Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Lyrics (Over)Analysis – One by U2

This song by U2 is one of the most popular songs ever written. It’s also the type of song that you will hear in weddings that you dedicate to your love ones as well as the type of songs where people hold candlelight while large numbers of crowd sing along to.

The reason is because of the lyrics of “one love, one life, one need, sisters, brothers, we got to carry each other”. Those lines there seems to paint a picture of a united humanity where everyone is holding hands, singing together about how different races and different culture are all “One” and how they are all human and we should be living together in world peace etc. Well that is part of the message of the song but not the only message.

It kind of show the phenomenon in music that when people focus on lyrics, they concentrate on the punch line, the chorus and what they perceive that line to mean instead of looking at the entire lyrics. I’m quite sure if people really knew what this song was about, whether people would actually play these songs at wedding. It’s similar to how people do love song dedication for The One I Love by REM even though that song is also quite nasty (about seeing the person you love as an object and a commodity).

This song has two meanings. The first meaning is that this song is about a relationship breakdown. However the second interpretation which I’ll be focusing on is that this song is a gay rights song which U2 has encouraged that interpretation. It is probably one of the angriest and spiteful songs I have ever heard and it’s strange when people really romanticised the optimism in this song. Bono has said in the past that when people told him that they played this song at their wedding, Bono responded “Have you even look at what the lyrics is”.

This song is about a person who has AIDs being discriminated and disowned by their parents because of their sexuality. Bono was quoted as saying that he knew many family who did unchristian like behaviour to their children when they find out they were gay and this song was about that. If you want a clue, just look at one of their video clips above where you see the band cross dressing and it also contains artworks from a gay rights activist. Some of the money made from this single release went to an AIDs group.

Considering that Bono has a large Christian following covering a wide political spectrum (U2 unlike most alternative/rock bands are not predominantly left wing liberals. I remember hearing about the uncomfortable reaction from the audience when Bono made a speech about how David Hicks should have been released. This shows that the demographic of a U2 fan is quite diverse with different political/religious views), I’m not too sure whether people would actually still sing along to this song so readily if they knew what this song was about. It doesn’t help that U2 push on the myth that this song is solely about some pro-peace, promoting unity and harmony between different cultures.

Now I’ll analyse the lyrics. Although the previous commentary is reflective of U2’s opinion on what the song is. The following analysis is my interpretation and mine only. If it is different to what Bono thinks, well my belief is that with lyrics, your own interpretation is just as important as the song writer’s interpretation.

Is it getting better
Or do you feel the same

The lyrics start off with the Bono’s character talking to his father about whether he is more accepting of his sexuality. Bono’s character is asking whether his father is more accepting about his homosexuality or whether he still holds resentment about his lifestyle choices.

Will it make it easier on you now
You got someone to blame

I interpret this as because the character has AIDs. His father can finally “win” the argument against his lifestyle choices. That he has AIDs make it easier for his father to blame him on his choices in life.

You say...
One love
One life
When it's one need
In the night
One love
We get to share it
Leaves you baby if you
Don't care for it

I interpret the first chorus as his father telling the son, there’s only one type of love, one type of life you must follow (heterosexual lifestyle), there’s only one need. These are the values we must share and that he abandon his son because his son didn’t share those values.

Did I disappoint you
Or leave a bad taste in your mouth
You act like you never had love
And you want me to go without

These lyrics document the bad blood between father and son. That he disappointed his father, that his homosexuality left his father a bad taste in his mouth. He’s saying that his father to not want him to be a homosexual is asking him to live life without love.

Well it's...
Too late
To drag the past out into the light
We're one, but we're not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other

At this point of the song, his saying it’s too late to drag out past decisions that he has already made. He has already has AIDs, there’s no point debating about the mistakes his done in the past (and whether his choices were mistakes). No point to keep on arguing about it.

This also features one of the best lyrical line of all time “We’re one but we’re not the same”. It’s brilliant as it says we are all human but we are all different. Therefore we all have to accept people different and help (or carry) each other despite the differences.

