Boy, (Achtung) Baby, Bomb: Anti-language in the Songs of U2

Boy, (Achtung) Baby, Bomb: Anti-language in the Songs of U2

Boy, (Achtung) Baby, Bomb: Anti-language in the Songs of U2

John E. Hurtgen


            This essay is a sociolinguistic study of three songs from the U2 catalog viewed through the lens of  anti-language.1  Anti-language (literally, "back talk") is the theory of British linguist Michael A. K. Halliday that describes the counter-reality generating system of a cultural sub-group.  A sub-group registers opposition against a dominant group and simultaneously creates an alternative language for the sub-group.  Anti-language is characterized by relexicalization (old words are given new meaning); overlexicalization (multiple words used for concerns of the sub-group); and all kinds of verbal play (from puns to intertextuality) to facilitate an alternative conceptual reality against a dominant culture.

            The Irish rock band U2, as this essay will propose, has created just such an anti-language and counter-reality throughout their work.  Attention will be given initially to the general social context which created the community known as U2.  The three songs examined for evidence of anti-language are "I Will Follow" (Boy, 1980), "The Fly" (Achtung Baby, 1991), and "Vertigo" (How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, 2004).

Introduction:  Anti-language and U2?

            Anti-language is literally "back talk."  Back Talk, it goes without saying, has a long history in the human family.  However, anti-language is not sass for sass's sake.  Anti-language, originally the theory of British linguist Michael A. K. Halliday (in his Language as Social Semiotic, 1978), describes the counter-reality generating system of a cultural sub-group.  A sub-group registers opposition against a dominant group—often the only way it can, with wordswhile at the same time creating both an alternative language and reality for the sub-group.2  Anti-language is always more than an alternative reality; it is language in conscious opposition to a dominant group.

            According to Halliday, anti-language is characterized by relexicalization, or redefinition, old words of the dominant culture instilled with new meaning; overlexicalization, multiple words used for concerns of the sub-group; and all kinds of verbal play, from puns to intertextuality, employed to generate an alternative conceptual reality over against a dominant culture.  An example in United States culture is the anti-language of rap, which at least initially arose in poorer urban neighborhoods: words were relexicalized, that is, given different meanings (the word "rap," for one, and "hood," for another); words were overlexicalized, that is, multiple words were used for focal concepts (money, cars, drugs, women); and rap is now known the world over for its creative, stinging verbal play.  The earliest rappers, from Kool Herc to LL Kool J, not only generated an alternative language but also gave expression to the alternative reality of urban African-American experience that was certainly in tension with dominant white culture (ironically, beginning in the late 1980s young white adolescents became one of the largest consumers of this sub-genre of hip-hop music).

            How might one apply this sociolinguistic category of anti-language to "the greatest rock group in the world," whose lyrics more often than not are of justice, faith, struggle, and God?  One of the few rock and roll bands to do so positively, U2 has sought (implicitly and explicitly) to create an alternative reality for its hearers.  "The goal" is not "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll" but—as in "Beautiful Day" (Boston Concert, 2001)—"the goal is soul," life lived and pursued on a different plane.3  Yet, that different plane generates tension from U2‘s first song on their first album (Boy, 1980) to the last song on their (at the time of writing) penultimate album (How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, 2004).  And that tension is in turn generated by and given expression in the anti-language they have consistently created.  First, I will take a closer look at the sociolinguistic category of anti-language; then, I will consider the social ingredients that initially went into the creation of the community known as U2; and, finally, I will look briefly at three U2 songs to demonstrate how these songs may function as instances of anti-language.

Socio-linguistics and Anti-language

            At the heart of Halliday's theory is the idea of language as a signaling system (or, semiotic) which is embedded within an encompassing cultural matrix. Halliday views language as "a resource, a meaning potential, a meaning potential that  becomes actualized as people interact linguistically."4  Further, language encodes information on at least three levels: content, form, and expression, that is, in linguistic terms, semantics (meanings), lexicogrammar (words and wordings), and phonology (soundings).5  When we employ language—at the sounds, words, sentences, and meanings levels—we are encoding social information that simultaneously generates and maintains a given reality or worldview.  When one group linguistically encodes information—as either disaffected or marginalized by a dominant group—Halliday theorizes that the sub-group will use language in such a way as to register opposition against "the other."  Their language, the anti-language, is for in-group use only (not for outsiders) and yet in-group use that has outsiders as a constant foil.

