By the generally anodyne standards of a Grammys telecast, last night was pretty political: Kendrick Lamar opened the show along with pointed commentary on racism from Dave Chappelle, Cardi B and Hillary Clinton poked some light fun at Donald Trump, Kesha’s performance of “Praying” was a powerful and complicated celebration of women’s solidarity against institutional sexism and violence. There was also a pre-taped U2 performance that came after a speech from Camila Cabello, who spoke about her Cuban-American heritage and the Dreamers—immigrants to the U.S. who gained clemency under Obama-era protections known as DACA and DAPA that are now being rolled back by the Trump administration.
U2 have always been supportive of liberal politics, and it’s clear that their performance—on an outdoor stage with the Statue of Liberty looming conspicuously behind it—was meant to send the same message as Cabello’s speech. As very rich white guys, they were perhaps not the best bearers of this message, but this is the Grammys we’re talking about, so we shouldn’t be surprised by their inclusion as performers. Their choice of song, however, might have struck you as a little odd.
The band played “Get Out of Your Own Way,” from 2017’s Songs of Experience. On some level, the song is a rebuke to Trump-era politics: its lyrics include lines about “the face of liberty” cracking after a “[smack] in the mouth,” and its animated video includes depictions of the president and of marching Klansmen. But it also contains a weirdly conservative vision of how social problems are solved, right down to the individual imperative expressed in its title. “Fight back,” Bono sings just before the liberty line. “Don’t take it lyin’ down, you got to bite back.” Later, repeatedly sings that “Nothing’s stopping you except what’s inside”:
I could sing it to you all night, all night
If I could, I’d make it alright, alright
Nothing’s stopping you except what’s inside
I can help you, but it’s your fight, your fight
Bono’s allowed to sing about whatever he wants, of course, but “Get Out of Your Own Way” makes very little sense as a message of uplift for immigrants whose entire lives are suddenly under attack. There’s actually a lot stopping them besides “what’s inside,” starting with the government actions that U2’s performance was supposed to be standing against. “I can help you, but it’s your fight” sounds a lot like an encouragement to immigrants to pull themselves up by the bootstraps.
As romantic as it may sound, Trump’s regressive policies aren’t going to be solved by individual immigrants getting fed up and fighting back, nor should anyone expect them to do all the fighting. It’s going to require serious structural changes, and probably a lot of help from wealthy people like Bono, whether they like it or not. U2 may not have written “Get Out of Your Own Way” as an admonition to oppressed people that the responsibility for changing their situations lies with themselves, but given the way it was positioned at the Grammys last night, it sure sounded that way.