How a U2 Anthem Defined Generation X

U2 band members The Edge (left), Bono, and Adam Clayton perform during the iHeartRadio Music Festival at The T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nev., in 2016. (Steve Marcus/Reuters)
Released as a single 33 years ago this week, ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ is that rare song that was always a classic.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I n Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything… (1989), Lloyd Dobler sketches out a stumbling, uncertain-but-nevertheless-determined path for his and my generation:

“I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed.” “We’re not sure what we want, but not this,” was a strange but endearing generational rallying cry. Few of us who saw the film in our teens or early twenties failed to laugh with recognition.

Ascribing common traits to an entire generation of tens of millions of disparate Americans is a dubious exercise, even a fool’s errand. So call me a fool, I won’t take it personally. Still, a few characteristics unique to Generation X did become clear as the decades passed. Gen X was notably the first generation to have to deal with the mistakes of the Baby Boomers, and the first in which interracial relationships and homosexuality enjoyed widespread acceptance. Gen X-ers were also more emotionally damaged by divorce than the children of any previous or subsequent generation. There was fragility within us as we faced a joyous historical moment when American ways had indisputably been proven superior to those of the Soviet empire and affluence had become, for the first time, available to a huge proportion of Americans. No previous generation could simply choose wealth, but Gen X discovered that a master’s in business or a law degree was a virtual ticket to the upper class. And this created a conflict, given the anti-materialist shibboleths of the John Lennon-led Boomer culture we’d all inherited: Did access to wealth mean we ought to pursue it? Could we achieve it in some Doblerian way that preserved our sense of self? The natural optimism and excitement of youth were tinged with doubts.

Steeped as we were in Boomer rock music, we sensed it was full of questionable advice. Turning away from, or blowing up, the existing power structures so we could “get ourselves back to the garden,” as Crosby, Stills and Nash sang in Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” was not an option we considered. We were not revolutionaries. The country that awaited us not only didn’t require radical overthrow, it seemed pretty good. Our first votes were likely to be for Reagan (61 percent of the youth vote in 1984) or George H.W. Bush (53 percent in 1988). We advanced into adulthood as cautious idealists, a little hopeful and a little confused.

When I arrived at college in 1985, U2 and Talking Heads were very much the bands of the moment, but there was a palpable sense that Bono and Co. still hadn’t quite fulfilled their promise, that their best days, like ours, were yet to come. Junior year, just as we returned from spring break to a New Haven that flipped overnight from gray slush to Monet efflorescence, U2 delivered its hoped-for masterpiece in The Joshua Tree, instantly and obviously the defining rock album of the decade.

And the defining rock song of Generation X is “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” released as a single 33 years ago this week. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” which followed “With or Without You” to number one on the pop charts, is that rare track that sounded like a classic the first time you heard it, in my case pouring out the windows of the Old Campus quad onto the sunlit fields where students sat tossing frisbees or reading under trees. The slow build of the Edge’s echoing, muted guitar in the opening bars worked like a snake charm, building a warmth and receptiveness previously unapproached in any U2 song. When Bono started to sing, it was as if our subconscious was speaking to us. Questing, soul-searching, delicate, and somehow inspiring, the song located the earnest core of a cynical generation.

When I asked on Twitter which song readers thought defined Gen X, the most common answer was “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” That can’t be right. “Teen Spirit” is an angry, even rageful song, bitter, grinding, ugly, searing, snarling. If Kurt Cobain’s sentiments had actually defined a generation rather than his own manic-depressive alienation, the loci of power in America would have again come under assault as they had in the Boomers’ heyday. Instead, after the economic softening of the early ’90s coincided with the rise of grunge and the development of the screenplay for the movie Reality Bites, Gen X happily shed the flannel shirts and started climbing corporate ladders. Grunge stood exposed as a fad, a surly pose defined by fashion choices, noxious rumbles of despair calling themselves rock albums, and the occasional bit of moshing. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” wasn’t a defining ethos but merely an outburst, an adolescent howl of rejection: “Oh well, whatever, nevermind,” turned out to be just a jibe, not a stance.

The way he sang “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” though, Bono spoke for us as surely as Crosby, Stills, and Nash had spoken for our parents: He was an idealist but not a radical. He was a strutting showman with a streak of humility. In speaking of devotion and uncertainty in the same song (“I have climbed the highest mountains . . . only to be with you . . . but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”), he reflected the exuberant tentativeness of youth, a period of exploring, wandering, trying on new personalities, building the selves we would become. The story of youth is of needs unmet but also of eagerness to carry on searching. As in many other U2 songs, you can zoom in on the Christian imagery — “you carried the cross of my shame” — or zoom out to a broad reading. The balance of regret for one’s moral errors and yearning for transcendence is universal. These lyrics were made to be shared, to be sung in open spaces by gigantic crowds. U2 is sometimes derided for making “stadium rock” or “anthems,” but that’s another way of saying it kept aiming to reach the highest possible level of its art form and kept succeeding spectacularly. If you ever find 80,000 people singing your words in the sunshine with a quasi-religious fervor, you may count yourself a success.

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