Monday, May 04, 2009

Top Ten U2 Songs Never to Appear on an Original Studio Album

Here is my unofficial and non-authoritative list of what I consider to be the best U2 songs that have never appeared on one of their official studio albums. Some of these were B-Sides to singles, some are cover songs, some have only been released in limited fashion, and one has never been officially released in any format to my knowledge. (Some of these songs, however, have shown up recently on remastered deluxe editions of U2 CDs). So here is my list in descending order:

10. Summer Rain

Released on the limited edition U2-7 CD, this song has an infectious beat that makes it feel like a fun summer song -- rain or shine.

9. The Ground Beneath Her Feet

U2 put Salman Rushdie's lyrics to music and the result is a beautiful, melodic treat. This was released on a 4 or 5 song EP that was given out for free in the Sunday edition of a major European newspaper. As luck would have it, a friend of mine happened to be traveling in Scotland at the time and picked one up for me.

8. Can't Help Falling in Love

As a huge Elvis and U2 fan, what could be better than to combine the two. Technically this is a solo effort by Bono and he makes the most of it by infusing Elvis's 60's hit with the right amount of soul. The live version the band often performed during its Zoo TV Tour is equally enthralling.

7. Hallelujah Here She Comes

With lyrics like "I see you're dressed in black, I guess I'm not coming back. Hallelujah, hallelujah here she comes," how can you not love this song?

6. Xanax and Wine

I had a hard time deciding between this song and Fast Cars which mostly shares the exact same lyrics and similar musical arrangement. I went with this one because the Edge's guitar in this one has more punch to it.

5. Jesus Christ

U2 recorded this song in Sun Studios in Memphis during their Rattle and Hum phase. It has that raw, upbeat vibe to it that reminds a bit of one of my personal favorites that also came out of the Sun sessions -- Angel of Harlem.

4. Big Girls Are Best

Also a part of the U2-7 CD, the best way that I can think of to describe this song is funky. Plus it has the greatest title of all the songs in the U2 canon.

3. Flower Child

A light-hearted song made more so by the incessant thrumming of the acoustic guitar. I believe this song was recorded either during the "All That You Can't Leave Behind" or "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" sessions. (I forget which)

2. Wave of Sorrow

For more on this song see my previous post. It's a song that is as lyrically beautiful as it is melodic. I think it would have been a perfect fit on the Joshua Tree album, as it was recorded during those sessions.

1. She's a Mystery

U2 wrote this song for Roy Orbison who recorded a much less exciting version of it for one of his last albums. To my knowledge, U2 has never actually recorded a version of the song. They did, however, perform it live at least twice during their Rattle and Hum tour and it is available only on concert bootleg recordings. The song also has an Angel of Harlem flavor to it and it fits well with that style of classic American rock. Hopefully one day they will release one of the live versions on a box set or something.

Well, there's my list. Some other songs that were in contention and could be listed as Honorable Mentions include Levitate, Love You Like Mad, Dancing Barefoot, Smile, and Always.

Monday, April 27, 2009

U2's Most Theologically Interesting Song

To claim anything as U2's most theologically interesting song is a bold one given their long history of theologically interesting songs. But I will nonetheless throw one up for consideration: "Wave of Sorrow." This song hails from the band's Joshua Tree period, though it did not appear on that album originally. There is nothing particularly novel about it in that it mingles several standard U2 themes: spirituality, lament, and social justice. But somehow the combination in this particular song hits me in the right spot. 

I am a big fan of modern lament psalms in the guise of popular music and this fits the bill. The song begins with a lament of human suffering ("Souls bent over without a breeze, Blankets on burning trees, I am sick without disease"). In this song, Bono identifies with the poor and the suffering who seek a deliverance that may never come. Bono even seems to question whether lament itself is sufficient when he sings: 

Son of shepherd boy now king
What wisdom can you bring?
What lyric could you sing?
Where is the music of the Seraphim?

It's as though he wonders if David himself could find the words to bring healing to such suffering. In this song U2 begs us to identify with the downtrodden and the marginalized, to in essence see the world through the eyes of Jesus. As such they conclude the song with their own version of the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the meek who scratch in the dirt
For they shall inherit what's left of the earth
Blessed are the kings who have left their thrones
They are buried in this valley of dry bones

Blessed all of you with an empty heart
For you got nothing from which you cannot part
Blessed is the ego
If it's all we got this hour

Blessed is the voice that speaks truth to power
Blessed is the sex worker who sold her body tonight
She used what she got
To save her children's life

Blessed are the deaf who cannot hear a scream
Blessed are the stupid who can dream
Blessed are the tin can cardboard slums
Blessed is the spirit that overcomes

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Celebrity Role Models?

