Politics in U2 songs, a primer

MANILA, Philippines – At least three generations of fans have embraced U2’s music. Given the band’s massive following it seems strange to note that there are listeners who aren’t familiar with the political messages contained in these songs.

This became apparent during the band’s recent Manila visit and performance. At a press event to promote Zipline, a drone blood delivery system, U2 frontman Bono gave a “soft message” to President Rodrigo Duterte. "You can't compromise on human rights. That's my soft message to President Duterte," the singer said.

This spurred a wave of online comments telling the outspoken singer to stick to music and leave politics – particularly local politics – alone. 

And during the concert itself held at the Philippine Arena on Wednesday, December 11, the band gave props to volunteers and journalists. “We salute you, truth-tellers, everyday heroes, women and men,” Bono said. “And see your lights, and see the stars, and the Manila sky." Later in the gig, the band threw its support behind Maria Ressa, dedicating the song “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)” to her, and including her in their Herstory tribute.

Again, the angry comments came flowing in, some of which seemed to be surprised about the band’s willingness to engage politically. While U2 has never been explicitly right- or left-leaning, the band has always taken up the cudgels for the marginalized people. (They’re not irreproachable, of course — it seems ironic that a group that champions environmental causes would haul itself around the world in a private jet.)

U2 has and always will be political. Below is a primer to U2 songs that are particularly relevant to our country. These songs were taken specifically from the Manila setlist (U2’s entire discography has tons of politically-charged songs).

Sunday Bloody Sunday

“Sunday Bloody Sunday” is a live staple and one of the band’s signature songs. With its martial drumbeat and anthemic chorus, the song is also one of its most overtly political pieces. The song directly references the “Bloody Sunday” massacre in Northern Ireland, where 28 peaceful protesters were shot at by British soldiers. Amidst the rage, the lyrics also present a strong call for unity.

I can't believe the news today
Oh, I can't close my eyes
And make it go away
How long?
How long must we sing this song?
How long, how long?
'Cause tonight, we can be as one
Tonight

New Year’s Day

“New Year’s Day” started as a love song, but turned into the Polish Solidarity movement, a trade union and social movement that challenged the oppressive government.

Under a blood red sky
A crowd has gathered in black and white
Arms entwined, the chosen few
The newspapers says, says
Say it's true, it's true
And we can break through
Though torn in two
We can be one

Pride (in the Name of Love)

“Pride” is about civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. specifically, but the song could also refer to the dignity held by people fighting for equality.

Early morning, April four
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride

Mothers of The Disappeared

One of the most haunting songs in the U2 catalog, “Mothers of the Disappeared” is about the Central American children who were lost or abducted by the Argentine, Chilean, and El Salvadoran dictatorships. While the song has a very specific inspiration, it speaks universally about young lives cut short.

Midnight, our sons and daughters
Cut down, taken from us
Hear their heartbeat
We hear their heartbeat

In the wind we hear their laughter
In the rain we see their tears
Hear their heartbeat
We hear their heartbeat

Bullet the Blue Sky

“Bullet the Blue Sky” is another song that was inspired by violence in Central America during the 1980s. The song tackles the intervention of North America in the region, and the havoc it wreaked. The lyrics mix political commentary with biblical imagery, giving the song an oppressive, apocalyptic vibe.

In the locust wind comes a rattle and hum
Jacob wrestled the angel
And the angel was overcome
You plant a demon seed
You raise a flower of fire
See them burning crosses
See the flames higher and higher

Ultra Violet (Light My Way)

“Ultraviolet” isn’t necessarily a political song. But U2 has used the song to pay tribute to notable women in history. In this context, the lyrics (which were originally about a relationship fraught with tension) are imbued with an uplifting quality that matches the women it honors.

You know I need you to be strong
And the day is as dark as the night is long
Feel like trash, you make me feel clean
I'm in the black, can't see or be seen

– Rappler.com

Iñigo de Paula is a writer who lives and works in Quezon City. When he isn't talking about himself in the third person, he writes about pop culture and its peripheries.