In honor of the surprise release of the new (free!) U2 record, Songs of Innocence, we bring you a reflection on the band from Andrew Barber:

BadHairDay.side3Weird Al Yankovic made me a U2 fan. I’m not proud of it. But it is true.

Every now and then our local library would sell some of their less popular stuff for cheap. On a whim, my dad picked up a cassette for one dollar. You know, one of those small square things you sometimes had to wind with your finger. A single track of the orchestral score from the 1995 movie Batman Forever was on one side. On the other? U2’s single “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”.

I was on my way to music camp when we put it in for the first time. The crunchy opening riff came through the car speakers and led to a song that was electronically inspired, sung with passion, and definitively rock ’n’ roll. There were a couple of vague references to Christianity that rewarded a little extra knowledge. It was laced throughout with what could be described as bursting sexuality. And it was all about Batman. So, basically, the perfect song for a religiously-inclined eleven year old.

As we got closer to camp I realized that I had no tape player with me; I’d have to wait a whole week to hear this tune again (#firstworldproblems). Mom and dad dropped me off, my cello was secured, and I was about to head to the dining hall when I spied something on my roommate’s desk. It was Weird Al Yankovic’s album Bad Hair Day. I scuttled over and nonchalantly (isn’t this the only way to pick up a Weird Al album?) picked it up. “You know, wouldn’t it be crazy if…” And sure enough, there, on the third track of the album, was a song called “Cavity Search”, a direct rip on “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me.” I asked my roommate if I could borrow his CD (which could have been embarrassing but hey, he owned it) and took this satirical communion every day, dreaming of the Lord’s Feast to come. One week and close to forty listens of Weird Al’s dentist-themed parody later, and I was on my way. U2 had arrived.

So, Weird Al made me a U2 fan. Ends justify the means, right?

Type in “hate U2” into Google and you’ll be rewarded with a glut of entries. You don’t get as big and as involved as U2 without making some enemies along the way (Unless you’re Benedict Cumberbatch. Everybody loves that guy). Routinely viewed as self-righteous and more into themselves than their music, U2’s rock-show-as-opera-as-worship-as-social movement has proved to be polarizing. Your stash of Animal Collective vinyl only matters so much when you pull out your U2 t-shirt.

However, there is one moment that defines the unifying potential of U2. It was 2002, the St. Louis Rams were playing the New England Patriots, and the entire country was reeling from the day the Twin Towers fell. The NFL knew it needed a particular tone for the occasion. This was not the time for a “wardrobe malfunction”.

When a healing touch was needed, the NFL didn’t turn to JLo or Alicia Keys or Creed (all best-selling artists from the previous year). They turned to four Irishmen from Dublin.

1101020304_400My return from music camp didn’t prove to be the apocalyptic U2-moment you might have expected. I was still pretty deep in Christian music subculture and a little unsure about the whole U2-thing (Heck, just a few years prior when my family had started listening to Newsboys, a Christian-rock staple, I said, out loud, “I don’t know if I trust these guys. They look a little…Satan-ish”).

It would make sense, then, that the true gateway drug would be a little album called In The Name of Love: Artists United for Africa. It was all the artists I trusted at that point in time – Sanctus Real, Audio Adrenaline, Toby Mac – covering U2 songs. This led me to a few conclusions: 1) Christian artists liked U2, 2) U2 occasionally sang about faith stuff, 3) U2 also occasionally sang about edgy stuff and Christian artists apparently thought that was okay too, and 4) some of the songs were really good.

When I finally picked up U2’s The Best of 1980-1990, the pump was primed. But I had no knowledge of 80s’ new wave music, no knowledge of Joy Division and no awareness of the IRA. I was convinced that U2 was comprised of four guys stranded on an island with some instruments and a recording studio. Every now and then a plane would come by, pick up their context-less music, and distribute it to the world. Where were the big guitar solos? The obvious progression and dynamics? The joie de vivre? “Bad” just kind of, well, sits there. All of my favorite music was so overproduced and filled with distortion that U2 struck me as raw and unrehearsed. My only way in, at the beginning, was Larry Mullen’s loud and ferocious drumming. But once they turned down his volume for The Unforgettable Fire and Joshua Tree, I was completely lost.

But there was something else going on here. Lyrically, they made my current music sound like VeggieTales. They weren’t content to sing about cliché Christian truths and go home. Everything was on their agenda: politics, war, peace, sex, depression, struggle, masculinity. Sometimes songs didn’t even have a resolution but were left like Jonah, sitting in anger with God’s question hanging in the air. U2 wasn’t answering to my Southern Bible-belt culture. They didn’t even know about my Southern Bible-belt culture. And as that echoing, cutting guitar riff from “I Will Follow” came out of my speakers, I sensed that my chance had arrived to like something that was not about me.

Something that was truly good.

U2 began the halftime show for Super Bowl XXXVI in predictably U2-fashion. The opening chords for “Beautiful Day” rang out as Bono sang the first verse – while walking through the crowd to get to the stage. It was obviously symbolic in the Bono-way; “look, he is one of us!”, an illusion which died the minute he hit the stage and belted out the chorus.

The Edge nailed his solo, Adam Clayton was throwing down the bass riff, and Bono even refrained from “ad-libbing” during the bridge – a great mercy to us all. As the song ended, we all knew it: U2 was on and the crowd was feeling it.

But then the synth kicked in. Words were projected onto a sheet lifted up behind the band. At the very top read “September 11th, 2001”. It took a moment for the crowd to realize what was happening. Then the names began to scroll up the sheet.

A list of the dead.

Bono struggled with the first note but then glided in with these words: “Sleep, sleep tonight/And may your dreams, be realized/ If the thunder cloud, passes rain/ So let it rain, rain down on him”. As this song (“MLK”) morphed into the rolling guitar of “Where the Streets Have No Name”, Bono could be heard softly repeating Psalm 51:15, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise.” A prayer for courage as the list of the deceased continued to scroll behind him.

Here is the truly amazing thing about U2’s halftime show for Super Bowl XXXVI: they played songs that were already in their cannon. They didn’t write new songs because their songs were already perfect for the occasion. At that moment, even the haters could see their value. Sometimes a rock artist isn’t good enough. Sometimes you want a priest with your power chords.

Jump ahead to my wedding day. We’ve said our vows without crying – too much – and we’ve made it outside of the church. We hop into the car of my best man, who is relishing the opportunity (as illustrated in this moment by his captain’s hat). We pull away and he cranks up the sound system; “Beautiful Day” floods the car. And as we sang along at the top of our lungs, it struck me that U2 has been my soundtrack for pain and confusion, for joy and for praise; the constant flow running underneath. Something that was truly good.

Thanks, Weird Al.