In his semi-regular column in Entertainment Weekly, Mark Harris recently wrote an essay on Rihanna. For those of you who haven't turned on a television, opened a newspaper, or turned on a radio recently, she is the pop star who was (allegedly) severely beaten by her pop star boyfriend. What has been making the news most recently, though, is that following this event, she appears to have reconciled with her boyfriend.

Many in the media are up in arms about this, noting what a horrible message it sends to young women. They are correct. It is a horrible message to send and one that may reinforce unhealthy behaviors in abusive relationships. But there is also a deeper, if somewhat tangential, issue at play here that Mark Harris identifies. Essentially the question he raises is: why do we automatically assume that Rihanna is or should be a role model for young women in the first place?

This is a vital question for anyone interested in the intersection of media and culture. From where do we get the idea that simply because a person (whether actor, singer, or athlete) is known by a lot of people, that he or she should consequently be a role model? Is it because they live in nice houses and make a lot of money so we conclude they owe us something back? Is it an extension of the Peter Parker Syndrome -- that with great power comes great responsibility? Perhaps, if we understand fame as a kind of power, then we can conclude that someone who possesses fame should use that power to edify society rather than degrade it?

Be that as it may, it still does not answer the question of why we in the general public make the choice to view celebrities as role models to be imitated. It can't be simply because we see them on a regular basis (on film, televison, in magazines, etc) because there are plenty of people in my daily life that I see on a regular basis that I would never consider treating as a role model for my life. It can't be simply because we admire their skill at their craft. I greatly admire the musical talent of Elvis Presley, but I don't want to imitate his lifestyle. And yet we tend to assume that skill in one area somehow translates into virtue in all areas. Just because a person plays a mean guitar or can pretend to be someone else really well is a silly reason for thinking our children should look to them for guidance in life.

Mark Harris writes, "If we really think that being famous now automatically qualifies you as someone whose example should be imitated and followed by young people, then that can only mean we now believe fame in itself represents a form of moral superiority." If that is the case, then God help us all. Maybe instead of attacking celebrities for not living up to the moral standards we set for them, we should look at ourselves and ask why we need them to be a paragon of virtue in the first place.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Dollhouse 1.6 "Man on the Street"

Episode 6 of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse has been labeled a "game-changer" in the media. I have now watched it and would wholeheartedly agree with that assessment. The episode reminded me of the last episode of season one of Alias (although the game-changing does not go to quite that extreme a level). The episode was written by Whedon and characteristically contains some sit-up-and-take-notice moments. Revelations concerning the inner workings of the Dollhouse, Agent Ballard's neighbor, and the larger agenda of the Dollhouse all stand out. Throw in some well-shot fight scenes utilizing Tahmoh Penikett's Muay Thai martial arts background (an art that lends itself well to televised fight scenes) and you have the complete package. If you watched a few of the earlier episodes and gave it up, now is the time to get back on board (you can catch last night's episode on-line in several places). As for me, any ambivalence I may have harbored during the first few episodes is now gone.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


I caught Watchmen this past weekend and was rather intrigued by it. I had read the graphic novel over this past summer as part of a research project I was doing on the influence of the Book of Revelation on comic books (the article from that should be published in a book on apocalyptic and comics sometime next year). What intrigued me about Watchmen was the same thing that many critics have taken it to task over: the faithfulness of the adaptation. Watchmen is easily the most faithful adaptation I have seen of any novel, graphic or otherwise. With the exception of a slight tweaking of the ending, the film is virtually a shot for shot remake of the graphic novel. For me, this actually worked in the film's favor. I am one of the apparently few individuals who was underwhelmed by the artwork of the graphic novel. On screen, however, the visual imagery comes to life in a way that adds an extra punch to the experience. Unlike typical novels, graphic novels lend themselves well to this kind of rigidly faithful adaptation because the graphic novel is already a visual story and so the jump from there to film is much shorter than it is when having to translate words alone into images. 

The other highlight of the film was Rorshach. Jackie Earle Haley does a great job of making you root for and loathe his character at the same time.

Monday, March 09, 2009


I have made no secret of the fact that I am a fan of Joss Whedon's work. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is my all-time favorite television series, with Angel not far behind. Firefly never resonated with me in the same way, though I still enjoyed watching it. So I began watching Whedon's newest series, Dollhouse (airing Fridays at 9:00 on Fox), with great anticipation. I have now seen four episodes and based on those, I would describe Dollhouse as a show that is currently good (though uneven), but with the potential to be great. Classic Whedon themes are all there: girl power, the creation of identity, the quest for redemption, the nature and responsibility of power, and ruminations on the meaning of existence. What is notably lacking is the trademark wit and clever dialogue we've come to expect from a Joss Whedon production.

