“Trying to Sum up What U2’s ‘Staring at the Sun’ is Like to Me Today”

In the spring of 1997, I was in seventh grade, a whiz on the viola, light and lithe on my feet and stricken dumb for this girl I’d talk to on the phone that summer and hang out with at the pool. It was clear: I was just too nice. I was, as they say, a “dork.”

Well, things were changing. Here comes Third Eye Blind, singing about crystal meth (I’d later steal a shirt of theirs from a warehouse sale in town, which should betoken at least an embryonic level of “badness,” hopefully). Here comes Everclear, with their blistering production peal and hard-nosed humanistic rants: “You do what you do / You say what you say / You try to be everything to everyone / Come on now do that stupid dance”. Times were changing. I was growing a moustache. My Sarah McLachlan CD was bound to take a spot on the back burner. It was time to crank up the volume, to walk around with a strut and a scowl. 

And hell, U2’s new album was even called “Pop.” And they’d never been a particularly “bad-boy” group leading up to this point, or one that would considerable fervor shirk the term “dorks.” It was a foregone conclusion that I’d dismiss U2, say they “sucked” and throw ’em out. 

But something kept them simmering back there, yes, next to Sarah McLachlan and the jester hats that were in style in 1996. 

Well, to this day “Staring at the Sun” is the only song I know on that album (looking at the title I recognize “Discoteque” but for the life of me couldn’t tell you how it goes), so it looks like we can zero in on what made me retain my embrace for U2, which of course has grown stronger over the years as the vitality of The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby seems to emerge more and more. 

“Staring at the Sun” isn’t a song that’s “cool” in the traditional sense of today. It’s hard to say whether it would have any chance of hitting it big today or not. One thing for sure is that it would jar listeners in this current landscape with its deliberate, purposeful approach and fully substantive construction of chord progression and subtle, metaphoric lyricism. Wild, ostentatious sound isn’t anything too unusual today but it doesn’t seem like anyone else in history was able to generate it just from one single guitar as well as The Edge, which the possible exception of, ironically, Third Eye Blind’s Kevin Cadogan. 

And the truth is that Bono’s narrative and the general energy track of “Staring at the Sun” is so stately, so measured and straight-ahead that it’s easy to bely, to disregard, the vivid, piercingly psychedelic sound that Edge makes you privy to in the bridges and the choruses, respectively. It’s a tune that carries the maniacal melancholy of an apocalyptic type of scene, with admissions like “Creeps are crawlin’ over me” and “There’s an insect in your ear / If you scratch it won’t disappear”. Actually, that’s almost like what “Staring at the Sun” was to me, for so many years: it was like a buzzing in the back of my head that I didn’t want to focus on or completely turn off, either. It was like it was tapping into a part of my brain that was unconscious, like one of those delicious Jungian “archetypes” that I sometimes attempt clumsily to discuss on this site. 

“Staring at the Sun” couldn’t have been an easy song to write, record, or perform, or come to terms with: it’s fairly scathing of the world around it, with the disconcerting denouement of “I’m not that only one / Who’s happy to go blind”. Really, it stands alone with “Numb” from Zooropa, in my book, as one of only two good songs the band would produce between Achtung Baby and All That You Can’t Leave behind. 

But sharply contrasted with All That You Can’t Leave behind, which always, though catchy and ebullient, always struck me as a little bit retro and Hallmark-y, “Staring at the Sun” is undeniably real. It’s an uncomfortable song, a song for reining in your ambition in life, like in an “endgame” [1], making do with bold, disillusioning discoveries about the world, things which make you think you want to know less and less. It’s rallying up the mustangs and the tanks for a couple of years to advance one inch, but sometimes that one inch is the most meaningful of all, when you’re sure you’re saying what you mean and doing it all on your own terms. Then, in the end, people will come around and respect it, and if they don’t, they probably sold themselves off long ago. 


[1] Please go on Wiktionary and look up the definition of “endgame,” if you would. 

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