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The year was 1997. At the end of the 20th century, how did everything end up depressive but frenetic? The ’90s started with the greatest political shift since WW2–after the Berlin Wall fell, so did the USSR. What a Christmas gift! A new world was supposed to open up. A great world. No more fear, no more war.
U2, same as every artist, rushed to Berlin. They came back to report with Achtung Baby and Zooropa. The title says it all, Europe is now a zoo. We’re no longer real people; we’re the caged beasts of our past selves. We’re the pets of the people we fear we’ve become. But of course–that left America. Ten years after The Joshua Tree, which was Bono playing high priest in the temple of Americana, U2 went back to America, the great rock-Christian hope of the world. They reported with Pop, their most maligned album, but perhaps morally the most realistic. It’s criticism that is finally self-criticism; rock stars without any of the sanctimony or self-preening left. Our moral crisis belongs to all of us; that’s our last form of equality.
Near the end of the album, we get the only piece of Christian criticism of America, the world of unreasonable desire:
If Coke is a mystery, Michael Jackson history,
if beauty is truth and surgery the fountain of youth,
what am I to do? Have I got the gift to get me through
the gates of that mansion?
The view of America you get here is consumer goods, pop culture, and science that advertise cheap substitutes of the great troubles that make us human. Instead of the heavenly mansion, we look to the Playboy Mansion. So far, it seems like fairly straight-forward conservative critique of materialism.
If OJ is more than a drink, a Big Mac bigger than you think,
if perfume is an Obsession and talk shows confession,
what have we got to lose? Another push and we’ll be through
the gates of that mansion.
Now, pop culture–involving another black celebrity–turns into something shocking. Have we turned questions of justice into distractions, too? So also with talk shows: have we turned human misery into a spectacle? As pop culture develops, we have less and less of a choice about how we live our lives. We are all pushed in a certain direction. Notice that in the first stanza, there was an I, not a we, and the questioning suggested corruption is purely a matter of choice. Not really–we’re in this together.
I never bought a Lotto ticket, I never parked in anyone’s space.
The banks, they’re like cathedrals, I guess casinos took their place.
Luck, come on down! I wake up, she’ll come around…
The reaction of a decent man, however, to the common plight, is to deny one’s own responsibility. Why should the just man be tied up with people who seek unearned, undeserved advantages or gains? But that personal moral outrage leads again to a social fact that brings us together: banks are as antiquated as cathedrals–both require holding something sacred, contract if not a convent; but things have changed–people are turning to betting instead of the old institutions. So we see that the caricature of Christianity in America cuts both ways–it does not just replace sacraments; it also ruins the legitimacy of secular institutions.
Chance is a kind of religion where you’re damned for plain hard luck.
I never did see that movie, I never did read that book.
Luck, come on down, and let my numbers come around!
This seems to be a remark about “Jeopardy” or maybe its social-status equivalent. But again, it’s about winning something without desert. The moral virtues do not seem to suffice in our crisis; knowing certain things, which seem a matter of accident, trumps everything else. This is the first deep challenge to our conservatism. The religion of chance is the true name of our obsession with the future, the unpredictable, that for the sake of which we’re willing to abandon our way of life. Another name for it would be progress…
Don’t know if I can hold on, don’t know if I’m that strong,
don’t know if I can wait that long,
’til the colors come flashing and the lights go on.
Now we get the first intimation of why our problem is a Playboy problem. The name for our existential greediness is celebrity. Of course, it’s got much worse since 1997, but it was already a real problem. What makes life worth living except millions telling you by their worship that it is–even at the price of implying that their own are not? What togetherness is possible anymore in this situation of tyrannic eroticism, where the many worship the few? Then again, who can fight it–who’s going to be satisfied to be ignored, unloved, while the people look elsewhere?
Then will there be no time for sorrow,
then will there be no time for shame!
and though I can’t say why,
I know I’ve got to believe!
This is the paradise we’re promised–an end to shame, and sorrow, too. With the new Playboy faith, we do not have to wait for death. We can be so afraid of our mortality that we’ll embrace desperately this strange hope we cannot quite explain, that we should grab as much of pleasure or desire as we can–we could be turning advertising into gospel!
We’ll go diving in that pool,
it’s who you know that gets you through
the gates of the Playboy Mansion.
We’ll go out memorably by going in. Someone’s gotta live the life of excess that goads everyone else on! Celebrity is the leadership of a revolution against faith. The final remark, about who you know, is not just meant to say that celebrity is a rigged game–its also intended to remind people that if they don’t know God, they’re out of alternatives. Think of it as a paraphrase to “where your heart is, there your treasure will be also.” The whole song is a commentary on that verse…
Like much conservative commentary on the culture, you see here a lament that materialism and consumerism and instant gratification and vulgar pleasures are replacing everything important. The important things I learned, however, go beyond that–the need to understand our desperate succumbing to desires as a fear that we’ve already lost heaven; the need to understand that we’re all in it together, America being a democracy; and the criticism of celebrity-led erotic individualism as something inhuman, the ugly truth of which is the religion of chance. Put together, they bring up the question of association for a common good, our way of abiding in our mortality while keeping alive a faith that goes beyond the momentary or merely accidental.Published in