U2’s “Desire” teaches us what America means, mister

This is A.M. Shuffle, where I kick my writing engine to life with a few words on whatever song just popped up randomly. Today: U2’s “Desire.”

Key lyric: “She’s the goddess/she’s my protection/she’s the promise in the year of election”

I love America. Not in a “shut up don’t you talk bad about my country!” way, but in a warts-and-all, let’s-maybe-think-twice-about-doing-that-stupid-thing kind of way.

But U2? Man, those dudes LOOOOOOOVE America. If Bono was in your middle school grade, he’d be constantly wearing American flag t-shirts, doodling pictures of the states in the margins of his notebooks, telling you about this really really funny thing America said last night, and it might not sound funny now but you really had to be there because America is just so GREAT when you get to know her…

Anyway. “Desire” is from “Rattle and Hum,” U2’s soaring love letter to America, and like all love letters, it’s both charming and cringeworthy in its slightly desperate ambition. “Desire” is its high point, and that’s because it is quite simply a great goddamn song.

Start with the beat. It’s the Bo Diddley beat, BUM BUM BUM BA-BUM, that little hiccuping gallop that’s everywhere in music: Guns n’ Roses’ “Mr. Brownstone,” the Rolling Stones’ version of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” Bruce Springsteen’s “She’s The One,” even George Michael’s “Faith.” Add in those fat open chords to start the song and some bluesy harmonica to close it, and brother, we’re rolling.

The lyrics are the usual Bono signifiers of bright lights/big city, guitars, not-too-graphic drug use, sleazy preachers, wandering the streets, the love of money, and so on. This came out in 1988, “the year of election” referenced herein, making this surely the best song ever written about Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush.

Anyway, this is one of those songs that’s going to live forever because it yoked itself to a grand American tradition of rock n’ roll. U2 got plenty of crap for doing this when “Rattle and Hum” came out, the thinking being that a bunch of little overambitious punks didn’t have the right to co-opt history like that. But those silly arguments have been lost to history — Bono would eventually fancy himself protector of the world, not just American rock n’ roll — so what we’re left with is one of the best songs of the ’80s.

Not bad for a bunch of Irish kids playing cowboy. What ever happened to these guys, anyway?


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