U2 can be pretty shocking. If you’ve followed social media recently, you’ll know they’ve caused global offence by giving away their Songs of Innocence album for free (oh, and a nice tidy cheque from Apple for $100 million). I do think that the sum is pretty obnoxious. There’s no way that anyone needs that kind of cash, least of all the world’s most successful band in history (more or less). I’d say it represents, at the very least, a rather grim error of judgment. I have enjoyed some of the memes that this has provoked, though (esp Who is U2 anyway?). But even though that all now seems rather an inadvertent PR disaster, the album contains some genuine shocks which are clearly more artfully deliberate.
Take a look at the 9th song on the album: Sleep like a baby tonight. I confess that I struggled to know what was going on with this one to begin with (as my overview in the previous post shows). But then I came across this thoughtful piece by Ian Ryan on @U2. Lots of good points there, not least about the fact that U2 has always been rather annoying.
But then there is this grenade – and it’s now completely obvious. I can’t believe I missed it.
Talking about a pedophile priest in “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight” is even more bold than I would have expected. The song has become a favorite of mine due to its willingness to address such a wicked problem. The line talking about how the priest wakes up in the morning to a calm breakfast as his victim commits suicide is extremely heavy. There is no ambiguity in the lyrics, and I wish U2 wrote more songs like this. I think Bono uses his (extremely strained) falsetto to represent the child victim. Even though the lyrics address problems Bono saw in Dublin as a child, it’s amazing how utterly relevant they are to this very day.
It is agonising. With Ryan, I have always valued the way U2 have tackled the tough stuff: drug addiction (Bad), relationships breakdown (One), extreme psychiatric therapies (Electric Co), suicide (Stuck in a moment), etc etc. Perhaps it was just a matter of time that paedophilia was going to come out. It is heart-rendingly poignant to do it on this album though – for in their trawl through their life in 70s Dublin and beyond, the world now knows for sure that this sort of thing was going on in churches all over.
So this is truly a Song of Innocence Shattered (the victim) and Innocence Feigned (the culprit). The 80s electropop synth rhythms together with Edge’s desperate, screeching guitar and Bono’s almost leering, smug and complacent vocals make for a result that’s chilling in the extreme.
And it resonated with the horrifying research I had to do for my (at last now signed-off) book on the west’s culture of suspicion. The hardest thing to read was Betrayal, the result of the Boston Globe’s years-long investigation into the abuses in Boston Archdiocese. For it seems to me that the church child abuse scandals form (for many) the benchmark for everything that is wrong with organised religion: sexual hypocrisy, exploitation and control of the vulnerable, institutions closing ranks and protecting the guilty against the interests of the weak and innocent (via cover-ups and media manipulation). Just one example from the Boston Globe book:
Peter Isley, one of the [Fr Gale] Liefeld’s victims, is now a psychotherapist. He has speculated that the priest considered himself to be initiating the boys into “a special experience of love… I was a boy who needed love and this was what love was to him. But it was really all coercion, force, and terror for me.”(Boston Globe, Betrayal, 165)
And this song articulates the tragedy. Especially in the 3rd stanza:
Hope is where the door is
When the church is where the war is
Where no one can feel no one else’s pain
In just those 3 simple lines, Bono captures the total, obscene inversion of what the church should be. The door IN, not the door out, should be the gateway to hope. But, for abuse victims, church doors should be inscribed with Dante’s dark warning above Inferno’s entrance.
These are tragedies that must be aired – without that, hope and justice are impossible. But how disquieting to have that aired in a lullaby. It is shocking in the extreme.