Using the lyrics, music and video of a selected song (example used here is “One” by the Irish group U2), students will explore the ways in which words, music and visual images interact to create meaning. Students will analyze the song/video as a work of art (literary, musical, visual) as well as examine its larger cultural/historical context.

This interdisciplinary activity appeals to multiple intelligences and can be used as a motivational or supplemental exercise in a variety of subject areas. The activity encourages student creativity and develops analytical and critical thinking skills.


The student will be able to

  1. Respond (orally or in writing) to the lyrics, music and video imagery of a selected song;
  2. Appreciate the way in which words, music and images interact to create meaning;
  3. Understand that music and videos can be significant forms of cultural expression;
  4. Recognize the interconnectedness of the arts with social studies and literature;
  5. Comprehend that there may be multiple interpretations of a work of art (including the artist’s).


CD/tape of song; lyrics; video(s) of song; CD/tape player; VCR and monitor.

Time Frame

Used as a motivational exercise, this activity can be accomplished in 1 class period; follow-up activities would extend the activity.


Suggested for high school students.


This activity can be done as a class discussion or in small groups, depending on the teacher’s preference. In this example, students will respond to lyrics, music and visual imagery (3 versions) of the song “One” by Irish rock group U2. Background information on the band and the song may be given as necessary.

  1. Distribute lyrics. Have students analyze lyrics, keeping the following questions in mind:
    • What is the main idea or message of the song? Identify its major themes.
    • What emotions are expressed?
    • What literary/poetic devices are used by the songwriter?
    • Are there any literary/historical/cultural allusions in the song?
    • How do these references contribute to the song’s meaning?
    • Does the song address any issues that are relevant to contemporary society?
  2. Play the music. Have students discuss how the addition of music changes or adds to their interpretation of the song. Consider the following:
    • Describe the musical elements such as the instruments used, the vocal style, melody, rhythm, etc.
    • Do these elements reinforce or undercut the meaning you identified earlier?
    • Is the musical style what you expected from reading the lyrics?
  3. Watch video. Have the students discuss how the visual imagery adds to or changes the meaning of the song.
    • What is the main purpose of the visual imagery?
    • Does the video tell a story?
    • Does it contain symbolic imagery?
    • How does it help set the mood of the song?
    • What kind of image of the performer(s) is created by the video? How does this image impact the meaning of the song?
  4. Several video versions, each quite different, were created for U2’s “One.” Compare the different versions. Which is the most successful interpretation of the song in your opinion and why?
  5. Ask students to respond to the question: If you were making a video of this song, what imagery would you use?


Depending on how the activity is structured, students can respond individually to the above questions in writing or orally or students can work in small groups and report their findings to the class.


Depending on choice of song, ask students to compare attitudes/themes expressed in song to a related piece of literature, art or primary source document such as a newspaper account of an historical event or issue. For example, have students research the work of artist David Wojnarowicz and the political and social issues surrounding AIDS.

Selected Recordings

This activity can be done with any song which has a video. The example used here is:

“One," by U2 on Achtung Baby (Island, 1991)


Further Reading


Flanagan, Bill, U2 At the End of the World, Delacorte Press, 1995.
U2 The Rolling Stone Files: The Ultimate Compendium of Interviews, Articles, Facts & Opinions, by the editors of Rolling Stone, Hyperion, New York, 1994.



Biography of U2
U2 formed in 1978 when Paul “Bono” Hewson (vocals; guitar; lyrics), David “The Edge” Evans (guitar; keyboards), Adam Clayton (bass) and Larry Mullen Jr. (drums) began rehearsing together as students at Dublin’s Mount Temple High School. Influenced by punk’s raw energy, the Irish rockers immediately distinguished themselves from other postpunk bands with a huge, soaring sound and songs that tackled social and spiritual subjects. Extremely compelling in live performance, U2 has become the most widely followed rock band in the world. U2 has maintained both its massive popularity and its status as one of the most adventurous and groundbreaking acts in pop music.

U2’s 1980 debut album, Boy, explored adolescent hopes and fears and rejected hard rock’s early egotism and punk’s nihilism. Bono, the Edge and Mullen were all practicing Christians and their second LP, October (1981), incorporated imagery evoking their faith. War (1983) cemented U2’s reputation as a politically conscious band. The single “Sunday Bloody Sunday” addressing “the troubles” in Northern Ireland is especially noteworthy. The Unforgettable Fire (1984) generated the group’s first American Top Forty single, an ode to American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., called “(Pride) In the Name of Love.” In 1985 Rolling Stone magazine proclaimed U2 “band of the 80s.” Also, in that year U2 made a historic appearance at Live Aid. The following year, the group joined Sting, Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, and others for the Conspiracy of Hope tour benefiting Amnesty International. In 1987 The Joshua Tree was a critical and commercial smash that topped the album chart and spawned the #1 hits “With or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” In 1988 U2 wrapped up a triumphant worldwide tour by releasing Rattle and Hum, a double album combining live tracks, new material and guest appearances by Bob Dylan and B.B. King. Both the album, considered bombastic by some, and the accompanying film documentary received mixed reviews. In 1990 U2 covered Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” for Red Hot + Blue, a compilation album benefiting AIDS research.

