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Old 04-25-2005, 04:16 AM   #1
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Constructing U2’s Image*

By Dave Mance

By now the images are seared onto our brains—I say “U2,” you close your eyes, and . . . voila! Look at it all—25 years of calculated Pavlovian imagery.

Chances are you’re picturing the band from a favorite era (Blue tinted glasses? Sequined pants?) or from a moody Anton Corbijn promotional photo. Maybe you’re not picturing the band at all and are instead free-associating (A crowded stadium? The Amnesty International logo?) The point is, whatever you’re picturing was put there on purpose.

Now I’m not claiming this as any sort of epiphany—of course all celebrities exist in a sort of artificially constructed reality (it’s why and how they’re famous). But it’s still neat to think about. Most of us reading this (myself included) have never met any member of U2. For all we know, the beloved Irish figurines could be robots.

Yet we feel like we know them. Some of us may even write geeky articles about them. All of these images that are branded onto our brains have become an entity in and of themselves.

Any examination of U2's masterful use of imagery over the years has got to start with how the band constructed their personal image. The humbling fact, in this regard, is that the band was given, visually, very few natural gifts. Put less delicately, what a homely bunch to have to turn into rock stars.

Poor Paul McGuinness circa 1979 stuck with a guitarist who looked like a choirboy, a bass player who looked like Napoleon Dynamite (for those who missed the reference, rent the movie by the same name. The main character’s “look” was obviously styled after “Boy” era Adam Clayton), and a frontman with the world’s largest mullet. Larry Mullen’s good looks were probably the most painful part, as his obvious shyness and roll as drummer in the band were the ironical PR equivalents of an Adonis looking heavyweight boxer with a glass jaw.

But they worked with what they had and succeeded due to a number of factors.

Perhaps most importantly, the band had the ability to hide behind Bono’s manic energy. Whether he’s hopping and lurching spastically in the “I Will Follow” video, dressed up as MacPhisto (an act, Mullen once deadpanned, that was “like pouring a bucket of cold water onto the audience”) during ZooTV or pretending to be a bull by holding two pudgy index fingers atop his head and charging Edge throughout the Elevation Tour—Bono refuses to be embarrassed.

As the band progressed, they too dared to be uncool. Never has a group been afraid to fail (image-wise) so spectacularly. From Edge’s “Boy” era hip swivel dancing to Clayton’s Tangerine ‘Pop Tart’ ensemble, the image faux pas over the years have been numerous.

And the embarrassing images didn’t stop with band members. We cringe when Bono swings the drunken Red Rock’s girl (who’s physically larger than he is) and almost takes out Clayton. We laugh hysterically when a technical malfunction leaves the band trapped inside a 30-foot lemon during the Pop Mart tour. But through these gaffes comes humanization. Every one of us is capable of the same moments of dorkiness and bad taste. In the end, by sometimes failing image-wise, the band endears itself to its fans more than would be possible if they didn’t take risks.

On the other hand, U2 has been so successful in creating indelible images because they’ve given us nothing else. We don’t see them backstage. We don’t see them in the tabloids. We only see what they give us. In Bill Flanagan’s extraordinary book “U2 At The End of the World,” Edge reflects on the bands image, saying, “I love what we do because we control it. Because we’ve set it up where we’re comfortable with it. If it was done in a way where our private lives were an open book, I don’t think I could be in a band.”

The associative image construction, that is to say the images other than those of the members themselves, was set up in U2's first era to take the onus off the band. Refreshingly, the cover concepts of “Boy,” “War” and “The Unforgettable Fire” were meant to compliment personal realities, album thematics and sonic landscapes, respectively (It’s notable that the sullen faced cover concepts of both “October” and “The Joshua Tree” were accompanied by charges in the press that the band was too earnest, too preachy, too presumptive or too remote).

Once the band had reached the pinnacle-popping point where all things famous must be destroyed, the band destroyed itself image-wise.

The sea change that was “Achtung Baby” has been given a lot of press and much has been written about how the band re-invented itself with the 1991 album. But the funny part is that musically they didn’t really change much at all. In the “U2 At The End Of The World,” author Flanagan recounts when Brian Eno joined the Hansa sessions.

“. . .he (Eno) is able to mediate between Edge’s ambitions and his old partner Lanois’s resistance. He goes to the board and shows how, by adding oddball vocal effects and a few jarring sounds, it’s possible to bring some of the more conventional material U2 has been fiddling with into fresh sonic territory.”

And that, of course, was all it was. Besides the lyrical subject matter, the melody line and Eno’s tinkering, “So Cruel” is essentially a sonic remake of “Mothers of the Disappeared—the moving closer of “The Joshua Tree.”

Visually however, the band was completely new. The album’s industrial clank and wheeze was christened Eastern European and that contention was bolstered by Corbjin’s “One” video and a stage set up that featured suspended Trabants. The band traded in their ripped jeans and suspenders for a look that actually could have been considered “cool.” Bono wore leather pants, mocked fellatio with a camera on stage, and became the sexiest rocker in the world for it.