Have you come here for forgiveness
Have you come to raise the dead
Have you come here to play Jesus
To the lepers in your head

I interpret this as the father although is now forgiving of his son. However, the resentment from Bono’s character voice is that he hasn’t done anything wrong for his father to forgive him and accusing him of playing Jesus and trying to cure him (and perhaps his father own guilt).

Did I ask too much
More than a lot
You gave me nothing
Now it's all I got
We're one
But we're not the same
Well we
Hurt each other
Then we do it again

The character is asking whether he was asking too much from his father. Whether him being accepted for being gay was “too much and more than a lot” which made him receive no love from his father. That because he is not the same as his father in terms of sexuality, they end up hurting each other.

You say
Love is a temple
Love a higher law
Love is a temple
Love the higher law
You ask me to enter
But then you make me crawl
And I can't be holding on
To what you got
When all you got is hurt

This is where the character is now accusing his father of being a hypocrite. That he believes in the bible and he believes in love but he is treating people subhuman due to their sexuality. That he believes in love but can’t accept the kind of love his son is having. That he has to enter the temple and accept his version of religion on his knees and not on his feet. To me that’s the most powerful part of the song. The characters is pretty much saying “You believe that love is a temple and love is a higher law, but then why do you make me crawl, why do you make me feel insignificant.”

One love
One blood
One life
You got to do what you should
One life
With each other
One life
But we're not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other

This is the final chorus and although the first chorus and the last chorus both had “one love, one life” etc, the message here is opposite to the first chorus (which was brilliant lyric writing by Bono). Instead of his father lecturing about “One Love”, here the characters starts saying a message promoting diversity. This is where the song sound likes the type of celebration of humanity that people normally associated with the song. That every human of different backgrounds are “One”. Bono has said that one of the things he hates was how religious groups and other groups talk about how humanity are one and are all the same. He hated that idea and that’s why he also added “One life but we’re not the same”. That it’s true that every human being is “One” but the only way human can become one and be unified is for people to accept people are different and to treat every people who are different as “one” and as a human being. That we must carry each other and treat people equally despite any disagreements or differences you may have.

Bono summarise it perfectly here “It is a song about coming together, but it’s not the old hippie idea of ‘Let’s all live together.’ It is, in fact, the opposite. It’s saying, ‘We are one, but we’re not the same.’ It’s not saying we even want to get along, but that we have to get along together in this world if it is to survive. It’s a reminder that we have no choice.”

So that’s my analysis of the lyrics of this song. Although I’m a big fan of U2, I have never been a huge fan of Bono as a lyricist especially during the 80s (with the exception of Sunday Bloody Sunday). I always thought that Bono’s lyrics were always way too general and too much imagery and was focus in creating an atmosphere rather than talking about an issue directly. In the end, most U2 songs could have been about anything because they lack any logical progression. A lot of times people just know that any particular U2 song is about one particular issue that they support but when you actually read the lyrics you ended up asking how on earth the song is about that. Even Bono himself admitted his lyrics in the 80’s were substandard but partly justified it as saying that the message was more important in how he got the message across. That even if his lyrics didn’t express his views in a clever way, it was ok because the message he got out was positive.

However with “One”, Bono has hit the mark delivering both in spades. He wrote a great story with a clear message that felt more focus but with room for interpretation (considering that majority of people probably didn’t connect this song as a gay rights song). It was brilliant song writing and I believe this song was a landmark song in Bono’s lyrical development. Although I think recent U2 is not as good as old U2 in terms of music, I do think that Bono is a better lyricist then he was in the 80’s and this song was his first progression there. The contrast between the final chorus and the first chorus was brilliant writing.

However despite all the praise, I’m still a bit bemused by the overwhelming popularity of the song and how people seem to think this is a romantic song. To me, this is a very dark and angry song with a light at the end of the tunnel but people seems to view this song as a celebration of humanity. In a way they are right with the final chorus but I don’t think you can just take a particular section of a song and look at it in isolation. I just think people just look at the line “One Love” and automatically go holding hands with the nearest human being and then ignore everything else that was said in this song. Even if you don't accept my gay rights interpretation (there are others such as relationship breakdown). Just a casual look at the lyrics shows that it has a pretty dark and angry tone to it that people tend to overlook

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