            The functional components (or metafunctions) of language is, according to Halliday, the ideational (language as reflection), the interpersonal (language as action), and the textual (language as actual verbal expression, in relation to the environment).6  We employ language, first, ideationally to construe a model of experience or to construct logical relations between things and/or persons.  We want to speak of doing-and-happening (what's going on), of processes of sensing (how someone feels about something), and of other relational notions (who has or doesn't have, who is or is not).  We employ language, second, interpersonally to enact social relationships.  Halliday was never one to use linguistics by just looking at sample sentences to get at structure and meaning.  The interpersonal component (or metafunction) of language means that there is always some social exchange with another, or others, in view.  We employ language, third, textually to create relevance to context.  If we are going to tell a fairy tale, then we will begin by saying, "Once upon a time," because we know that how one says something vis-à-vis its social context is vital (right down to intonation, register, even regional dialect [assumed or genuine]).  The textual component (or metafunction) of language no doubt emphasizes the innate and socialized abilities we have to create with our soundings, wordings, and meanings, powerful (but also sometimes boring) speech acts!

            Yet, Halliday again theorizes, when a group begins to create an anti-language, it will focus on the latter two components: the interpersonal because of the stress on the tension between two groups and the textual because of the creative and abundant word play that such opposition generates.  Anti-language is language, but it is pathological language, that is, language that evinces that something is wrong with the dominant culture and something right with a sub-group (or that at least needs to be heard).7

            What does anti-language sound like?  Halliday's initial study included linguistic samples from the counterculture of vagabonds in Elizabethan England, anti-society in modern Calcutta, and the subculture of Polish prisons and reform schools, each replete with old words redefined, multiplied lexicon for core values, and various kinds of word play.8  Examples of other studies of anti-language include Roger Fowler's analysis of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (with its lead character Alex, who himself and his gang generated their own anti-language in tension especially with lower-middle class British culture); Bruce Malina's analysis of the Fourth Gospel (with the communities that made up the johannine response in earliest Christianity); and my own analysis of anti-language in the Apocalypse of John (with the other johannine communities that responded apocalyptically in Asia Minor at the end of the first century).9  In my analysis of anti-language of the prophet John and the communities for whom he was the spokesperson, I detected relexicalization (new words for old) in the form of a pregnant woman for Israel, a Lion and a Lamb for Jesus, a dragon and a snake for the devil; overlexicalization (multiple words for focal concepts) in the form of multiples descriptors for Jesus, God, Spirit, people of God, and opponents.  The voice of the Lamb Jesus, whose sound was like a trumpet (Rev. 1:10), set the "puny inexhaustible voice" (to borrow Faulkner's words) of the prophet John to languaging in such a way as to register opposition to ungodly powers.  In John's context, his anti-language was as much in tension against the Roman Empire as it was with the devil.

Life & Death, Lypton Village, Shalom Fellowship, and the Genesis of U2’s Anti-language

            So, how does a twentieth-now-twenty-first-century rock and roll band go about generating anti-language?  There is no doubt that anti-language shares much in common with "the heart of rock and roll," namely, rebellion, resistance, defiance.  From near its inception, rock music was easily associated (first by its own practitioners and soon thereafter by "the old folks") with that dangerous twosome, sex and drugs: "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll."  Rock and roll historically has generated tension between an adolescent culture and its forebears (whose "wine, women, and song" seemed a more palatable threesome).  Or, to use Halliday's terms, both the interpersonal and the textual (as in anti-language) are focal in rock music: the music was known to create instant division (interpersonal function) and the message itself was creative musical and lyrical innovation (textual function).

            U2 was obviously after more than "sex, drugs, and rock 'n'roll" in their formative stages.  Yet, the interpersonal and textual dimensions of anti-language, I would argue, are evident.  The question then becomes, how may one account for the language, the anti-language, at the heart of its music?  Halliday would point to the social matrix, the community, in and from which the language—in the form of lyrics and music—emanates.  What is the social location into which one might place U2?

