Like a Song: Zooropa

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Like A Song[Ed. note: This is the 57th 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.]

It may be one of the unsung heroes of U2's catalogue, but Zooropa has always been on or near the top of my list of favorite albums. Recorded in between the brilliant, frantic Zoo TV shows (the band flew back and forth in the middle of the night from the venue directly to the recording studio), the title track "Zooropa" opens the album just as I imagine the band's psyche must have been as they transitioned from the adrenaline rush of performing to the more introverted process of transforming creative energy into viable songs.

I've always loved the sound of the song; the long slow build, a low grumble of white noise like the constant hum of an airplane, muffled whispers, a sparse piano like an idea that's considered then abandoned; static, flotsam and jetsam interjecting while bodies and minds try to settle down. It's like a dream state: the ghost-like backing vocals, floating through the clouds on Edge’s echo waves, bass and drums the only solid footing.

A stern voice demands, "What do you want?" Bono's voice wanders in, humming not-so-subliminal advert slogans as if flipping channels in his head. "What do you want?" It's insistent, disturbing. It's nagging at you when the song erupts, launching it into the stratosphere:

And I have no compass and I have no map
And I have no reasons, no reasons to get back
And I have no religion and I don't know what's what
And I don't know the limit, the limit of what we got

I've been listening to this song for a long time. It took me a while to realize that I saw myself in the lyrics in more ways than I care to admit, especially in this first verse.

I admit it. I have no idea what I'm doing. Am I the only adult who still doesn't know what I want to be when I grow up? I grew up wondering what was wrong with me for not having clear goals, for questioning my religious upbringing and then, later, the existence of God. I still can't focus too long on any one thing because I get bored. It's the curse/blessing of my particular writer's mind: I want to learn everything about everything and nothing in particular. I can't fit into your idea of me; hell, even I don't know what I'm capable of. But what difference does it make? I've started to appreciate the experiment of my desultory life, and Bono's own admission makes my confusion feel liberating rather than restricting.

Don't worry baby, it'll be alright
You've got the right shoes to get you through the night
It's cold outside but brightly lit Skip the subway, let's go to the overground
Get your head out of the mud baby
Put flowers in the mud, baby, overground

There's urgency in Bono’s voice as he takes off ahead of you, calling over his shoulder for you to follow. He paints a picture bright with possibilities, an impasto of mud, flower petals and neon, splashed with layers of emotion and unfinished business.

You'll either break into a sprint headlong into the unknown, or hesitate and miss the adventure.

What do you want?

I want to escape the darkness of my own fear and drag myself into the light, the reassurance of the "right shoes" propelling me forward. I want to run through the streets, the cold biting at the skin on my face, the air sharp in my lungs, enraptured by the thrill of being alive.

No particular place names, no particular song
I've been hiding, what am I hiding from
Don't worry baby, it's gonna be alright
Uncertainty can be a guiding light
I hear voices, ridiculous voices
I'm in the slipstream
Let's go, let's go overground
Take your head out of the mud baby

What am I hiding from?

Myself. The only roadblocks that stand in my way are the ones I've set into place. I have not been and will never be comfortable taking risks, but it's only when I do that I find true satisfaction. To me, "Uncertainty can be a guiding light" is the single most cathartic idea in the song, the encouragement I need to ignore the ridiculous voices that shout "But, but," or, "No, you can't ... " I want to shake them off and ride in the slipstream of Bono's exuberance, his reckless joy.

Don't worry baby, it'll be alright

There's freedom in letting yourself off the hook and admitting you don't have the answers. We're all spinning on this little blue planet, out of control. Why not go with it?

As a parent, I have little ones who look to me for guidance. As they get older, the questions they ask are getting tougher, but I'm no closer to knowing the answers than when I asked the same questions at their age.

What do you want?

So what do I tell my children when they come to me? That the only certainty is uncertainty? That they should embrace the unknown with confidence?

Don't worry baby, it's gonna be alright

(You're) going to dream up the world (you) want to live in.
(You're) going to dream out loud. Dream out loud.

It's the only answer.

© @U2/Maione, 2011

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