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A Reason To Smile
We are in the midst of very difficult times and likely will be for quite a while. With our A Reason To Smile feature, we are not ignoring the pain and heartbreak; indeed, they motivate our selections. We still find it essential to celebrate what is good and beautiful in this world.
Today, we have selected the song “One” by U2. Our fractured world is very much in mind.
Over the last several decades, few bands have been more celebrated and revered than U2. Their songs are musically expressive and their lyrics trenchant. They have too many hits to count, but “One” still stands out. No less than rock star Axl Rose of the band Guns N’ Roses called it “one of the greatest songs that has ever been written.” He added, “I put the song on and just broke down crying.”
In trying to describe what makes the song so special, we couldn’t improve on what music journalist Dorian Lynskey wrote for the BBC:
One is so powerful because of, not despite, its insoluble ambiguity. The rolling beauty of the music means that it is both angry and wounding and warm and healing. It is a painful conversation but between who, and about what, is unclear. It has been variously described as a song about a band in crisis, a marriage collapsing, a father and son at odds, a country reuniting, another country divided, and a quarrel with God, and perhaps it is all of those things. One raises the fundamental question of whether a song’s meaning is fixed when it is written and recorded, or whether, provided it is flexible enough, it can continue to acquire new resonances indefinitely. Who gets to say what a song really means?
And maybe that’s why “One” seems like a perfect song for this moment, as well, even though it was created in a very different era.
It was the early 1990s, and U2 was coming off a decade that had launched them into superstardom. Seeking inspiration, they had come to Berlin to record at the famed Hansa Studios. The city was imbued with a spirit of hope, renewal, and togetherness. The Wall — which had split Berlin a mere 500 feet from the studio — was now gone. But U2 was at its own crossroads. “The irony of One’s title is the band wasn’t very close at the time,” Bono told the BBC. “We were building our own wall right down the middle of Hansa studios.”
The song that emerged reflected these tense times and complicated emotions. “The concept of oneness is of course an impossible ask,” Bono explained. “Maybe the song works because it doesn’t call for unity. It presents us as being bound to others whether we like it or not.”
Bono cited some of his lyrics: “‘We get to carry each other’ – not ‘We got to carry each other.’ ‘We’re one but we’re not the same’ allows room for all the differences that get through the door.” In a 1993 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Bono added: “It is a song about coming together, but it’s not the old hippie idea of ‘Let’s all live together.’ It is, in fact, the opposite. It’s saying, ‘We are one, but we’re not the same.’ It’s not saying we even want to get along, but that we have to get along together in this world if it is to survive. It’s a reminder that we have no choice.”
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