            Višnja Cogan makes a convincing argument that among the many elements that explain U2 is fundamentally its Irish experience, which finds expression in, among other things, the band's community, independence, imagination, spirituality, social consciousness, and ambition.10  The genesis of the alternative-language and-reality generating system that became U2 is to be found, at least minimally, in the matrix of the death of loved ones, the Lypton Village gang, and the Shalom Charismatic Christian community, experiences that would set the stage for Bono, Edge, Larry, and Adam to form a very tight community indeed and, I argue, an anti-community.

            A good place to start is the experience  of  the  death  of loved ones for not only Bono but also for the other members of the group.  The death of Bono's mother Iris, when he was fourteen (1974), was, as Bono himself describes, the single event that made him an artist: "I think my whole creative life goes back to when my world collapsed, age fourteen. . . . The first thing I started writing about was death.  What a bummer the boy is!  Actually, Boy, our first album, is remarkably uplifting, considering the subject matter."11  Bono's mother's death would find its way into Bono's lyrics on a number of occasions. It certainly provides the backdrop for the first song on Boy, "I Will Follow."  It led to a period not only of rage in his adolescent years but also for a search for community, for family.  Larry Mullen's sister, Mary, died as a child, but it was the early death of his mother Maureen, in a traffic accident in 1978 when he was seventeen, that provided a moment of decision for him: "I am not saying I would have jumped [i.e., left the band] had she lived but, after her death, there was nowhere else I wanted to be."12

            A near-death experience, the suicide attempt of a friend (Sean d'Angelo), provided further backdrop to the material for U2's first album as Bono wrote what would become its seventh song, "A Day Without Me," in which he dealt with the aftermath of suicide for those the victim has "left behind."13  Ian Curtis, the lead singer of the post-punk group Joy Division, committed suicide in 1980 just  as Boy was to be recorded, which  meant two things for U2: the tragic loss of the powerful voice behind their favorite band at the time, and the sudden departure of the producer who was working closely with Joy Division, Martin Hannett, who apparently could not bring himself to work with U2's first album at that moment.14  For Bono personally and for the band members corporately, death added to the tension—and the need to express that tension in language—that would create its anti-language.

            Secondly, "Lypton Village," the alternative reality "gang" in which Paul Hewson and David Evans find a home in the mid- 1970s, provided fertile soil for tension between the adolescent and adult world of Dublin. Lypton Village was the genesis of what would become the U2 community (as Cogan and others, as well as Bono himself, have verbalized).15  Bono describes the construction of a community set up in conscientious opposition to the prevailing Dublin culture:

            "We invented a Village, which was an alternative community, called Lypton Village, and we used to put on arts installations, when we were sixteen, seventeen, with manic drills and stepladders.  See, the alcohol level in our neighborhood was so high, people going to  the pubs a lot, and we were young, arrogant, and probably very annoying kids, but we didn‘t wanna go that route.  The pub looked like a trapdoor to somewhere very predictable, so we wouldn't drink.  We used to watch Monty Python.  We invented our own language, gave each other names, and we'd dress differently.  We would put on these performance-art things, and in the end we formed two bands, the Virgin Prunes and U2."16

            John Waters' description provides further insight into this experiment in alternative community/gang existence among this group of friends:

            "Lypton Village was an extreme case, a revolt against banality.  It was not a petulant, ideological revolt, but a weary, existentialist one against both the tackiness and emptiness of the lower middle-class culture around them, the way in which their immediate environment seemed to embody the isolation and alienation they felt from society as a whole, and also against the fatalistic jocularity, the Cheer Up It Might Never Happen syndrome, that lay like a damp sheet under everything."17

