u2 the joshua tree
Photo: Cover of U2's The Joshua Tree by Anton Corbijn

Outside Is America: 35 Years After U2’s ‘The Joshua Tree’

U2’s classic album The Joshua Tree offers insights into the power of art to challenge the stories we tell ourselves 35 years after its initial release.

The Joshua Tree
Island Records
9 March 1987

That November night of 1987, I remember when the band tore into “Bullet the Blue Sky”. The fever pitch that the concert had produced up to the closing number of “Pride (In the Name of Love)” was intensified radically when the band returned to the stage to kick off the encore with the raging guitar licks of The Joshua Tree’s fourth track. With that excitement, I’ve also carried with me a memory of shock and embarrassment for the collected crowd as they cheered ecstatically with each vocal exclamation of “America!” as if the crowd’s favorite team had been name-checked. It’s entirely possible this memory is altered in my mind, where a later realization of my complicity with the cheering may have been retrofitted back into my consciousness, exonerating me from collusion in the moment. It’s tricky.

There is a scene in the Arrested Development television show where Michael Bluth apologizes to his son, George Michael, for his (Michael’s) lack of attention to what is going on in the younger Bluth’s life. Michael promises to be more present and open to anything his son needs or wants to share with him. Relieved, George Michael lets out a breath and lets go of his deepest secret. “I’m in love with my cousin!” he exclaims. Unphased, Michael puts his hand on his son’s shoulder and says, “I love you too, buddy. Good talk.” and exits his son’s bedroom. We can all be Michael at various points, shutting ourselves off from stories that disrupt the narratives with which we comfort ourselves.

As I contended above, much ink has been spilled rightly praising The Joshua Tree and fixing its place in history. The album is an inescapable anchor of their live performances. No assessment of U2 as a band can ignore its brilliance, resonance, and massive sales. It is arguably one of the top 10 albums of the 1980s. But what does it mean, or could it mean, 35 years later? 

Questions like that hardly ever have one definitive answer, and, if they do, they generally come from either zealots or rejecters. From one perspective, the album in U2’s hands functions as a living document, an inaugural text the group evoke and seek to re-purpose in new contexts. This could have been the case in their decision to tour on its 30th anniversary, playing it in its entirety front to back. Self-conscious about becoming a legacy act, U2 saw some contextual resonances in repackaging their end of the 1980s statement at the beginning of the Trump administration in America. 

By this point, they had nuanced their profession of love for America as speaking to America as an “idea”, calling us to our yet-to-be-realized best selves. But aspiration can be separate from execution, and it is hard to ignore the pull of nostalgia on the mostly Gen X crowds following that stadium tour. I saw how the somber critique of “Mothers of the Disappeared”—another song about political violence perpetrated by US-supported dictators—became for many concert-goers a time to catch up on conversation, grab a beer or make a bathroom run before the encore. “Three chords and the truth” is a compelling story, but we can tune it out.

In another assessment, The Joshua Tree in retrospective can be part of a case study in the seemingly inevitable interplay between righteous protest and the compromises of life in late capitalism. In U2’s last album, 2017’s Songs of Experience, they hint at the combination of distance and proximity to horror many of us experience depending on our awareness. In songs like “Summer of Love”, they apply a self-critical lens to the realization that the once young rock ‘n’ roll prophets now vacation on the French Riviera, splashing in the same Mediterranean Sea that simultaneously claims the lives of desperate Syrian refugees fleeing from a devastating war.

The Joshua Tree and its consequent legacy can be a caution against the dangers of the “white savior complex”, where the line between elevating the stories of the marginalized and oppressed can blur into appropriating the voices of others for one’s brand. Much of U2 fandom was forged in the resonance of having one’s conscience pricked by the way in which the Irish band channeled the trauma of their childhood under the threat of British state violence and IRA bombings into a voice of raging solidarity with other forms of oppression. But it can sprout an uncritical valorization of the messenger, often in ways that U2 struggles with.

The United States of America finds itself fractured and on the cusp of complete societal disarray. One of the most consequential debates revolves around the nation’s storytelling. Whose story is included and is open and humble enough to connect across the shifting demographics of the land. Is the “idea of America” achievable, or will it descend into the type of othering and denial that can sow authoritarianism? 

There are fights within the mechanisms of the American government to restrict and exclude stories that cause discomfort, that cry for justice, and that are stark mirrors to the myth of our better selves. Is it too much to claim that musing on an album attempting righteous truth-telling 35 years later might remind us of the necessity of art’s disruptive and generative power? Might it lead us to reconsider how art is necessary for human society precisely because it disturbs, disrupts, and awakens the imagination from the numbing comforts we can use to shield ourselves from our complicity and responsibility? That doesn’t mean albums like The Joshua Tree, as impactful as they might be, hold the key to unlocking the door separating us from all our hopes for harmony. But it is a reminder that healthy societies have always needed the disruptive witness of creative work and that exploitative forces will always oppose it or, failing that, co-opt it as a commodity. 

The societies that proclaimed themselves “saviors of the world” and uncritically wreaked terror by collapsing community into mechanisms of power have an interest in controlling the story. The art of music holds the possibilities of entertaining, pricking the conscience, and awakening the imagination to new horizons. As the yearning pleading from The Joshua Tree’s track “In God’s Country” cries, “We need new dreams tonight.”

Works Cited

Calhoun, Scott D. Exploring U2: Is This Rock’ n’ Roll?: Essays on the Music, Work, and Influence of U2. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014. 

McCormick, Neil. U2 By U2. London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008. 

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