The whole ruse is an amazing example of how powerful image is. Here’s a band, you’ll recall, post 1989’s “Rattle and Hum,” that was crucified by critics for 1) self-important grandstanding 2) uninspired cover songs 3) preachy social commentary. So what do they do? They return with twice as much self-important swagger, release uninspired covers as B-sides to their first couple singles and then conduct a tour complete with live video feeds from Sarajevo. But they did it, however, while wearing sunglasses and a smile—so the critics loved it.

The band changed during that era as America changed. In American pop culture, melodrama was replaced by irony. The surreal Rockwellian “Ronnie Ray-gun” years were replaced with “Slick Willy”’s debaucherous reign. On TV, the slapstick, good old boy gang at “Cheers” was replaced with the snarky, ironical gang of “Seinfeld.” In movies, the over-the-top teen melodramas starring Anthony Michael Hall and Molly Ringwald were replaced with over-the-top self-aware, ironical pieces starring Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder. U2 went through a similar metamorphosis and stayed ahead of the curve.

Moving forward, it was fascinating to watch them stumble with “Pop,” but then recover nicely, image-wise, with 1999’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.” Just as America was swinging back to the right politically, just as John Ashcroft was covering the breasts on the ‘spirit of justice’ statue, so too was U2 forgetting the sexual tension and debauchery of its ‘90s music in favor of “Peace on Earth” and “Beautiful Day.” The burning America flag that disintegrated in the “Joshua Tree”-era “Bullet the Blue Sky” and the indignant “I can’t tell the difference between ABC News, ‘Hill Street Blues’ and a preacher on the old-time gospel hour” lyrical tangent was replaced with an American flag stitched inside a leather jacket and a number of semi-disturbing pictures of Bono chumming around with Orin Hatch, ultra-conservative senator Jesse Helms, Ashcroft and a number of other actual preacher’s from the old-time gospel hour.

So where does this leave “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” image-wise? Initial impressions indicate not much of a departure from “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.” Through U2’s recent image work they’ve achieved a sort of massive middle ground—the rebellious spirit of the “Where The Streets Have No Name” video (“They’re shutting us down. . .”) has been replaced with the happy go lucky ramblings of a bunch of millionaires casually rolling on a flat bed down Madison Avenue. Everybody’s smiling. Bono seems to have found what he’d been looking for.

Stylistically, they’re very slick. No one’s taking any chances. The Edge’s look is timelessly cool and his choice of T-shirts is much more tasteful than good old #7 ever was. Larry’s finally ageing and looking more and more like a badass 50’s greaser everyday. While Bono’s cowboy hat is a little frat boy-ish for my liking, I do like the straight hair and tasteful threads. Even Adam Clayton looks smartly dressed and has stopped wearing eyeglasses.

In the end, while image has created the band as we know it, an examination of the images only reveals so much. Sure the band’s style choices have allowed U2 to become millionaires. Their constructed images have allowed them to musically equate themselves with history, be it the fall of the Berlin Wall or the fall of the Twin Towers. The spectacle they create is what allows critics to take pot shots at them and keeps the good people at “Entertainment Tonight” employed.

I think the band would be the first to point out that image is deception, however.

Close your eyes again and I’ll say it—U2. Now ignore what you see. Forget the fly shades and white flags and high-water pants and bushy blond afros and humongous television screens and heart-shaped stages and lights and speaker stacks and belly dancers and fans—everything. Make your mind black.

Got it? Good. Now que up a mental audio track—doesn’t matter which one—and listen.

The pictures have always meant nothing. That sound your head is what it has always been about.

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Old 04-25-2005, 04:35 AM   #2
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What a bullshit article!!!

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Old 04-25-2005, 08:05 AM   #3
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Originally posted by BassTrap82
What a bullshit article!!!
If you have constructive criticism or a valid opposing viewpoint, please feel free to share it, otherwise don't resort to attacks just because you don't agree with the writer's opinion.

Thank you.
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Old 04-26-2005, 10:43 AM   #4
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Interesting read. As a fairly new fan, I was really amazed at the changes in the band's image over the last 25 years. And yet, when you really listen to the music, the lyrics, and even the things they've said in various interviews over the years, they're still essentially the same four guys that they were when they started out. Amazing.
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Old 04-26-2005, 08:38 PM   #5
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I thought this was a fairly good article and well written at that; some great references and comparisons! I'm not a "new" fan, but I've recently been doing some digging and going back to a lot of the early see what I've missed out on. And I really agree with the whole image concept. The fact that they recognize they need to change their image to keep with the times, in my opinion, is what helps them appeal to more and more generations. But, I think what the article is trying to say is essentially summed up in those last few sentences. Yes, we do have images of them, but (and I agree when he says the band would probably agree with this too) it has never been all about the's about the music. Did I become a fan because of what they looked like or because I liked what I heard? Quite obviously it was the music, the looks are a bonus!
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Old 04-26-2005, 09:20 PM   #6
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I thought Larry said the “like pouring a bucket of cold water onto the audience” in reference to the Sarajevo linkups.

Theres a large number of USA references that make parts of this article unreadable to me. (eg John Ashcrofts breasts, frat boy style, "The spectacle they create is what allows critics to take pot shots at them and keeps the good people at “Entertainment Tonight” employed." , etc )

Oh well, I'm not the target market obviously. I'll live.

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