            Relexicalization (new words for old) took place in Lypton Village: Paul David Hewson became "Bono Vox" (named after a local hearing aid shop); David Howell Evans became "The Edge" (because the shape of his head and/or his analytical nature).18  Overlexicalization also was to be found in the multiple names that were given to Paul Hewson, as Bono himself explains: "Before Bono, I was 'Steinvic von Huyseman,' and then 'Houseman,' then 'Bon Murray,' 'Bono Vox of O'Connell Street,' then just 'Bono.'"19 Relexicalization as well as overlexcalization is also noticeable in the name of the band itself: from The Hype to The Feedback to U2, which all suggest playful interaction and tension.  Verbal play of various kinds—indicative, according to Halliday of anti-language— was part of the experience.  Their membership in the social subgroup that was Lypton Village was the context for the kind of lyrics and music they would create.  They would be a rock band that did not act like your normal rock band.20

            Third, the experience of Bono, Edge, and Larry in Shalom, a charismatic Christian prayer meeting, gave the three the tension of being a distinct sect of believers in a strongly Catholic and Protestant country.  They became  tightly  connected  with  a  group that would eventually, to hear members of the band tell it, demand sole allegiance, even to the point of exhorting then to leave the worldly rock 'n' roll scene.  They traded Lypton Village for another kind of sub-group, complete with its own (anti-)language, which set up a great tension between dominant Catholic, Protestant, and certainly secular elements of Dublin life.  U2 was a band at  this time, having just released the album Boy in 1980.  Bono explains,

            "We were doing street theatre in Dublin, and we met some people who were madder than us.  They were a kind of inner-city group living life like it was the first century A.D.  They were expectant of signs and wonders, lived a kind of early-church religion.  It was a commune.  People who had cash shared it.  They were passionate, and they were funny, and they seemed to have no material desires."21

            Shalom meant serious Bible study, prayer, worship, spiritual commitment.  Again, Bono: "At that point, we were angry.  We were agitated by the inequalities in the world and the lack of spiritual life."22  Steve Stockman argues for the seriousness of this charismatic subgroup of Irish religious life:

            "The idea of being radical attracted U2. In any other city of the western world, this kind of Christian behavior would have been seen as old-fashioned and almost nerdish.  In any other city, Bono would have laughed at such middle class, respectable, religious behavior.  But in Dublin, this was radical stuff.  To take Jesus seriously was far out.  In some ways, Shalom was an out-there kind of gang on parallel lines with the Lypton Village gang.  It wasn't as if one of them was dangerous and the other one safe."23

            The worldly denial of Shalom was eventually denied (never to be embraced by Adam) and the future of U2 would continue.  After all, being a rock band would require everything and more.  However, the experience affirmed the spiritual and world-denying set that would serve as the imprint of the band so that it might function as "the rock band with a conscience."  Also, it would leave Bono, the major writer of the group, with an even firmer grasp of the language and themes of the Bible, the sine qua non of their version of anti-language.

Anti-language in the Songs of U2

            If the preceding three elements—experiences of the death of loved ones, inhabitants of Lypton Village, and intense membership in Shalom Fellowship—bear any weight for shaping the social location of the members of U2, one may rightly point to an inherent social tension from the very start of this rock group.  I propose now to suggest the shape that anti-language takes in U2 by examining three songs that represent the band at their beginning, in the middle, and at their  penultimate.  From their earliest album, Boy (1980), the song "I Will Follow."  From a middle album, Achtung Baby (1991), "The Fly."  From what is now their next-to- latest release, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004), "Vertigo."  All three songs were first releases for each album.24

'I Will Follow' (Boy)

            "I Will Follow" is the first song on the first album, whose album cover features a fitting image for the group's first album, a young boy.  This is a song that U2 has sung on every concert tour.  The boy loses his mother.  The boy enters a period of "terror and confusion," "rebellion,": "my mother's death threw petrol on the fire," Bono recounts.25  While there may be a hint of suicidal urge in the chorus ("If you walk away . . . I will follow"), it is clear that the song wants to reflect not only the experience of adolescent angst (particularly) in the loss of a mother but the experience of an anti-community that trumps any urge to self-violence and self-negation.  The most immediate background to the song is not only the mother's death but the family and alternative reality that first Lypton Village, then Shalom, and now U2 had become.  U2 provides an anti-language that sets up tension against adolescents- in-community who would say "I'm content with just looking at myself," "being blind," "having four walls come falling down," "being lost."  From the very beginning, U2 is the "band of social consciousness," and the forcefulness of the label is that U2 demonstrated in their honesty and group cohesion that the alternative reality was possible for others to "follow."