Dollhouse is the kind of show that will have a difficult time in today's media environment. It is a slow starter. The initial episodes have focused too much on stand-alone stories with not enough emphasis on the overarching narrative that carries the series. It is that overarching narrative that creates the potential for this show to transcend "story of the week" mediocrity. I liken this show to a roller coaster. Right now it is on that first leg where you make the slow and steady journey upwards. But as it approaches the top, I expect that we are merely a few episodes away from it really taking off.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dean Winchester and Gaius Baltar

One of the characteristics of a postmodern world is that spirituality is regularly injected into the public sphere, most frequently through popular culture. And popular culture often does a better job of capturing the reality of spiritual responses better than the church has typically done. I recently came across an example of this through a comparison of two different pop culture characters: Dean Winchester of Supernatural (photo on the right) and Gaius Baltar of Battlestar Galactica (photo on the left).

On one level these two characters could not be more different. Dean Winchester is a blue collar monster hunter who fights against evil. Gaius Baltar is a genius scientist who inadvertently plays a prominent role in the near-genocide of the human race. Yet they share a very similar journey. At the beginning of each of their respective series, each character is a hardcore, angry atheist. Through a steady string of adventures and eye-opening encounters, however, each character gradually progresses through agnosticism and into a form of faith that each acquires in the fourth season of their show.  They each come to their faith in different ways and for different reasons. And their varying responses to their journeys represent two different spiritual responses.

In the episode, "Are You There God? It's Me, Dean Winchester," Dean's brother Sam suggests that they now have proof that God exists (this is because Dean encountered an angel). Their conversation unfolds as follows:

DEAN: Proof that there's a God out there that actually gives a crap about me personally? I'm sorry but I'm not buying it.
SAM: Why not?
DEAN: Because why me? If there is a God out there, why would he give a crap about me? . . . Why do I deserve to get saved? I'm just a regular guy.
SAM: Apparently, you're a regular guy that's important to the man upstairs.
DEAN: Well that creeps me out.

Dean is the person who is so aware of his own faults and who sees his place in the universe as being so insignificant that he can't fathom that God would pay attention to him, let alone love him. 

Compare this response to that of Gaius Baltar from the episode "Escape Velocity":

"I'm not a priest. I've never even been a particularly good man. I have, in fact, been a profoundly selfish man. But that doesn't matter, you see. Something in the universe loves me. Something in the universe loves the entity that is me. I will choose to call this something 'God.'"

If Dean Winchester is creeped out by the attention of God, Gaius Baltar embraces it. Acutely aware of the sins of his past and rather than see himself as unworthy of divine attention, he is deeply moved by the thought that he could be forgiven, that he could find redemption for his crimes.

Anyone who spends much time in churches or around people who are spiritually seeking will recognize these two portraits -- that of those who find themselves shrinking away uncomfortably from the gaze of God and those who find themselves reveling in it.

Given the sordid past of American television, that it is the medium regularly presenting us with models of spirituality like these and others is itself a cause for wonder.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Supernatural Book

For those of you out of the loop, Supernatural is a television show on the CW network that is now in its fourth season. It is in many ways a descendant of The X-Files, but one that incorporates a heavier dose of horror while tying its mythology not to governmental conspiracies but to the supernatural battle of good versus evil. A new book that explores the world of Supernatural is about to be released, to which I was privileged to contribute. You can see an image of the book cover below and then the text that will appear on the back cover beneath that. If you have any interest in Supernatural or in the creative analysis of popular culture, you should check it out. I may provide a more detailed review of its contents when I have a chance to read more of it than my own chapter.

“[Supernatural has] the smartest, most passionate, most intelligent fans
of any show on television.”

―Eric Kripke, creator of Supernatural

Supernatural is more than a show about fighting demons. It’s about more than a cool car, a kick-ass soundtrack and hot guys with guns. Supernatural is about family and sacrifice and heroism—about good and evil and the choices you make to stay in the hunt.

You know there’s more to this show than meets the eye.

So do we.

• Professor Gregory Stevenson considers the true meaning of horror and what Supernatural’s characters have to say about the human (and demonic) potential in all of us
• Super-Wiki team member Jules Wilkinson gives Dean’s ’67 Chevy Impala her due
• Television Without Pity’s Jacob Clifton looks at the feminine in Supernatural’s world of shotguns, muscle cars and masculine bravado (it’s more influential, and more pervasive, than you think)
• Supernatural RPG writer Jamie Chambers outlines demon-hunting on the cheap—and what it has to do with Supernatural’s appeal
• Contemporary fantasy author Tanya Huff delves into the psychology of John Winchester
• Fan Sheryl A. Rakowski (one of the three winners of the Pop Supernatural Essay Contest) shows how the boys’ biggest weakness—their need for each other—is also the biggest strength they possess, no matter what the Trickster says
• And writer Shanna Swendson mines the sources of Supernatural’s monsters, from folktales to urban legends, and deems Dean and Sam our modern-day keepers of the lore

Monday, February 09, 2009

Big Bang Theory: Smartest Show on Television?

