I’ll stick with music for one more post.
“Kite” is one of my favorite of U2‘s more recent songs. In keeping with the title, Edge’s guitar is alternatingly lilting and soaring, and Bono’s vocals are more than usually impassioned. The chord progression is classic rock simple, but the rhythms are changeable and complex. In many ways “Kite” marks the high point or cresendo of the band’s return its rocking roots in its November 2000 release All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
However, the best moment for me—and not coincidentally the one that will be most interesting to Found History readers—is the song’s nearly spoken-word epilogue:
Did I waste it?
Not so much I couldn’t taste it
Life should be fragrant
Rooftop to the basement
The last of the rocks stars
When hip hop drove the big cars
In the time when new media
Was the big idea
That was the big idea
Buried just beneath the surface of this apparent afterthought is what amounts to an historical apology to fans.
Emerging from the same late-70s post-punk, post-prog crucible as The Police and The Clash, U2 outlasted its equally talented competition to become what many consider the band of the 80s. The high point of this success was undoubtedly 1987’s landmark release The Joshua Tree, which by almost any measure must rank among rock’s greatest achievements.
If the Joshua Tree launched U2 into the pantheon of rock and roll, it also presented the band with the familiar problem of finding a suitable second act. The Joshua Tree was haunting and profound, but it was also chokingly serious and unsustainably earnest. U2’s 1988 follow up album-cum-tour film Rattle and Hum presents a band that has taken itself too seriously. 1991’s sometimes brilliant, faintly inane, and thoroughly self-regarding release Achtung Baby gave us a band on the verge of collapse. Often mistaken to be a love song, the album’s biggest single “One” is in fact a desperate plea to keep the band together.
Yet what U2 recognized in Achtung Baby that nearly all top bands miss is that they had to stop taking themselves so seriously. It wasn’t at all obvious how to do this: the history of rock doesn’t provide many good examples of humility. Indeed a late-90s observer likely would have determined that U2 had failed. 1993’s Zooropa, 1997’s Pop, and the band members’ string of unremarkable solo projects took the inanity of Achtung Baby to new heights. In the increasingly fragmented media and music environment of the mid-1990s that now included Rap, House, Grunge, Electronica, Alternative and many more, U2s brand of Led Zeppelin-style superstardom just seemed all the more ridiculous.
In fact, consciously or not, U2 had hit upon an ingenious reinvention strategy. The only way to combat the overwhelming earnestness of The Joshua Tree and the art house self-seriousness of Achtung Baby was to tear the band down and rebuild from the ground up. Pop in particular was a scathing, humiliating, almost self-flagellating parody of wealth, fame, technology, and rock itself. Yet at the time it just seemed like a bust. Most late-90s observers would have determined that U2 was finished.
2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind was therefore and by all accounts a renaissance. With songs like “Beautiful Day” and “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” the band returned to the tested formula of big vocals, socially aware lyrics, building guitars, and rock-solid bass and percussion that served it so well in the mid-1980s. (You find hints of U2’s earlier work throughout the album, for example the tinkling piano at the end of “Walk On” is clearly a throwback to 1983’s “New Year’s Day.”) This time, however, tempered by experience, they did it without so much (though admittedly still some – hey, they’re rock stars) ego and condescention. For long time fans—like me, if you hadn’t already guessed—it was a welcome return to the band’s roots.
This is the history told in the last two stanzas of “Kite.” In the first of these, Bono acknowledges the band’s mid-90s collapse and explains that its absurdist turn was at least partly intentional: “Did I waste it? / Not so much I couldn’t taste it / Life should be fragrant / Rooftop to the basement.” In the second, he provides fans with a rationale: “The last of the rocks stars / When hip hop drove the big cars / In the time when new media was the big idea / That was the big idea.”
Together I think these two stanzas prove I’m not totally off my rocker in pointing to the historical work being done by U2 in this song. In them Bono recognizes the essential anachronism of a 1970s stadium rock band (the “last of the rock stars”) in a world of satellite television, iTunes, and general media fragmentation (in the mid- to late-90s marginal hip hop artists truly “drove the big cars” viz. the Notorious B.I.G. and Coolio). He also recognizes that the only way to deal with the historical predicament in which U2 finds itself is alternatingly to embrace and reject that new media culture—that was the “big idea.”
In terms of found history, “Kite” shows not only that U2 has thought about and understands its place in the larger sweep of rock and roll history, but also that its long time fan base expects fidelity to that history or at least some explanation when it deviates from it. “Kite” also suggests that at this late stage, die hard fans may well expect U2 to make history and autobiography as much as they expect them to make good music.