            Relexicalization (new words for old) is seen particularly in the word "follow."  Following expresses the notion that rather than aloneness I choose relatedness: "If you walk away, walk away, I walk away, walk away. I will follow."  Next to "follow," one could point to "Your eyes," which again points to life lived in community.  Rather than aloneness, again, "Your eyes make a circle" that encompasses me, includes me, as I experience you seeing me.

            Overlexicalization (multiple words for focal concerns of the "U2 community") is seen in the multiple verbs, nouns, and adjectives that indicate alternation between being outsider/lost and being insider/found:

            Outsider/Lost: "I was on the outside," "I was looking at myself," "I was blind, could not see," I was there when the walls came crashing down, "I was lost."

            Insider/Found: "I am found," "Your eyes make a circle (that encompasses me)," "I see you when I go in there," and--most importantly—"I will follow," where you go, I will go (whether Ruth 1:16 is seen as a footnote or not).

            The chief word play of this brief song of three minutes, thirty-seven seconds is the chorus, repeated three times: eight "walk aways" and three "I will follows."  The repetition is word play, meant to move the hearer, who may identify with blindness and lostness.  There are, of course, musical touches that indicate movement from outsider to insider, such as when the song begins there is distinct volume effect from less loud (farther away) to more loud (closer), with a corresponding increase in the volume of the two-note chord and pounding drum rhythm that speaks throughout the song (sometimes without lyrics), "I will follow."  Bono shouts near the song's beginning, "I will follow," immediately signaling his intent.

            Life has dealt a cruel deal: a mother is supposed to help a boy make his journey to manhood ("his mother takes him by the hand"); but she's dead, and whenever the boy remembers this "he starts to cry."  The verbal play of the chorus (again, along with a driving drumbeat that insists that the hearer get up and walk away as well) summons the hearer to catch the rhythm of movement and be swept away by it.  It is a simple movement: if you walk away, I walk away.  Life hurts, but a life of community is possible.  One final word play in the song just  may  make another implicit connection with Bono's mother.  The reference to "Your eyes" (repeated five times in the bridge) may be a veiled reference.  Iris, Bono's mother's name, by metonomy indicates the eye.

'The Fly' (Achtung Baby)

            Near the middle of this 1991 release (song seven of twelve), "The Fly" was also the first single released off the album.  Bono explains, first, about the song generally: "The whole track is a high-energy sonic barrage but with an angelic chorus."26  Then, more specifically:

            "As we moved from the eighties to the nineties, I stopped throwing rocks at the obvious symbols of power and the abuse of it.  I started throwing rocks at my own hypocrisy.  That's a part of what that work was about: owning up to one's ego.  These characters in the songs like 'The Fly' are owning up to one's hypocrisy in your heart, your duplicitous nature."27

            The latter explanation of the song does not dispel the notion that U2 is ideally the "band with a social conscience," ready to go morally where no rock band has gone before.  Truths are asserted, and aphorisms abound in the song, the numerous "non-secrets": for example, "it's no secret that a friend is someone who lets you help" and "it's no secret that a liar won't believe anyone else."  But it is one thing to know the truth and quite another to do it.

            Thus, here is a song about owning up to one's own hypocrisy.  Wherever there is "one man's lie," "it's no secret that the stars are falling from the sky."  In "The Fly," U2 employs anti-language to set up tension against themselves, or as Niall Stokes quotes Bono, the song may be described "as the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree."28  Anti-language in "I Will Follow" clearly has the backdrop of trying to create an honest yet hopeful response within  adolescence.  Specifically, anti-language in "The Fly" sees the boy grown up into a man, able to continue to acknowledge his truth, his "secrets."  Yet he does so knowing the great hazard.  So Bono: "It's saying: Scale this rock face at your peril.  Lots have tried before you and have been left on the fly paper."29

            Relexicalization (new words for old), I would suggest, takes the forms of "the fly," which becomes the human redefined (although flies typically have a better time at sheer wall faces than do human beings).  Yet when one adds the "fly paper" metaphor, as does Bono above, it helps one to see that the relexicalization intends to identify the ways in which flies/humans attempt but fail to live up to authentic, ideal human existence.  "The secret" would be another relexicalization: secret is now understood as the aphorism, the truth so common, so general, that it does not need explanation.  However, the song makes the clear statement that truth must be substantiated by action because humans have the tendency to aphorize and then to apostatize, that is, to say one thing and do another.

