[Ed. note: This is the 72nd in a series of personal essays by the @U2 staff about songs and/or albums that have had great meaning or impact in our lives.]
You're the real thing
Gimme gimme the real thing
Yeah, you're the real thing
Even better than the real thing, child
It's no secret that the U2 of the early 1990s were a more sexually liberated U2 than what had come before. It's no secret that they indulged in more sexual fluidity as well. They dressed in drag, Bono seemed to talk about oral sex as much as God, and there always seemed to be a naked supermodel nearby. They had gained fame in the 1980s for appearing to be above the standard rock 'n' roll themes of sex and drugs. When they turned their heads that way in the 1990s, they seemed anxious to make up for lost time.
What didn't change from one decade to the next was that they were obviously an incredibly thoughtful, introspective band. They cared about what they did to each other, what they did to their audience, and what their audience did to each other. One of the best parts of this consideration and thoughtfulness was their being open to minorities of all types, including sexual minorities.
As a gay man, one of the most appealing aspects of U2 for me has been their willingness to be cool with homosexuality long before it was cool socially. While U2 was promoting Achtung Baby, Guns N' Roses was promoting Use Your Illusion I & II. While Bono was singing about a gay man trying to reconcile with his homophobic father in "One," Axl Rose was badmouthing "immigrants and faggots" in "One In A Million." If GN'R represented the ultimate expression of the rock stereotype (even his name is an anagram for oral sex), U2 seemed determined to take the concept and elevate it to something better, looking for the baby Jesus in the trash.
For a band that was raised in such a religiously conservative country as the Ireland of the past, they seemed to have none of the standard religious fear of gays. Even though Larry has been known to issue joking threats when described as an ageless gay pin-up, he visually worked better in drag than any of the other band members. Mr. Album Nudity, Adam Clayton, has gone on the record as saying that men should show each other their...parts...more often. Bono has been known to serenade The Edge in live versions of "Mysterious Ways" with, "If you want to kiss this guy, you better learn how to kneel. These may seem like minor things to people who aren't dealing with homophobia. As a 13-year-old who was trying to figure out his sexuality, the little details by a band I loved were invaluable.
You're a drag star, you sent me a song of speed
Your electric guitar is a habit I've gotta feed
You're a high wire act, an acrobat
A wrestler, take away the mat
You're a drag star, I'll be your spin machine
In some ways, this had been expressed a couple decades earlier through the lens of glamrock. U2 have always been very vocal admirers of musical acts such as David Bowie and T-Rex. Guyliner, drag and sexual ambiguity were staples of so much of the avant-garde rock of the 1970s, but they were always held back by the concept of camp. Glam has an inherently camp aspect, which makes it feel like a giant joke, even if the joker means every word he or she says and the audience knows that. Camp was the only reason Elton John and Boy George were allowed to be successful and able to express themselves sexually. Their listeners were allowed to brush off their obvious homosexuality because they presented themselves as jesters. This allowed them to self-express and their audiences to disregard the self-expression while still enjoying the artists' talents.
U2 took the drag and sexual ambiguity of glam, expressed it through a heterosexual filter, and made it serious. It was no longer a joke so much as a serious topic expressed with a grin on Bono's face. Adam could strut around on stage dressed as a wannabe Village Person with the phrase "pop tart" written on his shirt and still play a serious, heavy rock song like "Please." I was really getting into U2 during this era, and understanding that the band wasn't afraid of a person like me as my fellow middle- and high-school students were calling each other fags and homos was pretty damned cool.
Along with the standard re-release of Achtung Baby last year, U2 released Kindergarten -- The Alternative Achtung Baby. Kindergarten consisted of early versions of the songs on Achtung Baby. Some of these "Baby" versions are quite similar, some noticeably different, but they all offered new perspectives on tracks I thought I already knew very well.
The Baby version of "Even Better Than The Real Thing" combines multiple potent themes and comes out stronger for it, as so many U2 songs did in the '90s. "Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car" combines the themes of rock star excess, the Abrahamic God's redemption, and Europe saving the crumbling U.S.S.R. "Mysterious Ways" combines female sexuality, the band's newly found ability to dance, and the Christian Holy Spirit. "Discothèque" combines club culture, drug use, a commentary on pop music, and an expression of personal insecurity. Baby "Even Better Than The Real Thing" combines the worship of feminine appeal of the final version of "Even Better Than The Real Thing," a tribute to the glam ethos that informed so much of the ZooTV era, and an ambiguously gendered declaration of physical sexuality.
I'm sliding, sliding down the surface of things
Skin-diving, riding on the waves that she brings
Won't you lay me down in the silver sound
While the moon is high, no one around
I'm sliding, sliding down the surface of things
Not all gays associate with cross-dressing and not all cross-dressers are gay. It's never had much of an appeal to me, but I appreciate it as a common expression of sexual minority in the public eye. Baby "Even Better Than The Real Thing" shows no fear in celebrating sex and attraction of the sexual minority. Bono sings about skin-diving and sliding down things in the first verse, only to reveal the person he's singing about is in drag in the second verse. Obviously, as with so much U2, this is not an entirely literal expression, but there is a degree of literalism in it. It may be an activity Bono has never done himself, but he's not afraid to declare its existence. The song celebrates the energy and communication created by such sexual expression. At the end, he even goes so far as to say that this cross-dressing sexual energy is even better than the real thing. It acknowledges the art and creativity that such open self-expression can inspire. Open, uninhibited self-expression and what it can create was perhaps the central theme of ZooTV itself.
I love U2's musical talent. I love the stage shows they put on. I love their unwillingness to sit still. I love their honesty as they're being totally dishonest. I love that it's still the same four guys it was 35 years ago. I love that they can be the most delicate poets and the most destructive bulldozers at the same time. And I love that they were willing to tell a confused kid, "You're even better than the real thing, child," at a time when he really needed to hear it.