s lesson might be for Bono to recognize that he is so far from where he lives there is no going home again. The past is not just a foreign country, but to propose to inhabit it from a distance is to adopt, necessarily, an outmoded philosophy. It is to entertain the type of contradiction Žižek believes sustains and maintains the entire edifice of the capital model.

So whereas ZOO TV demanded that the audience recognize there is no authenticity in the pop gesture that attempts to privilege essential, transcendent meaning, now Bono proposes we recognize that the past is the essential truth of the present. The reality is that actions in the present determine the reality of our present. In Violence, Žižek proposes

the experience we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is fundamentally a lie—the truth lies outside, in what we do. (p. 40)

Perhaps the truth for Bono will be that redecorating your admirably huge new pile with some modest antiques of your past is not the same thing as living in your old house. So instead of talking the good fight, Bono might speak truth to power and reject the suggestion that a communications corporation making a gift of U2’s twelfth studio album to 500 million listeners is “the whole punk rock thing.” It ain’t.

What would be very punk would be to move back to Cedarwood Road and live there, to live in a present that pays the right kind of dues to the past. Such an option is one course of action currently available to Ireland’s leading proponent of aspirational idealism, and it would be an “Event” worth witnessing.

One suspects, however, that the closest we will get to such an occurrence may well be be the “immersive live experience” of the next, inevitable world tour, which will probably position Bono amid sepia images of Cedarwood Road and Marlborough Street, in 360 degree high definition, at 100 euro a ticket.

Rodney Sharkey received his Ph.D., on the work of Samuel Beckett, from Trinity College Dublin in 1998. He has published regularly on Beckett, James Joyce, popular music, the graphic novel and other forms of popular culture. At present, he teaches Humanities to medical students at Weill-Cornell Medical College Qatar, the Middle East branch campus of Cornell University’s New York medical school. One day he’ll finish reading Less than Nothing, but he’ll need a very comfortable chair.

Works Cited

Badiou A. And Žižek S. (2009) Badiou & Žižek: Philosophy in the Present. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Benjamin, W. (1985). “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (publ. 1936) In Illuminations, pp. 240-277. Ed., Hannah Arendt, trans., Harry Zohn. New York: Fontana/Collins.

Boyd, B. (13/9/14). “Bono’s Dublin: ‘A Long way from where I Live.” Irish Times.

Bowie, D. (1976). Station to Station. RCA.

— (2013). The Next Day. Sony.

— Quote on Roland Barthes taken from “ChangesFiftyBowie,” Q Magazine, 2003.

Buckley, D. (1999). Strange Fascination: David Bowie, The Definitive Story. London: Virgin Books.

Cohen, A. (1995). “A Clockwork Orange and the Aestheticization of Violence.”, accessed May 31st 2013.

Dolinar, B. (1997). U2 Ate America: Forging Strategies of Resistance in Postmodern Culture. Ohio: Bowling Green State University.

Dolinar, Brian (1998). “U2 Are America: A Postmodern Fable of Rock-n-Roll Superstardom,” (1998). Available at accessed February 2004.

Edel, U. (1981). Christiane F.: Wir Kinder vom Bahnof Zoo, FSK.

Kubrick, S. (1964). Dr Strangelove, or how I stopped worrying and learned to love the Bomb, USA: Columbia Pictures.

Murray, C. S. (2013). “The Dame Makes a Man Think Things Over,” Q 321.

Lynskey, D. (2013) “Celebrity Big Brother,” Q 321.

Riefenstahl, L. (1935). Triumph des Willens. Leni Riefenstahl-Produktion Reichspropagandaleitung der NSDAPS.

Sommer, L. (2001). “Simon Penny’s ‘Electronic Critique:’ Notes on the Politicization of Art against the Aestheticisation of Politics.” Available at

U2 (1991). “Even Better than the Real Thing.” Achtung Baby. USA: Polygram Records.

— (1992) Zoo TV Live In Sydney Australia. Dir. David Mallet, Zoo TV Productions.

— (2014) “Cedarwood Road,” Songs of Innocence. USA: Apple iTunes.

Žižek, S. (2009). Violence. London: Profile Books.