            Overlexicalization (multiple words for focal concepts) is seen in multiple, truthful aphoristic expressions (as in the first two verses):

Oh, baby child...
It's no secret that the stars are falling from the sky
It's no secret that our world is in darkness tonight
They say the sun is sometimes eclipsed by a moon
You know I don't see you when she walks in the room.

It's no secret that a friend is someone who lets you help
It's no secret that a liar won't believe anyone else
They say a secret is something you tell one other person
So I'm telling you, child.

            On the other hand, there is overlexicalization in the way a man/a woman struggles with "Love" (the capital "L" sort): beg, crawl (on the sheer face of love), rise, fall (from sheer face of love).  Yet at our best we are like a shooting star.  Would that we could burn purely, brightly, and at length for Love.  We cannot.  Yet, the poet says, burn brightly when you are burning for Love.

            The chief form of word play is the two voices that, at least on Achtung Baby, singing at the same time, produce a strong tension between each other (Bono would say it took them fifteen years to learn how to sing the song correctly, with the first voice ("Love, we shine like a burning star . . .") followed by the second voice ("A man will beg, a man will crawl").30  Either way, the "social conscience of rock" has shown the more excellent way, with the advice, burn brightly for love, but acknowledged faults.

'Vertigo' (How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb)

            "Vertigo" is the first song on U2's next to last album (released for airplay in September 2004).  The song had its genesis as—and remained after a most difficult birthing process—a hard driving song with a classic rock-guitar riff (or as Edge:  "it's just a great visceral rock 'n' roll song"31.  The image of vertigo, dizziness, is simple enough to grasp; the album artwork (with its alternating black and red slashing stripes) attempts to generate and maintain the notion of dizziness.  As for the basic story line behind the dizziness, Bono sums it up thus:

            "In the case of 'Vertigo', I was thinking about this nightclub we've all been to.  You're supposed to be having a great time and everything's extraordinary around you and the drinks are the price of buying a bar in a Third World country. . . . And it felt like the way a lot of people were feeling at the moment, as you turn on the telly or you‘re just looking around and you see big, fat Capitalism at the top of its mountain, just about to topple.  It's that woozy sick feeling of realizing that here we  are, drinking, drugging, eating, polluting, robbing ourselves to death.  And in the middle of the club there's this girl.  She has crimson nails. . . . a cross around her neck, and the character in this stares at the cross to steady himself.  And he has a little epiphany and you don't know what the epiphany is."32

            Again, the alternative reality that the anti-language sets into play is grounded in social consciousness—and even cross consciousness (even though Bono asserts that, even with crimson and cross, the "epiphany" remains inconclusive)—that is part and parcel of the U2 community.

            As for relexicalization, "vertigo" itself connotes a life ruled increasingly by "the jungle" that is "your head," by the "mind" that can "wander."  The moral life wasted, the resulting dizziness leaves us with the sense that "it's everything I wish I didn't know."  "The girl with crimson nails" (and "Jesus round her neck") represents—as in the (presumably female) "eyes" of "I Will Follow"—the opportunity for life as it could be, salvation, restoration, and, at least, some kind of epiphany that might reduce or diminish the dizziness attendant with giving in to the temptation to "want it all" and sell your soul to the devil ("just give me what I want, and nobody gets hurt"; certainly a reference to Jesus' temptation by the devil [Matt.  4; Luke 4]).

            Overlexicalization would include lexical  items  that  connote life that results in moral and social imbalance (you just know that something's wrong!): dark, jungle, soul can be bought, mind can wander, vertigo, can't stand the beats, everything I wish I didn't know, boys know they can't dance, all this can be yours, no one gets hurt, checkmated, hours of fun.  The anti-language sets  up  a strong tension by positing that there is a better way, a way that a person by sheer grace may experience: "except you give me something I can feel, feel" ("feeling" preferable to "thought" because "a feeling is so much stronger than a thought").  However, this "feeling" (emotion) paradoxically acquires cognitive substance: "I can feel your love teaching me how to kneel, kneel."  Kneeling, or humility, is a second reference back to Jesus' paradigmatic form of prostration, even to the point of death.  Thus, there is overlexicalization for the possible remedy that is held out through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ: "your soul can't be bought" because your  soul—if  you  recognize  it—has already been purchased through Jesus' death; a later reference of Jesus' death for sinners, as in the waitress's "crimson nails"; the "Jesus" (presumably on a cross) "round her neck."

            Word play abounds to convey the sense  of  vertigo:  not  a verbal cue, but the opening guitar line ends repeatedly with a  quick descent (the person with vertigo getting ready to fall down?); Spanish played off against English (even the counting is off, "unos dos tres catorce!"; "hola" and "que pasa?" phrases that assume that something is off kilter); presumably the satanic promise comes with blinding dizziness, "all this can be yours, all this can be yours, all this can be yours" . . . and with the promise that is also threat, "just give me what I want and nobody  gets  hurt."  Ironically, vertigo gives way to falling of a sort; however, not the "leaping off the pinnacle of the temple" (as in the gospel temptations) but learning to kneel. Humility, prayer (in the kneeling position), and the cruciform epiphany resolve dizziness.  "Fat capitalism"—and presumably fat capitalists of all sorts—has an answer in the anti- language of U2, which is solidly affirmed with sixteen "yeahs."


            As a conclusion, one last question.  How does an internationally successful, yet very wealthy, aging group of Irish rockers continue to earn the right to speak to the world on issues of morality and the spiritual journey, in a way that maintains the tension of anti-language?  A partial answer is that they have adjusted their message along the way to suit their maturity level and their social context.  Perhaps they continue to maintain some of the positive elements of both Lypton Village and Shalom Fellowship, creating with their lyrics, sounds, and images an alternative reality over against the dominant culture.  Also, regarding the social consciousness that has been theirs from the beginning, they have—however imperfectly—put their money and action where there message is.  Bono's work on behalf of debt relief and AIDS awareness for the continent of Africa is nothing short of prophetic.

            Finally and importantly, the language of U2 from the beginning maintained a strong tension against the dominant culture, first adolescent (as reflected in Boy) and then, as they matured, adults who continued to behave as adolescents (as reflected in both albums, Achtung Baby and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb).  They have maintained the tension from the beginning, as in this fourth song on Boy, "Into the Heart":

"Into the heart of a child
I stay awhile
But I can go there.

Into the heart of a child
I can smile
I can't go there.

Into the heart, into the heart of a child
I can't go back
I can't stay awhile.
Into the heart.
Into the heart."

            Though the lyrics are improvised, this is an important word play, indeed.33  The goal is soul: returning to the heart of a child.  And yet it is a journey that can only be accomplished as the boy becomes a man, a man who lives with the awareness of a child's heart, the heart of the Boy.  It is an ideal that is worthy of pursuit (and so "I will follow"); but it is an ideal of which one will always fall short (everyone falls from the precipice, "like a fly from the wall").  This is the tension—finding one's stability within a dizzying swirl, "in a place called vertigo"—so pervasive in their songs from 1980 to the present, a tension generated and maintained in the anti-language of U2.



1 This paper was first presented at an academic conference on U2 at North Carolina Central University, Durham, North Carolina, October 2-4, 2009.

2 Michael A. K. Halliday represents the London School of Linguistics, which displays a functionalist perspective within the European structural linguistic tradition.  Halliday, who is credited with founding the internationally recognized sociolinguistic theory "systemic functional linguistics," has two seminal works (among multiple other writings): Language as Social Semiotic (London: University Park Press, 1978), which  is concerned with the social "meaning potential" in language and in which he first developed the notion of "antilanguages," and An Introduction to Functional Grammar, 3rd ed. rev. by Christian M.I.M. Matthiessen (London: Hodder Education, 2004), which represents a complete statement of "the architecture of language" in the systemic functionalist perspective. Two helpful guides to Halliday‘s theory are Thomas Bloor, The Functional Analysis of English: A Hallidayan Approach (London: Arnold, 1995) and Geoff Thompson, An Introduction to Functional Grammar (London: Arnold, 2004).

