Pop songwriters of the early 20th century aimed for universal topics within a narrow range of interests: finding love, having love, losing love, thinking abstractly about love. Any song that varied from the formula generally had a story about it. For instance, Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In” (1945), with its theme of self-reliance, was originally commissioned for a never-made movie musical about a cowboy in Argentina. The song sold millions in a version by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, but few followed its lead; most pop songs were not only love songs, but extremely general love songs about situations that could occur to anybody, and probably had occurred to everybody sometime.
This had not always been the case; folk songs from the nineteenth century and before generally narrated specific events in the lives (and often deaths) of specific people. Like CNN, US Weekly, and the radio blowhards of today, traveling troubadours offered infotainment, gossip cloaked in journalism, judged at least as much for style as content. Around 1910, musicologists John and Alan Lomax began publishing first sheet music and then recordings of those old folk songs. Interest in this older song tradition birthed a generation of folk singers, including Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, who sang not only the golden oldies but also their own originals in the same style. By the early 1960s, old folk songs like Goodnight Irene, Stagger Lee, and Delia’s Gone could become big hits, and the new generation including Joan Baez, Peter Paul and Mary, and the Kingston Trio were picking up the torch from Seeger and Guthrie.
Bob Dylan and Paul Simon performed plenty of folk standards as well as their own originals, but with a major twist: their lyrics simultaneously were more specific and more opaque. Take Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” (1964). On one level, anyone can relate at least a little to its frustrated tirade about a nagging lover who won’t accept the protagonist as he is, but also won’t just go away. But the details of the dirty laundry being aired belong to Dylan’s relationships with his politically active girlfriends Suzy Rotolo and Joan Baez. Dylan enjoyed the success of seeing his music co-opted by various Baby Boomer political movements – anti-segregation, anti-Cold War, anti-Vietnam, etc. – but resented being thrown into the fishbowl as the “voice of his generation.” Songs like this rebuke not just his girlfriends, but his audience. Dylan would similarly rebel against a different fishbowl when, upon his profession of Christian faith in the late 1970s, his new audience only wanted to hear his new songs, accompanied by a specific sort of affirmation that he had joined their team.
Really knowing Dylan’s music required knowing Dylan. So too with many other songwriters in his wake. One can glean a general theme of loneliness from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Only Living Boy in New York,” but Simon’s lyrical details turn from black and white to Technicolor in the context of their disintegrating partnership, as Garfunkel went to film a movie in Mexico as part of a failed bid to carve a niche for himself apart from Simon, while Simon stayed home to recall the early days when the two of them performed as “Tom and Jerry.”
Examples could be multiplied endlessly as 1960s folk rock evolved into the 1970s singer-songwriter tradition: James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” and Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris,” while all good songs even in a contextual vacuum, make far more sense if you’ve read their respective biographies. Rock singers picked up the baton as well, from Bruce Springsteen’s and Billy Joel’s endless odes to the ruined lives and ruined townships of greater NYC, to the new wave of punk and post-punk bands launched like missiles from the British Isles against various political targets circa 1980. Which brings us finally to U2, a child of those days. What is the place “Where the Streets Have No Name,” and why would someone want to be there?
By the mid 1980s, Paul “Bono” Hewson, raised on a musical diet of The Clash, Lou Reed, and similar 70s protest music, had honed his political/personal songwriting chops writing about the religious and political strife of his own country and family. The triple hit of Band Aid, USA for Africa, and Live Aid turned his attention to the even less tractable, more intertwined problems of political persecution and famine in Africa. He and his wife Alison saw the desolation firsthand on a trip to refugee camps in Ethiopia, where temporary tent cities stretched endlessly.
Struck by the desperate solidarity of poverty, he thought of the caste-bound Belfast neighborhoods of his childhood, in which someone’s street address defined one religiously, economically, politically. He thought of the Pentecostal Shalom Bible study fellowship of his youth and its teachings about the coming heavenly New Jerusalem. Would that eschatological city be segregated like Belfast? Surely not. In the perfect world, the streets will have no names, no divisions, like the tent cities.
So the song opens with a churchish pipe organ, joined by The Edge’s cascade of time-delayed guitar arpeggios, then by Adam and Larry’s rhythm section, until finally, a full 2:15 into the song, Bono begins explaining his desire to “tear down the walls” of social distinction. His case study is “a place high on desert plain where the streets have no name.” Granted, in that Ethiopian famine-born city, things are not so good: “beaten and blown by the wind, see our love turn to rust… still building, then burning down, love.” He won’t romanticize the Ethiopian situation, trivializing the human suffering there. Nor can he change it; turning to Ali he comments, “When I go there, I go there with you. It’s all I can do.” For the time being anyway. But over the following 25 years, Bono and Ali became more and more emphatic advocates for the plight of Africa, meeting with world leaders for debt forgiveness, promoting efforts to foster indigenous industries to mitigate the cycle of poverty that leads to the endless revolutions and famines. Even just this week, U2 published a “better than free” charity single, with the funds earmarked to reduce neonatal transmission of HIV in Africa. As with famine, it’s always better to treat the cause of the disease, not just the symptoms. The rest of the Joshua Tree album (1987) catalogues the list of other modern woes crying for remedy: addiction, unemployment, warmongering, American exceptionalism, suppression of dissidents, racism, narcissism. Bono has a vision for a better world, but he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for.
Science Fiction cinema and literature have often treated the theme of class struggle. H.G. Well’s novel “The Time Machine,” (1895) depicted a future earth populated by effete, wealthy Eloi on the surface and brutish blue collar Morlocks underground. Similar dramatizations of the split between the haves and have-nots were repeated in films like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927), “Soylent Green” (1973), Christopher Nolan’s Batman film trilogy, and recent entries “In Time” (2011) and “Elysium” (2013). Most of these stories end with the status quo unchanged, though the latter two close the curtain after a supposedly purgative episode of Marxian violent revolution, like a romantic comedy that ends with the marriage of two characters clearly unsuited for each other or indeed for anyone. Bono offers a more hopeful path forward: Not taking up arms, and not giving up, and not just waiting for a solution from heaven, but working toward that ideal by building up what’s low, rather than tearing down what’s high.