There can be no vulnerability without risk; there can be no community without vulnerability; there can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community.
It’s telling that one of the albums I ordered from Columbia House, back when we used to tape pennies to postcards and mail them in, was Donna Summer’s On the Radio. I entered double digits infatuated with Top 40 radio. Even at that tender age, listening to the hits granted me a sense of belonging, each single a bent corner marking a special moment in the book of life.
Perhaps this is why I love my Whitburn so much. I can flip it open to just about any page and be transported back in time: Boy Scout summer camp, 1983, all-night Euchre-fests, Eddie Grant singing about a place called “Electric Avenue“; living in the double-wide, 1978, that babysitter with the tops that were always one button short of covering everything up, Toto holding the line; Six Flags over Georgia, 1986, a couple new friends, who also happened to be cute girls, annoying the others in each and every queue with our a cappella remake of “That’s What Friends Are For“; freshman year in northern Minnesota, 1988, disagreeing mightily with Joe Elliott’s sentiment that “Love Bites“.
Singers, songwriters, bands . . . they come and go, but, if I may wax a tad bit hyperbolic, hits are forever. Hits have united us in the past, and they can do it again.
Now I admit that I’m a fan of many artists that are considered “niche” entertainers, whose music appeals to a relatively small, but fiercely loyal, base of followers. There is a part of me that takes great pride in having found a connection through such groups with other like-minded people; we share the songs and stories that others just don’t understand or are able to relate to.
But there are songs that are universal. They seep into the pores of the public consciousness and spread like a virus, uniting people from all walks of life in ways that transcend every possible boundary. Such necessary invasions of our precious privacy are rare these days, and lacking are the artists with the skill and charisma capable of pulling it off.
Bands like U2.
Bono and the boys get it. They understand the power and wonder of a hit, as Bono explains in the cover story for the latest issue of Rolling Stone:
We grew up on the rock & roll 45. It is, in an evolutionary way that [producer] Brian [Eno] should, but doesn’t, appreciate, the Darwinian peak of the species. It is by far the most difficult thing to pull off, and it is the very life force of rock & roll: vitality, succinctness and catchiness, whether it’s the Sex Pistols, Nirvana, the Pixies, the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones. When rock music forgets about the 45, it tends toward progressive rock, which is like a mold that grows on old, burned-out artists who’ve run out of ideas. We have a soundtrack/Pink Floyd side of our band, and it has to be balanced by fine songwriting. It’s an infuriating thing for me to see indie rock & roll give up the single to R&B and hip hop. That’s why I love the Kings of Leon album or the Killers album: These are people who have such belief in their musical power that they refuse to ghettoize it.
Bono makes some sense here. Perhaps there is a tendency within many artists to limit their talent, to restrain their reach, to admit that what they do only fits, that it is contained within, this one small part of the entertainment spectrum, and so to become content with creating art that speaks to only one particular audience. I wonder how much of this is due to the narrow-mindedness of the music industry, which seems to enjoy burying artists in musical “ghettos” and never permitting them the resources or the means to escape, in comparison with those artists who just won’t leave their niche, won’t attempt to appeal to the greater concerns of humanity or address issues that resonate on a global scale. Maybe these two extremes, the shortsighted suits on one hand and the reluctant artists on the other, are both responsible for the death of the hit. Bono seems to be aiming his critique scattershot style, for neither side appears willing to see beyond their own horizons.
For more than half of my life, in ways that I recognize anew every day, the music of U2 has taken my horizons and brought them close, allowing me to see past myself and toward the beauty of harmony with others. I haven’t always willingly listened. And not every song has inspired me. But theirs is a vast canvas and there is something for everyone, something to mark this time as one in which we can come together and create something magnificent.
Are all hits created equal? Hardly. Must every hit seek to bridge some perceived gap in our global understanding, between realizing what it means to be a human being living in a shitty world and the bringing to fruition of a sense of harmony among weary travelers? Surely not. But unite we must; we can hash out the details later. For now, a question: who inspires you . . .