The U2 Conference
Heartland: U2’s Looking For American Soul
An International Virtual U2 Conference For Scholars And Fans
October 18 – 24, 2020
U2 has journeyed – at times uneasily – through an America of pulsating metropolis, rugged heartland and shining sea. It long ago fell under the spell of America, but for just as long has felt it still hasn’t found America.
When U2 talks about America, it often describes it in terms of an idea, a dream or an experiment rather than a physical reality. Bono sings in “American Soul” (ft. Kendrick Lamar) on Songs of Experience: “It’s not a place / This country is to me a sound / Of drum and bass. … It’s not a place / This country is to me a thought / That offers grace / For every welcome that is sought.”
In the liner notes for Songs of Experience in 2017, Bono expressed: “‘American Soul’ is a letter to America. A country still inventing and reinventing itself that has been a muse for this band since we first toured in the ‘80s we all read Sam Shepard’s Motel Chronicles, heard Patti Smith and got to know the great poet Allen Ginsberg. For years I’ve been boring the arse of whoever will listen, trying to explain that America is not just a country, it’s an idea. It’s a great idea too. But as we recorded these 12 songs we felt the idea of America was being challenged, maybe even twisted, in newly problematic ways. The rise of the alt right is not surprising – it’s happening all over the world – but to see it in the USA, to see the Ku Klux Klan marching the streets of Charlottesville, without the silly costumes and pointy hats, that was a new level of absurdity and danger. Edge described it as ‘the mental illness of racism’ unmasked. Why did they feel so emboldened? And so we watched the betrayal of those words of Emma Lazarus, at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty, great words ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …’. Yes, it felt like a betrayal.”
Indeed, U2 has long found itself under America’s spell, as a place not only for this Irish band to find its commercial, critical and conceptual success, but also as a space to work out its identity as an exponent for the idea of America and as a sometimes critic of the reality of America. But for all U2’s embrace of and messaging about America, the band assents to a shared idea that what America means and is remains as dynamic and up-for-grabs as what defines rock ‘n’ roll.
As U2 performed in front of the Lincoln Memorial at President Obama’s inauguration celebration, an election Bono declared to be Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream coming to pass, Canadian writer Randy Boyagoda was examining Salman Rushdie’s fiction as a space that “seeks to imagine America as embodying a set of practices. This is an extraterritorial gesture that playfully dismisses organic connections between identity, place, and history” (Race, Immigration, and American Identity in the Fiction of Salman Rushdie, Ralph Ellison, and William Faulkner. Routledge, 2010, 23). U2 and Rushdie have a history of artistic dialogue, with an affinity for the performed, provocative gesture, so it’s not surprising that ten years after dedicating “Pride (In the Name of Love)” to usher in the Obama era, U2 again sought space for a statement at the outset of President Trump’s term in office with American Soul.
Following Boyagoda, Rushdie and U2 (who all, interestingly, constitute a set of non-Americans articulating America), the U2 Conference takes up the notion of an extraterritorial America — that is, of America as better understood not as a place, but as a sound and practice. Our call for a conference comes at a pivotal, tense political moment in which the United States confronts its racist past and present, and from a site of asking, along with Bono, if “the idea of America [is] being challenged, maybe even twisted, in newly problematic ways”? Not only do we ask “What does it mean to identify America as a sound and practice?” but, “What has come of U2’s engagement with American culture and politics?”
We invite scholars, students and fans to a week of online conversations and critical inquiry for more fully exploring the American soul and dream by examining U2’s place, space and sound in the American socio-political experiment (broadly conceived). We welcome comparisons, as well, between U2 and other musicians who have demonstrated an active interest in shaping the American political discourse. As we examine the intersection of U2’s sound, art and media messaging in American culture, we seek a critical examination of U2’s contribution to engaging, energizing and defining “the American dream.”
Presentation formats could include and are not limited to:
- A solo presentation of a complete paper or a work in-progress
- Speaking on a panel presentation that you create of 2-3 panelists
- Speaking on a panel the conference organizers create
- Interviewing a person of interest to the U2 community on a topic relevant to the conference theme
- Presenting a poster in real-time or as pre-recorded
- Creating and narrating a gallery or similar media presentation either in real-time or as pre-recorded
- Leading a chat room or roundtable discussion on a topic you propose about U2 that’s relevant to the conference theme
- Leading a book or film discussion after the attendees experience the media
- Presenting a creative performance or demonstration relevant to the conference theme in a real-time or pre-recorded session, then participating in a live Q&A
- We welcome other formats that work well in a virtual environment
Presentation topics could include and are not limited to:
- U2 and the “two Americas.” How has the band critiqued and celebrated America on The Joshua Tree, other albums and tours? What messaging from U2 has persisted? What has changed?
- U2 and Black Lives Matter. How does the U2 songbook engage American Black lives in myriad forms, including in the context of structural racism, political protest and musical contributions?
- How do U2 fans of color forge a sense of belonging in U2 fan communities?
- U2 in the Time of Trump. How has U2 shifted its strategy for engaging U.S. presidents then and now?
- When critiquing America, how does U2’s non-American perspective compare with critiques from, for example: Bob Dylan, Public Enemy, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Childish Gambino, Gary Clark Jr. and others?
- 1987 in 2007: How did U2 revisit and make relevant The Joshua Tree on its 30th anniversary tour?
- Wim Wenders once claimed America “colonizes the subconscious.” Has America colonized U2? Has U2 colonized America?
- Teaching U2 in the American cultural history classroom
- How and why is a U2 tour in America different from a U2 tour in the rest of the world?
- U2 and:
- the American economy and consumer
- American literature and art
- American popular culture
- American film
- America’s musical heritage
- American icons, iconography and symbols
- What would U2’s America look like?
- Bono’s shifting advocacy/diplomacy strategies as a change-agent in American political culture
- America First?: Does U2 have a privileged relationship in the American Music Industry?
- We welcome other topics related to the conference theme
The deadline for all proposal materials is August 31, 2020. Proposals should be 250-300 words of description or a 3-4 minute video clip, followed by the presenter’s CV. Submit all proposals to U2Con2020proposals@gmail.com.
Attendees who wish to chair or host a session not their own should submit a separate proposal of about 100 words expressing your interest, including full name, affiliation, status as fan, student, scholar or other, experience in virtual event formats, and contact information.
Decisions and replies from the conference committee will be made on a rolling basis as proposals come in, with all decisions made by September 10. All presenters are expected to pay the registration fee. Please send all questions about proposals to U2Con2020proposals@gmail.com.
More information on the U2 Conference: http://u2conference.com/
- Dr. Scott Calhoun, Professor of English, Cedarville University, Director, The U2 Conference
- Rabbi Daniel Bogard, Central Reform Congregation, St. Louis. Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute
- David Comay, Independent Scholar
- Nathan Frank, Doctoral Candidate, Department of English, University of Virginia
- Sherry Lawrence, Staff Writer and podcast contributor, atu2.com
- Karen Lindell, Independent Writer
- Dr. Kimberly Mack, Assistant Professor of African American literature, The University of Toledo
- Angela Pancella, Director of Development and Parish Life at St. Francis Xavier (College Church), St. Louis. Contributor to U2 and the Religious Impulse: Take Me Higher
- Dr. Christopher Wales, Associate Professor of Organization and Leadership, NLA University College Oslo, Norway