Nonfiction, U2, & The Truth; Or, How U2 Was Uncool Before Being Uncool Was Cool
February 23, 2013 · Print This Article
This morning, prepping for a class I’m teaching called Writing about Film and Music, I stumbled across a YouTube clip of the legendary Brian Eno, producer of U2’s 1987 The Joshua Tree, talking about his role in the making of that iconic album:
I got the sense that U2 was capable of making a real marriage between the two things I was talking about, between something that was self-consciously spiritual to the point of being uncool—and uncool was a very important idea then, because people were being very, very cool, and coolness is a certain kind of detachment from yourself, with a certain defensiveness, actually, not exposing something, because it’s too easy to be shot down if you’re exposed…
Later, Eno says that U2 was never a critical darling, because they were perceived as wearing their “hearts on their sleeve.” Recall the way Bono has used arena stages as a bully pulpit for his various causes: El Salvador, Northern Ireland, Iraq, and gun violence. I confess I’ve always loved this about Bono, though I know it makes lots of people squeamish.
Later in the same clip, The Edge reveals that during the writing of The Joshua Tree, the band was inspired by the work of the New Journalists, especially Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song.
In other writing, I’ve suggested that perhaps narrative nonfiction is the most important art form at the moment, as it helps us to engage in and express our spiritual selves. I see an opportunity here to push a little more on this notion that spiritual nonfiction is our most culturally relevant form of writing.
After teaching class, I ran across another reference to coolness and detachment in a recent American Scholar column, in which William Deresiewicz defines the “upper middlebrow” as an aesthetic that is neither middlebrow nor highbrow where feelings are “hidden by a veil of cool.”
According to Deresiewicz, the upper middlebrow is “edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive”—and is produced by a variety of un-reproachable figures and institutions, including Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, the HBO series Girls, John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, The New Yorker, and This American Life.
Like Deresiewicz, I see those asking for a closer inspection of these arguably “cool” artists and works, those who sense that their perceived value is based on how fully they affirm our world view and the nearly limitless spectrum of values that secular humanism embraces, are not just seen as uncool, but as oppressors.
I’ll admit it: I spent years chasing after cool before I finally settled down into an un-ironic pursuit of truth. Quite unexpectedly, this search has manifested itself in becoming a nonfiction writer.
Nonfiction seeks to remove that veil, or in some cases, multiple veils, of distance and detachment. And the New Journalism, whose first-person reportorial techniques have been thoroughly absorbed into the other sub-genres of personal essay and memoir, is credited with being the form that cut through the bureaucratic double-speak of government officials, the public veneer of celebrities, and the biases all reporters harbor.
The personal essay appeals to me right now because it’s where we can attempt to stop lying to ourselves—no more posturing, no more hiding behind a house style—though we may stumble in the attempt.
To be clear: I’m not calling for a boycott of novels or short stories. I still believe that fiction has the power to transform hearts and minds like no other medium. The genius of fiction is in grappling with characters who seem so unlike us, but who are actually holding up a mirror.
So here I am, an Irish Catholic boy, a Notre Dame grad no less, holding up U2 as the antidote to our detachment. But we must find inspiration where we can, and I am inspired by the determination to remain awake at the expense of being cool. I laugh at Colbert and Stewart, and even Girls.
But I’m tired of upper-middlebrow detachment. Like Deresiewicz, I yearn for works of art and culture that will challenge rather than affirm our views about the world, and what we believe to be our essential nature. I want to hear it from the mouths of the lost and the confused. I don’t mind that it sometimes feels like the blind leading the blind. Cool just doesn’t it do it for me anymore. –David Griffith
David Griffith is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America. He teaches at Sweet Briar College. A different, longer version of this piece previously appeared on IMAGE’s blog Good Letters, hosted by Patheos. You can find it here: