Sunday, April 20, 2008

When Irony and Iconoclasm Intertwine

One of pop media's greatest weapons is the art of subversion. Comparing the U2 of the '80s with the U2 of the '90s is a perfect example of what I mean. The former were earnest, heart-on-our-sleeve do-gooders who felt it their duty to remind us, often, of just how evil a place this world really is.

But the U2 of the '90s was the exact opposite. They were cocky, gauche, and ironic. They embodied, down to their eyewear and platform shoes, the rock 'n' roll stardom they once sought to avoid. When asked in 1991 what their forthcoming album would sound like, Bono replied, "It sounds like four guys chopping down The Joshua Tree." Though they lost their vision a bit with their Popmart tour, the ZooTV era of '92-'93 was all about satire, mockery, with plenty of Ecclesiastes and The Screwtape Letters thrown in for good measure. Of stardom, Bono sang:
"They want you to be Jesus,
They're going down on one knee;
But they'll want their money back
If you're alive at thirty-three."

My point is that sometimes truth can be communicated more effectively by a smirk than a megaphone. Sometimes crawling into a culture and subtly mocking its idols from within is more interesting than standing without and casting sanctimonious stones. In a word, with his program The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert is a greater ally of the Left than Al Franken could ever be with his book Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot.

You can't watch Alec Baldwin's character on 30 Rock without feeling a tinge of pity for anyone that in love with the free market (and himself). You can't listen to Bright Eyes' "At the Bottom of Everything" without seeing the vanity of having to run "in this endless race for property and privilege to be won." And you certainly can't listen to "Love Is Blindness," the last song on U2's Achtung Baby, without feeling the hopelessness of having "all the secrets, but no one to tell."

Then again, it makes one wonder what Bono was really saying when, every night on that tour, they followed "Love Is Blindness" with their closing song, "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You."