The band’s next LP, Achtung Baby, was recorded in 1992 in Berlin soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The album reached #1 and drew rave reviews. After the political and social slants of U2’s previous albums, Achtung Baby included more intimate songs as well as a different musical style featuring more metallic textures and funkier beats. “One,” a #10 hit from the album, is both a personal, world-weary love song and a statement about AIDS and intolerance toward homosexuals.

In 1992 U2 embarked on its Zoo TV Tour, a flashy multimedia extravaganza that contrasted with the rugged simplicity of its previous shows. Bono adopted a series of ironic personas--the leather-and-shades-sporting Fly, the demonic MacPhisto--that he used for encores and, in the Fly’s case, press appearances. In 1993, the band went back to the studio and made Zooropa. Also in that year U2 renewed its contract with Island Records for an estimated $170 million. As of mid-1995, the band was reportedly recording two albums simultaneously--a collaboration with producer Brian Eno of mostly instrumental music and one that the band described as a “rock & roll album.”

Video Information
U2 made three versions of the video for “One.”

Version 1, directed by Anton Corbijn and produced by Richard Bell - State, was made in Berlin in February 1992. The video features members of the band in drag as well as two cars--with cartoonish paintings of a nude woman and man painted on the hoods and roofs--driving around Berlin. Interspersed throughout the video is the image of a rather stern looking older man, who is in fact Bono’s father. (Bono’s mother had died while he was young and Bono was raised by his father with whom he had a fairly distant relationship. According to interviews with Bono, he and his father began getting closer around the early 1990s.)

Version 2 was directed by Mark Pellington, edited by Bob Gleason and produced by Carina Rubin - Woo Art International. It was made in New York, also in February, 1992. This version of “One” was chosen as Number 99 by the editors of Rolling Stone in their list of the 100 best rock videos of all time.

Director Mark Pellington’s video for “One"--the first (sic) of three versions made for the single--may not have gotten as much attention as the other two, but his slow-motion, out-of-focus footage of running buffalo is a quietly elegant tour de force. Its power lies in its simplicity: The piece includes no band shots and was intended as a meditative video background for U2’s live performance of the song, which deals with AIDS and intolerance toward gays. “We had done a cut of it, which we used in rehearsals,” says bassist Adam Clayton. “When the need for a video came up, we went back to it.” Built around the closing image of the beasts being herded off a cliff (a photograph by artist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992), the video was played on MTV until, according to the band, the network determined it wasn’t right for heavy rotation, and it was replaced by the other two more MTV-friendly clips. one by director Phil Joanou, the other by photographer Anton Corbijn.1

David Wojnarowicz was a controversial New York artist, prominent in the mid-to-late 1980s. His work, which has been described as media art and includes writings, performances, photo- and video-based pieces and installations, deals primarily with sexual/gender orientation and AIDS issues. Wojnarowicz died of AIDS in 1992.

In a March 4, 1993 interview with Alan Light for Rolling Stone, Bono discussed the use of David Wojnarowicz’ images in the “One” video. Bono said:

"Adam is the man who turned me on to Wojnarowicz’s work, Whatever you do now, you are in the post-AIDS age. It’s there, and you’ve got to walk through it or around it. And if a record deals with any kind of erotic subject matter, the specter of AIDS is even all the more close.

"You know, if Freud was even half-right, if sex is even close to the center of our lives, how is it that we leave it to pornographers and dum-dum guys? We leave the subject to them, and it’s reduced to titillation in the cinema, to these kind of half-baked plots. Wojnarowicz dealt with the subject seriously, he took it on. I can’t believe how people can just walk around it, you know? I’m sympathetic to Madonna in that respect, too. Whatever you think about her work, she’s actually just trying to say: “Look, here I am, and I have these feelings and ideas, and I know you do, but you’re not owning up. I will."2.

Version 3 is considered the most “MTV-friendly.” It was directed by Phil Joanou and produced by Ned O’Hanlon - Dreamchaser Productions in New York in March 1992. This video uses the standard supermodels and banks on Bono’s sex appeal, featuring close-ups of the tortured-looking singer in a bar drinking and smoking cigarettes.


1 U2 The Rolling Stone Files: The Ultimate Compendium of Interviews, Articles, Facts & Opinions, by the editors of Rolling Stone, Hyperion, New York, 1994, pp. 204-205.
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2 U2 The Rolling Stone Files: The Ultimate Compendium of Interviews, Articles, Facts & Opinions, by the editors of Rolling Stone, Hyperion, New York, 1994, pp. 197-198.
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