Myth, Fan Culture, and the Popular Appeal of Liminality
in the Music of u2: A Love Story
Brian Johnston and Susan Mackey-Kallis
(Lexington Books, 2019)
Now available in Paperback!
Myth, Love, and Liminality
A note from Brian (coauthor): On the morning of my daughter Juniper's birth, I sent Susan (coauthor) a brief invitation via Facebook messenger. I told Susan that her theorizing in a 1990 article about U2's fan-base as a "holy" community, one that transcended religious dogma by translating that "fire," that spiritual yearning, into a passionate commitment to social justice -- the dream made real, spirit (passion) made flesh (action) -- and yet swelling with all of the contradictions that troubled the late electronic era consciousness was the missing foundation of what would become our coauthored book. I cannot imagine a more meaningful way to understand the impact of Irish rock band, U2, upon both our spiritual and political landscape than one word: Love. And if there is one phrase, borrowed for our part from Joseph Campbell, it is this: "Thou art that."
An excerpt from Chapter 2: "Love and Liminality" (p. 15):
"As authors we share a common though increasingly rare love affair: psycho-mythic analysis. Complicating this affair is our shared academic love and influence for and by Janice Rushing and Tom Frentz, whose work in the arena of psycho-mythic analysis by way of communication studies has alternately supported and inspired our academic passion. It does not much help our cause to see psycho-mythic analysis reduced to overly simplistic applications of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and our colleagues’ ambivalence to the more destructive aspects of postmodernity’s promises of technological enlightenment in lieu of spiritual engagement. The trendier admonishment is to indict Campbell’s monomyth as a linear, self-determining narrative that is no longer relevant in our nonlinear, multi-narrative digital era. But we see Campbell’s work in relating ancient mythological tales to contemporary dilemmas as a template for recovering our more personal experiences in an increasingly depersonalized global narrative and disenfranchised social network.
As fans we collide in our shared love affair with U2 the band, but more importantly U2 was and remains the nexus of our passionate connection to spirituality, popular music, and social activism. Where Susan left off in 1990 with her “holy” community article, Brian picked up in 2000 with his master’s thesis analysis of U2’s Zoo TV tour series. For Susan, U2’s Love-Town tour was the culmination of a personal-professional marriage between fandom and media critic as social activist. For Brian, U2’s Zoo TV tour and its accompanying Achtung Baby (1991) album became a sacred-profane site for exploring suppressed desire. Our journeys soon intertwined, as both academics and fans. In this chapter, we bring these two facets of ourselves together to lay U2’s ongoing popular appeal at the feet of something much larger than band and fan, more immediate than entertainment and self-actualization: love."
(Below: Photo for "Myth" (Bono in front of Joshua Tree image) by Susan Mackey-Kallis; Photo for "Love" (Row # and ticket with note from PopMart show) by Brian Johnston; Photo for "Liminality" (Bono on stage) by Susan Mackey-Kallis)
The role of myth (storytelling) in our lives is more important today than ever, and it permeates U2's music and performances. From Tristan and Isolde, to Narcissus and Echo; from the Prodigal Son to the Sacred Feminine, we find recognizable archetypes with new relevance articulated in the music and live performances of U2. These archetypal foundations make possible a deeper band-fan connection as both dream the myth outward through consciousness-raising and bodies together. The culmination of this more than 40-year band-fan relationship is that U2 and their fan community have co-constructed a mythic trajectory spirited by social justice -- Thou art that as a new myth for the whole world. We conclude by revisiting the tale of Orpheus who was ripped to pieces by adoring fans, his limbs tossed into the river. We see "Orpheus rising" out of digital era consciousness into a forthcoming virtual era where the “Transmodern Rock Star” embodies a new realization of the fan-band relationship.
Love is that one, lasting and uniquely human quality that drives out fear; that unites us, and makes possible meaningful (and sustainable) cultural and personal transformations. We offer a unique fan-band rhetorical analysis and biography of U2 and their "holy" community of fans through the lenses of agape (spiritual, communal love), amor (romantic love), and eros (erotic love). Each of these types of love carry the potential for sacred and profane articulations. Agape embodies selfless, even sacrificial devotion but it must also translate into social justice action and avoid the trap of dogmatic systems of control. Amor promises compassionate connection, but can also betray us through false projections that objectify others and isolate us from the larger community. Eros is the desire that drives us, that fuels our passionate commitment and quest toward integration and wholeness, but if not "lived right" it might also tear down or negate that which it seeks. We found each of these three types of love complexly intertwined in U2's music and appeal over more than four decades.
We experience liminal space daily, through menial tasks turned meditative exercise, organized religious ceremony, or evolving personal relationships. It is found in the ambiguity of transition and transformation, between “what was” and “what might be.” Liminality is equal part disorientation and discovery. In ritual or rites of passage it is “out of body” because it is a kind of transportation of self, temporarily unshackled from socially proscribed identity. It is where, often through familial or community tragedy, the one melts into the many and the many become one. It is ephemeral, but it is profound. We explain how the rock show performance space serves as a liminal space, similar to ancient Greek religious practice, which helps account for the potency of U2’s live performances and their rise as a “band on the brink.” Brian (coauthor) makes this popular appeal personal by sharing how his older brother’s stereo became a kind of “altar,” his brother’s records “sacred texts,” through secret listening in “the Cave,” his brother’s room. Liminality in U2’s music and lyrics, their skill at channeling its “threshold” energy into live performances, is an alluring dynamic to U2’s ongoing popularity.