1993: In a fit of artistic fervour, U2 write, record and mix a batch of new songs whilst on the road with the Zoo TV Tour. However the sessions are more fruitful than expected. The EP becomes their eighth LP. On release it fails to spawn any hit singles. The band themselves are unhappy with the finished product. That project is called Zooropa.
Zooropa would contain a series of startling pronouncements. Focusing on mass media over-saturation and the effects of technology on the human psyche, to this day the album speaks to the moral ambiguities of our lives online. 1992 saw the internet opened up. Congress passed the Scientific and Advanced-Technology Act – allowing the research communities who had historically used the network to connect with bodies who were not strictly educational.
The internet of Zooropa‘s day is so far from our modern conception. Yet by foresight or providence, U2 caught a glimpse of the future.
‘Babyface’ is a study in obsession. A man sits alone, watching a girl on a tv screen. Our narrator feels he knows his idol on screen: though she is none the wiser. While Bono envisioned a loner sat in the dark rewinding video tape, this is behaviour now seen in the millions of fans who, day on day, follow the lives of their favourite creators. Fans spend every day with their Youtube heroes if they want. They are their best friend, and they don’t even know it.
The crux of the song is that the screen creates the illusion of intimacy, a concept that is entirely applicable to Youtube.The illusion of familiarity is pervasive: like they knew you, and you them. You can follow the minutiae of their life at your leisure, with many Youtubers vlogging daily. You watch them succeed and take some small token of pride that your attention helped put them there.
However like ‘Babyface’, Youtube hero worship has an inherent darkness.
The narrator returns from work at night, to ‘turn on’ the screen. All he wants to do is see his idol. The implication being that he is disinterested in his own life, disconnected from his own reality. He lives vicariously through her.
Youtube fandom is its own kind of obsession, normalised and promoted by the site and its creators. Fans absorb every tit-bit about the lives of the people on screen: their love-life, family, what they like and what they don’t. They notice when they are off-colour and console them in the comments, or cheer on their hard work and effort with enthusiastic feedback. They bemoan any perceived slip in their upload schedule. They discuss them on dedicated forums, and fill Tumblr pages with fan created media.
All on-screen connections are one-sided, but vlogging suggests a deeper level of intimacy. Vlogging recreates the feeling of confession, of an old friend talking to you and only you. The celebrity culture of gossip mags was always one step removed: vloggers literally invite you to look around their bedrooms. But they’ll never know their audience.
‘Babyface’ painted a vivid portrait of someone whose obsession with the live of others had precluded his own. It remains a fascinating song, and as the years roll on, the canvas comes closure to mirror image.