Music comes from funny places. The song “One” is a good example. For a song that came from a tumultuous period in the life of U2, it has come to represent unity, acceptance, and tolerance in a way that the four members of U2 might have found hard to believe when the song was birthed. I know you’ve all heard the legend of how “One” came about during a difficult time, saving the day and maybe even the band itself, so I won’t bore you by retelling that tale today. What I do find interesting about the song that I want to talk about today is the multitude of ways it’s been interpreted over the years.
I’m making an educated guess here, but I have a feeling that, lyrically at least, the song had it’s genesis in division at least as much as in togetherness. See, while U2 were recording Achtung Baby, The Edge was going through a separation from his first wife, Aislinn. I can only imagine what had gone on behind the closed doors of their relationship to lead them to that point, but as a former divorcee I can promise you that it wasn’t pretty or fun. I think that the bitterness that’s present in the words to “One” is based upon Bono’s observations of what his dear friend was going through at this point, as well as his own feelings on the dissension within the band itself. In fact, I think it speaks volumes on the relationships between the band members that these potential break-ups elicited such strong emotions from the writer of the song in question.
It’s true that there’s lots of acid in the lyrics to “One”, so I often find myself asking why it is that the song has become a theme song for harmony the way it has. I’ve come to the conclusion that the final message of “One” is that those differences that threaten to tear us apart can be overcome. While “One” isn’t a romantic song in the normal, fluffy way that we’re used to hearing sung about on Top 40 radio, it is all about love in the end. It takes a rough and rugged love to do get past those differences – when Bono sings “I want a love that’s hard, as hard as hate” in “Levitate”, this is the kind of love he’s talking about. A love that’s tough enough to say that we don’t have to agree – it’s enough to allow each other to be different. Or, as Bono himself was quoted as saying years later, “To be one, to be united is a great thing. But to respect the right to be different is maybe even greater.”
“One” is one of those songs that, the argument could be made, has become overplayed in the years since it’s release. With over six hundred fifty performances – at nearly every U2 concert plus lots of one-off appearances – in the intervening years, many, including myself, felt that perhaps it was time to give the song a rest. Still, it’s been called “greatest song of all-time” (in a 2003 issue of Q magazine) and lots of people at U2 concerts would be disappointed to not hear it, so the band made a wise choice for this tour. Rotating the song out every night or so has allowed the band to play one of their most beloved songs in every city they visit without playing it into the ground. One thing’s for certain: “One” isn’t going to be dropped permanently from U2’s setlists any time soon, and I think that’s a good thing. The song’s theme is so intrinsic to the message of U2 that it truly would be a mistake for the band to abandon the song entirely.