Comedy rarely gets its due, particularly when it comes in the form of the television sitcom. I've posted before about how television programs have gotten progressively smarter over the last couple of decades in terms of the expectations they have of viewers. One example of this is the expectation of a certain knowledge base on the part of the audience. Shows are designed today to reward smart, attentive viewers by providing references without explanation. In past sitcoms, no joke would be made unless it could be easily understood by the audience across a wide spectrum. Today shows are ignoring that rule and instead filling their shows with a variety of references and jokes that require a certain pre-existing knowledge base in order for a person to get the joke or to appreciate the joke fully. 

An excellent example of this phenomenon is The Big Bang Theory. As an exercise, one of my classes the other day watched an episode of this show and then we put together a list of all of the terminology that was used without definition and the references that were made without explanation. The show demands that in order for the viewer to fully "get the joke", they must come to the table with enough of a working knowledge in order to understand the terminology and enough cultural awareness to be able to understand the references (such as with the show's subtle references to movies without any mention of the title of the film itself). The episode we watched was titled "The Jerusalem Duality." Below is the list of references or terminology from that episode alone, categorized according to the type of reference.

Quantum State of Matter
Open Science Grid Computer
Free Electron Laser
String Theory
False vacuums
Quantum Loop Corrections
Lorentz Invariant
Field Theory Approach
soft component of cosmic radiation
laser array
argon lasers
payload bay
sensor apparatus
carbon nanotubes
tensile strength
cold fusion
helium neon

Science Fiction

Star Wars
Willy Wonka 
Field of Dreams
The Matrix 

Notable Awards
Nobel Prize
Stevenson Award

Historical Characters
Wolgang Amadaeus Mozart
Antonia Salieri

Foreign Languages
German – wunderkind
Hebrew/Spanish (Cielito Lindo sung in Hebrew)
Spanish (Nuevo Jerusalem)

Middle East Crisis
Wailing Wall

Sonora Desert

Biblical Studies
"new" Jerusalem
Promised Land

Sports Record-Keeping
the asterisk

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hollywood Morality?

Christians have often tended to oversimplify the issues related to morality and spirituality in entertainment media. We see this in the common stereotype of the Hollywood industry as inherently anti-Christian and immoral. In one section of my book, "Televised Morality," I make the following suggestion: "The battle over morality on television is a battle to determine which worldview will be most influential in shaping our cultural values, and which institution will provide the foundation for moral responsibility. It would be a vast oversimplification to suggest that Christians are interested in morality, while the creators, producers, and writers of television are not. The issue is not interest in morality, but differing approaches to moral reasoning and different methods of moral discourse."

In other words, there are many creative voices in Hollywood who are very interested in morality. The difference is that their morality may flow from a different worldview, may be structured by a different paradigm, and may be communicated in different ways. The better we become at recognizing this, the better we will become at evaluating media's presentation of morality.

When "The Passion of the Christ" came out and did phenomenal business, Christians were overjoyed because they believed that Hollywood would now finally get the message that movies with Christian themes and Christian topics can make money. Therefore, Hollywood would start making more such movies. They were right. A short time after this, another Christian-themed movie came out. It was called "Saved!" The creator of that movie expected it to do great business because "The Passion" had showed that moviegoers hunger for Christian-themed movies. That is not what happened. Many Christian communities were very upset by the film and boycotted it. Why? "Saved!" is a satire of the Christian high school experience. It exposes the hypocrisy that is often apparent in shallow forms of Christianity. Consequently, many churches took this to be an anti-Christian film. The creator of the film didn't see it that way. He did not see himself as attacking Christianity but attacking hypocrisy within Christianity - what one might argue is the same thing Jesus did with Judaism.

The truth is that what most Christians really want is not more films that address Christian topics and themes, but more films that present a very narrow view of Christianity. They want only a pristine, uncomplicated version of Christianity delivered by the media -- a version that anyone who has spent time in churches knows is not the reality. Basically they want Hollywood to preach their message for them.

Is that Hollywood's job? When Hollywood puts out movies like "Saved!" that satirize Christianity or that make Christianity out to be more complex and complicated than the stereotype we would like to promote, are they doing Christianity a service or a disservice?