3 In the Elevation Tour Boston Concert, Bono—with the word "soul" written on the soles of his shoes—adds to the lyrics of "Beautiful Day" that "the goal is soul" in 2.  "Beautiful Day," Elevation 2001: U2 Live From Boston, directed by Hamish Hamilton (Santa  Monica, CA: Interscope Records, 2001).

4 Halliday, Language, op. cit., 187.

5 Ibid., 21.

6 Ibid., 186-88; see also Halliday, Functional Grammar, op. cit., 29- 30, in which Halliday distinguishes between the experiential and the logical in the ideational metafunction of language.

7 Halliday, Language, op. cit., 164, originated the metaphor of anti-language as "sociolinguistic pathology," which, he reasoned, may well give "additional insight into the social semiotic."  That is, one may study inflamed, pathological, language (i.e., anti-language) in order to achieve further understanding of language as a social information system.

8 Halliday, op. cit., 172-79.

9 Roger Fowler, Linguistics and the Novel (London: Methuen, 1977), 130-159; Bruce Malina, The Gospel of John in Sociolinguistic Perspective, Center for Hermeneutical Studies in Hellenistic and Modern Culture Colloquy 48 (Berkeley, CA: Center for Hermeneutical Studies, 1985), 1-23; John Hurtgen, Anti-language in the Apocalypse of John (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1993), 89-146.

10 Višnja Cogan, U2 An Irish Phenomenon (New York: Pegasus, 2007), 6-7.  To those elements listed above, Cogan adds a seventh and an eighth, U2's own image and myth and U2's enduring fans (7-8).

11 Michka Assayas, Bono (New York: Riverhead, 2005), 16.

12 U2 with Neil McCormick, U2 By U2 (New York: Harper Collins, 2006), 70.

13 Niall Stokes, U2: The Stories Behind Every Song, rev. ed. (London: Carlton Books, 2009), 18.

14 U2 with McCormick, op. cit., 92, 96.

15 Cogan, op. cit., 14-15, 21; John Waters, Race of Angels: The Genesis of U2 (London: Fourth Estate, 1994), 59-60.

16 Assayas, op. cit., 127; earlier in the book he speaks of the other band members in the village, Edge and Adam, who were well suited to such a group, but Larry was more suspicious about the group (68).

17 Waters, op. cit., 59.

18 Cogan, op. cit., 15.

19 Assayas, op. cit., 54.

20 Steve Stockman, Walk On: The Spiritual Journey  of U2, Rev. ed. (Lake Mary, FL: Relevant Books, 2005), v, relates Bono's confession to an interviewer: "'You're in a rock band—what can't you talk about?  God?  Ok, here we go.  You're supposed to write songs about sex and drugs.  Well, no I won't.'"

21 Cogan, op. cit., 22 (quoting Neil McCormick).

22 Assayas, op. cit., 136.

23 Stockman, op. cit., 20.

24 Song lyrics here and on the pages which follow were written by Paul Hewson, Dave Evans, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen and are used by the kind permission of U2 and Polygram Music Publishing: "I Will Follow," (1980), "Into the Heart," (1980), "The Fly," (1991), "Vertigo," (2004).

25 Assayas, op. cit., 21-23; Stokes, op. cit., 9; U2 with McCormick, op. cit., 18.

26 Ibid., 224

27 Assayas, op. cit., 106.

28 Stokes, op. cit., 102.  The Joshua Tree is an album by U2 dating from 1987.

29 U2 with McCormick, op. cit., 224.

30 Ibid., 225.

31 Ibid., 321.

32 Ibid., 322.

33 "Into the Heart" is an improvised lyric; regarding the way several early U2 songs were comprised of lyrics created as they were performed, Stokes, op. cit., 13, remarks, "[c]raft would come later."