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U2 is not enough to close Obama’s TV deal

D 29 August 2008     H 16:05     A Corine/Dead     C 0 messages


By John Doyle

To the continuing chagrin of the newspaper racket, the majority of people here and in the United States get most of their information from TV. Television moulds their impressions and firms up their views on politics, politicians and any old issue you can name.

Tonight at the Democratic National Convention (multiple channels, starting at 7 p.m.; Barack Obama’s speech at 10 p.m.), Barack Obama sells himself to the vast U.S. audience that needs to know more about him. The polls are indicating there’s a hesitancy about supporting Obama. This is where he starts to close the sale, and he must do it emphatically.

Over the past few days, watching the TV coverage from Denver has been a fascinating experience, especially those long reports that attempt to answer the question, "Who is Barack Obama?" Each piece includes much coverage of his campaign, and what has struck me is that there’s a distinctive soundtrack. It’s U2. Always U2.

Early in his campaign, Obama chose U2’s "City of Blinding Lights" as a campaign song. Later, when he’d won the nomination, and when he appeared recently with Senator Joe Biden, it was U2’s "Beautiful Day" that boomed out at the public events.

Of course, all of these events are choreographed for a TV audience. The point is to get the clip, the report, on the TV news and use it as a commercial-by-proxy. Like any powerful commercial, the act of selling Obama and his message must have a catchy or uplifting musical accompaniment.

There’s nothing casual about Obama’s use of U2. If you go to the Internet to sites devoted to supporters of Obama, you’ll find a subgroup called U2 Fans for Obama ’08. And that group’s mission statement is this: "Since Bono can’t run for U.S. president, Obama is the next best thing. A group for those of us who see in Obama a progressive Christian who embodies the ideas and sentiments we find so compelling in U2’s music."

Me, I find it unnerving. The other night while watching one of those Obama profiles saturated with U2, I thought back to an evening, years ago, in Dublin. I walked out for a pint with my cronies. Along the Howth Road I passed a bus stop where two young men were waiting. One lounged against the wall, and the other, dressed in a long coat and a cap, giving him a bohemian look, paced. As I passed, the pacing fella looked at me. I looked at him. He nodded and I nodded back, in the Dublin way. I knew he was the guitar player for U2, the guy who called himself the Edge, on his way into the city centre, to the bars and clubs where bands played. He wasn’t famous then. Everybody was in a band.

I recalled that and wondered why the music from those four lower-middle-class guys from the north side of Dublin — where I lived and learned everything I needed to know about life — had achieved such extraordinary, culture-defining impact. What possible ingredient in that place and time gave rise to the transcendent, visionary and poetic sound that could stir people, endlessly and over the decades?

It was partly the mood of the place, that oppressive sense of being trapped in absurd arguments about religion, Northern Ireland and an economy in shambles. Everyone of a certain age wanted to surmount that, if not to escape literally, then to escape in the mind, in the music, to reach some other place. It might have been the weather — the need to grasp and celebrate those times when the sun broke through and lit up grey, grimy Dublin. Certainly in U2’s case, it was the small, non-evangelical Christian group they were part of — today there are vigorous arguments about U2 being "a Christian band" or not. They’re not, really. The Christianity is too vague.

The thing is, the power of the music is in its vagueness. It’s about yearning, not achievement. It articulates aching needs. It is simultaneously all-meaningful and meaningless. As a selling tool, it’s too vague. "Beautiful Day" is as powerful at a World Cup soccer game as it is at an Obama rally.

If it is used tonight, Obama is still only selling yearning, and he’s not closing the deal. Like anyone selling something, he’s got to be more concrete, to deal with the stony ground. "Beautiful Day" opens with "The heart is a bloom/ shoots up through the stony ground" and it’s on the stony ground that elections are won. I don’t think U2 closes the sale.


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