Terra Sigillata


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During the summer between high school and college, about this very time in 1981, I was sitting at a beach house in North Carolina listening to my uncle rail against The Beatles. He held that the band never truly took its fame and international press attention to doing anything good for the world except to glorify LSD.

I now get to tell him about U2.

That summer also saw the launch of MTV and in fall I watched four young Dubliners on a barge playing a song called, “Gloria,” the opening track of their album October. And in the intervening years the band, and especially its lead singer Bono, have used their international platform to raise awareness and act upon injustices worldwide. In 2002, Bono and Bobby Shriver co-founded the humanitarian organization DATA (debt, AIDS, trade, Africa), known now as ONE. Among their many causes, the pharmacologist in me has been most impressed with ONE and Bono’s personal efforts to make antiretroviral HIV/AIDS drugs available in sub-Saharan Africa.

I’ve long been a fan of the band, U2 – so much so that during graduate school I played in a U2 tribute band (I was Adam Clayton). So imagine my delight when I read this in a press release a few weeks ago:

ACHTUNG U2 FANS
Come spend a few days talking, listening and thinking about what U2 has done. We’re bringing together scholars, teachers, students, journalists, clergy, musicians and intellectually curious U2 fans for a rich program of exploring this truly one-of-a-kind band for a truly one-of-a-kind conference, and we hope you’ll be in the room.

Is it all so much hype? Are we lost in their feedback? Or is this band of ambitions, paradoxes, ironies and sincerity the real thing? If you think U2 has played a role, for better or worse, in changing the worlds of music, entertainment, popular culture, humanitarian relief, peace and social justice efforts – or has changed the world in you – then come join the conversation. Meet us in the sound!

U2: The Hype and The Feedback is the first academic conference devoted to the band and will be held on the campus of North Carolina Central University (NCCU) in Durham, NC, over the weekend of October 2-4, 2009. The date coincides with the band’s 3rd October concert in Raleigh and, coincidentally, the 28th anniversary of the release of October.

Registration opened today and Tracey Hackett just put up a nice article about the conference overnight.

In addition to smaller concurrent sessions, the conference will include keynote speaker, Anthony DeCurtis, longtime contributing editor at Rolling Stone, British music critic Neil McCormick, Ugandan nurse and AIDS activist Agnes Nyamayarwo, @U2 founding editor Matt McGee, and Jim Henke by video from the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame Museum.

Conference organizer, Dr. Scott Calhoun, is Associate Professor of English at Cedarville University and teaches journalism, literature, and composition courses. I was fortunate to nail down Scott in the flurry leading up to today’s commencement of conference registration.

How does one convert a love of U2 into a scholarly activity? Do you actually incorporate U2 works into your course offerings?

U2 is one of those rock bands that approaches making and performing music as a craft. The band members are well-schooled in music and art history, as well as in literature, film, religion and politics. The music they make and the performances they give are works, if you will, that we in the humanities find it natural to study and discuss. The poetics and rhetorics of the texts U2 have created are rich fields of inquiry for exploring the human condition. I’ve incorporated their work into discussions in my classes, from a single song to a whole album. Sometimes there’s an “unfamiliarity gap” that needs to be bridged, but it’s never been hard to persuade an open-minded person that U2 makes music for the heart and mind – the kind of music that makes you feel something and want to start asking questions.

So, there are scholarly publications about U2?

There is a growing body of academic writing about U2. In the past 10 years or so, more books have been coming out that are more of inquiries into the band’s work than fan treatments. I have a bibliography of most of the major book treatments on U2 in English at the site. http://www.u2conference.com/biblio.php

That’s a great resource on the conference page. Between the speakers and the papers listed thus far, the meeting schedule looks to be quite vibrant and eclectic. How did you go about soliciting contributors of papers for the conference?

We issued a Call for Papers through the Chronicle of Higher Education and the normal listservs that cover the humanities and theology/philosophy disciplines. I write for @U2 (www.atu2.com) and Books & Culture, and we spread the word through those channels as well. Most academics who think, write and teach about U2 are well-connected in the on-line world, so it wasn’t hard to get the word out. We received nearly 100 paper proposals.

I only just learned of the conference from your press release but I just read a blogpost from June by News & Observer music writer David Menconi that you had narrowed down the conference site to North Carolina Central University and Oxford, MS (presumably at Ole Miss)? How did NCCU win out?

Both schools made appealing offers, and Durham and Oxford have great U2 fan communities. Some really motivated U2 fans in Durham kept reaching out to us and helped us connect with NCCU. With NCCU’s rich history of educating the community through the arts and music, as well as their special focus on honoring the oppressed and the champions of freedom for all peoples, we thought this was a great place to have the first academic conference on U2. The more you look into the missions and histories of NCCU and U2, the more you see both have had a common “goal of soul” and “elevation.” ;) There’s also a U2 concert close by the same weekend as the conference!

There is an interesting aspect of the spirituality and commitment to social justice and civil rights evident in the lyrics of U2. NCCU is a historically-black college/university (HBCU) currently celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding – despite being a state university now, NCCU was originally founded as “The National Religious Training School and Chautauqua for the Colored Race.” Did this convergence of the university’s centennial and its original mission play any role in having NCCU host the conference?

We’re thrilled to be a part of NCCU’s centennial year celebration. When I learned of NCCU’s original founding purpose, all I could think of was how the spirit moves in mysterious ways. ;) I hope we honor the intentions of those early Chautauquians!

The question whose answer everyone wants to know: Any chance that any U2 members will make a cameo at the conference?

If they can come and not affect our academic objectivity, they are more than welcome to stop in! We’ve invited them, of course, and don’t know of their intentions at this time.

If readers have any other questions for Dr. Calhoun, just drop them in the comments and I’ll see if he can get to them.

Thanks, Scott, for taking time to give us a little more insight about the conference.

Here is an overview of registration information from Tracey Hackett’s article:

Early bird registration fees, which run from Aug. 1 through Sept. 7, are $129 for students with active identifications and $179 for the public. Standard registration fees, which run from Sept. 8 until the conference reaches capacity, are $149 for students and $209 for the public. Both early and standard conference registrations include costs for a reception on Friday and lunch on Saturday and Sunday.

One-day registrations, for either Saturday or Sunday and includes lunch for that day, is $89 for students and $129 for the public. A ticket for the Friday evening kick-off event and reception only is $25.

Conference registration does not include the cost of lodging or purchase of a ticket to U2’s Raleigh concert.

The cost of registering for the conference can be paid for by check, PayPal account, or credit card via PayPal.

For more information and registration for the conference, log onto its web site at www.U2conference.com. You can also follow conference development on Twitter, Facebook, and the official conference blog.