Music for the Apocalypse #25: Acrobat, by U2

by Apocalypse Womble

U2 are certainly a band that have been kind to the end of the world motif. They like songs about wide open spaces, barren, deserted cities, emotional ends of the world – you can be sure we’ll come back to them again at a later date – but ‘Acrobat’ may not be the most obvious choice. Nothing in the lyrics is obviously apocalyptic, but all the same I think there is something in the roiling, churning, vitriolic anger at both society and the self, in ‘Acrobat’, that speaks to the emotion of apocalypse. Eliot once intimated, chillingly, that the world will end ‘not with a bang, but a whimper’, but most visions of apocalypse predict something more dramatic: societal meltdown, war – even if the cause is slow and undirected (plague, accident) factionalisation seems to ensue – and apocalypse has long been used as a tool for societal critique. Surely part of the attraction of the end of the world is a call to pull down the structures that stifle and inhibit us and either live in anarchic freedom, or build something new in its place. Something in ‘Acrobat’ speaks to this emotion, even as it rails at the formlessness of its realisation in most of us:

Don’t believe what you hear
Don’t believe what you see
If you just close your eyes
You can feel the enemy
When I first met you girl
You had fire in your soul
What happened your face
Of melting in snow

I know you’d hit out
If you only knew who to hit
And I’d join the movement
If there was one I could believe in

There’s a great tradition of students going on protests because they feel like that’s what students ought to do – they want to be a part of something, regardless of whether the issue truly drives them. Perhaps we’ve seen an about face on this in recent years, as genuine hardship has affected more people after so many years of borrowing and plenty. The Occupy movement, in particular, seems to have captured this formless desire to hit out in the face of the frictionless edifices of government and big business, where there is no one issue to get behind, because there are so many.

Beyond this emotional recognition of anti-establishment zeitgeist, however, there is a direct apocalypse link. Regardless of whether U2 intended it thus, the verse:

And you can swallow
Or you can spit
You can throw it up
Or choke on it
And you can dream
So dream out loud
You know that your time is coming ’round
So don’t let the bastards grind you down

is strikingly reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale, for me, anyway. Margaret Atwood’s seminal novel depicts a world after some sort of disaster that has rendered most women infertile. Society shifts, creepingly, but with disconcerting swiftness, towards the marginalisation of women into reproductive and sexual activities. Fertile women are forced into servitude of rich men, becoming ‘handmaids’ – live-in reproductive slaves with whom they sleep (in the presence of their wives) in the hopes of producing children. In one, striking moment, the protagonist find a scratched message from her predecessor – a message of mixed hope and bitter anger, written in Latin: ‘nolite te bastardes carborundorum/Don’t let the bastards grind you down’. This line ends both the above verse – charged with sexual metaphor ‘you can swallow/Or you can spit’ – and the song as a whole, and seems perfectly to capture the anger and frustration of the hopeless oppressed as they rage against the machine.

Whatever your apocalypse, ladies, be it personal or global, fight the good fight: don’t let the bastards grind you down.

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