U2 has been one of my favorite bands for very long time. Back in Jr. High when I was learning guitar I played Sunday Bloody Sunday over and over and over again until I channeled the Edge into the six strings of my crappy K Mart electric axe.
In the years since I’ve watched tons of interviews and read dozens of articles about the band. I wanted to know… Why are they so successful? Why are they constantly so good at what they do?
I believe they’ve been so successful for so long for a few key reasons.
1. U2 is willing to work on their craft and refine their music until they’re absolutely blown away and in love with what they’ve created.
Bono once said he’ll continue playing in the band until he gets bored. If he can still get himself elevated and rocked up with the music he’s making, it’s still worth doing.
In some cases, U2 songs are in development for years. Years! In scouring old live footage I’ve heard songs (before they were released on an album) that had elements of cool but didn’t really cut it overall. Fast forward to the next record to hear the evolution. In the song in question they kept the bridge and trashed everything else. They re-wrote the whole song around the one kick-ass part. This is serious NFA.
2. Although I’m sure the guys appreciate the money, fame and VIP treatment, their intention is clearly much deeper. They have a bigger mission.
This band understands that the attention they hold really can help to shape the world. Instead of trying to sell their fans perfume, designer clothes or anything else, U2 has publicly taken a stand (and backs it up) on third world debt relief, MusiCares, Greenpeace and many other causes.
3. There’s personal truth, and a spiritual component behind the music.
Yeah, these guys catch shit for being mouthy, being megalomaniacs, and being full of themselves. And yeah, there are religious symbols and metaphors strewn across their catalog. But if you have ever felt into a top U2 tune, you may have noticed that there’s a passion and truth that shines with way more substance than your typical pop song.
And if you ever happen to find yourself at a live show when they lift into I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For or Where the Streets Have No Name, there’s really no doubt that these guys are tapping into something big.
So what’s the take-away? How do you make something great— whether it’s an album, a novel, a film or a modern dance performance?
>> You have to be willing to refine, rebuild, re-develop, re-record, rewrite. Whatever. As long as it takes to make it f*ing brilliant. When will you know? When you astonish yourself.
When you can honestly say it’s the best you can do. When goosebumps shiver down your spine. Or you gasp a bit in awe of what you’ve created.
>> Dig deep and find your real mission. What drives you to do what you’re doing? How does it serve the world in some way? Why are you doing your thing?
• I sing songs to connect with people who are lonely and hurting. Because sometimes I’m lonely and hurting and music has always been there for me.
• I write novels about rebellious teenaged boys because I was a rebellious teenaged boy and I want others to know it gets better.
• I paint to find peace and connect with a higher power. I hope that when others see my work they feel that vibe and connection too.
If you know this kind of stuff, and make it a conscious part of your process, this alone will bring a deeper truth, and more potent power, to your work.
>> Personal truth, passion and spirituality comes in infinite rays. And moves in mysterious ways. But at its core, it’s about the connection between people and some kind of higher power. The more you can pull this aspect into your art in whatever way is true to you, the more juice is built into whatever you do.
You don’t actually have to play music to rock like U2. But you do need to tap into the deep truth of yourself and express it at the highest level you possibly can. That’s a big part of what makes great art. And great artists.
• Which of these three steps resonates with you most? Why?
• In what ways have you touched upon a sense of spirituality, passion or personal truth in your artform/s?
• What is your deeper mission?
PS. I love U2 so much I recorded a tribute album! Electronic versions of U2 songs with female singers. Pretty cool. Listen here.
PPS. As a music journalist I got to shoot photos of the band on their Elevation tour. I snapped the pics in this post. So psyched!