U2’s “The Playboy Mansion” & Justification By Faith

U2’s “Pop” is the third and final album from the group’s experimental years in the 1990’s.  It’s probably their darkest album, although that term doesn’t really do its mood justice.  Their decade-long exploration of wisdom themes and their thoroughgoing subjection of modern culture to intense scrutiny comes to a climax on this album.  “Achtung Baby” kicked off this era with a burst of energy and skewered the shallowness of a media-blitzed and frenzied culture with some great rock anthems.  “Zooropa” followed suit, to some extent, but also initiated a transition towards greater reflection.  “Pop” fully embodies the tiredness and cynicism of late modernity.

“Pop” contains some plaintive songs that make it probably their least familiar and least accessible album.  Quite often, however, I go back to “Pop” for days at a time and am always struck by its honesty and amazed at its bold prophetic voice, especially considering the West’s complacency in the late 1990’s.

An exception to the album’s sober tone is “The Playboy Mansion,” a brilliantly playful send-up of the superficiality of contemporary America.

The song narrates the bi-polar experience of a pop culture that generates hope of achieving super-exciting celebrity status (“it’s even better than the real thing!”).  Its eschatological promise is the blissful enjoyment of an amazing party at the Playboy mansion.  Despair is inevitable, however, once we consider the conditions for entry.

The song is written from the perspective of a person longing to get into the party.  In the first verse, he considers the shallowness of contemporary culture and its effects on how people are valued.

If coke is a mystery
Michael Jackson, history
If beauty is truth
And surgery the fountain of youth…

What am I to do?
Have I got the gifts to get me through
The gates of that mansion?

If the party’s only for the beautiful people, do I have what it takes?

In the second verse, there’s a sort of hopeless surrender to a vacuous culture and the inevitable pursuit of participation.

If O.J. is more than a drink
And a Big Mac bigger than you think
And perfume is an obsession
And talk shows, confession

What have we got to lose?
Another push and we’ll be through
The gates of that mansion.

The next two verses articulate the dynamics at work a bit more explicitly.

I never bought a lotto ticket
I never parked in anyone’s space.
The banks they’re like cathedrals
I guess casinos took their place.

Love, come on down
Don’t wake her she’ll come around.

Chance is a kind of religion
Where you’re damned for plain hard luck.
I never did see that movie
I never did read that book.

Love, come on down
Let my numbers come around.

It’s a religion in which Lady Luck is god.  You pray and just hope she comes around, looks on you with favor, and names you as one of the well-connected, the lucky, or the rich.

Such a religion involves considerable anxiety, however, because you just never know when things won’t go your way.  What if you’re exposed as not being one of the beautiful people?

Don’t know if I can hold on
Don’t know if I’m that strong.
Don’t know if I can wait that long
Till the colours come flashing
And the lights go on.

Then will there be no time for sorrow
Then will there be no time for shame
Though I can’t say why
I know I’ve got to believe.

The seduction is irresistible, however.  The promises of relief from sorrow and shame are too great and the lights are too bright.  Despite my reservations and suspicion that this is all phony, I still press on and into this reality.

The song’s end sounds the ironic note, the revelation of the ultimate criterion for participation in eschatological bliss.

We’ll go driving in that pool
It’s who you know that gets you through
The gates of the playboy mansion.

If you want to get into the party, it’s who you know.

Similar dynamics are at work in Paul’s discussion of justification by faith in Galatians.  There are the powerfully subtle dynamics and temptations of the celebrity culture.  Teachers from Judea have arrived and are “shutting out” the gentile believers, setting themselves up as arbiters of who’s in and who’s out (Gal. 4:17).  They want to be sought out and exalted, and they want the gentiles to appeal to them for entry.  So they name-drop, connecting themselves to the big shots in Jerusalem–James and Peter.

Paul, of course, will have none of it.  He devastates the emerging celebrity culture and the newly arrived missionaries’ ploy of setting up the Jerusalem leaders as “pillars” (2:9) and “those who seem to be something” (2:6).  I haven’t seen anyone exploit Galatians for a critique of an image-oriented celebrity culture, but these are the very dynamics in play.

According to Paul, it is indeed who you know.  Participation in the eschatological realities of God’s salvation in Christ is all about knowing God and being known by him (4:8-9).  God shows no favoritism (2:6) and justifies the “big shots” and the “nobodies” on the very same basis–by faith in Christ (2:15-16).

Pleasing people, courting favoritism, seeking earthly credentials for entry, or performing for others’ approval is a turn to slavery.  It’s the way of anxiety and fear.  If you live by cultivating perception, you’re a slave to keeping up appearances.  That can wear you out.

If, on the other hand, you know your enjoyment of salvation is based on knowing God and being known by him despite your failures, faults, shortcomings, and sins, you can live in serious freedom and joy.

4 thoughts on “U2’s “The Playboy Mansion” & Justification By Faith

  1. thebareden

    I re-try this cd every year or so, but still doesn’t do it for me. A few songs I like, but still missing something.

    In fact, U2 as a whole has strangely never captivated me. Unlike many bands I’ve been high on for years now, I always thought U2 did a bad job of song flow on their records. Maybe that was an intentional gesture on their part, to increase tension. But with each record, they become more disjointed in my mind. “No Line…” was incredibly dissatisfying to me. After hearing the first song on the cd (not the first single), I had great hopes. But they never materialized. Which is okay. I know it’s a matter of taste. They’re more a singles band to me, but I know folks like you know a lot more about them than me, so I’m willing to admit it could all be ignorance on my part. Regardless, their backstory has never been enough to actually make me sit down and relisten to their records.

    Weird, though: as a whole, Pop IS possibly their most realized record, in terms of a flow. I don’t like all the songs, but they all seem to congeal better than the groupings on their other records.

    ::M::

    1. timgombis

      From what I understand, M, it wasn’t fully mixed and is a bit raw and unpolished. For me, though, that’s part of it. And hey, I guess they’re an acquired taste!

  2. joey

    Good piece, Tim. My favorite Pop song is “Gone.” Many good lines but I like, “Then you discover what you thought was freedom was just greed.”

  3. hanguk859

    These posts combining U2 and theology are only making me love one of my favorite bands even more.

    By the way, have you ever read the book “U2 by U2”?
    I bought it a few years ago at the height of my U2 fandom. I think that you’d really enjoy it!

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