A Rhetorical Analysis of U2's 'Sunday Bloody Sunday'

A Sample Critical Essay

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In this critical essay composed in 2000, student Mike Rios offers a rhetorical analysis of the song "Sunday Bloody Sunday" by the Irish rock band U2. The song is the opening track of the group's third studio album, War (1983). The lyrics to "Sunday Bloody Sunday" can be found on U2's official website. Read the essay below.

A Rhetorical Analysis of "Sunday Bloody Sunday"

"The Rhetoric of U2's 'Sunday Bloody Sunday'"

By Mike Rios

U2 have always produced rhetorically powerful songs. From the spiritually driven "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For" to the blatantly sexual "If You Wear That Velvet Dress," audiences have been persuaded to examine their religious doubts as well as to give in to their emotions. Never a band content in sticking to one style, their music has evolved and taken many forms. Their more recent songs show a level of complexity so far unsurpassed in music, drawing heavily on the ambiguity of paradox in songs like "So Cruel" while evoking sensory overload with the aid of the list structure in "Numb." But one of the most powerful songs dates back to their early years, when their style was Senecan-like, seemingly simpler and more direct. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" stands out as one of U2’s finest songs. Its rhetoric is successful because of its simplicity, not despite it.

Written in part as a response to the events of January 30, 1972 when the Paratroop Regiment of the British Army killed 14 people and wounded another 14 during a civil rights demonstration in Derry, Ireland, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" takes hold of the listener instantly. It is a song speaking against not only the British Army, but the Irish Republican Army as well. Bloody Sunday, as it has come to be known, was only one act in a cycle of violence claiming many innocent lives. The Irish Republican Army was certainly contributing to the bloodshed. The song begins with Larry Mullen, Jr. beating his drums in a martial rhythm that connotes visions of soldiers, of tanks, of guns. Although not original, it is a successful use of musical irony, enveloping a song of protest in the sounds usually associated with those it is protesting against. The same can be said of its use in the cadence-like foundations of "Seconds" and "Bullet the Blue Sky." Having grabbed hold of the listener’s attention, The Edge and Adam Clayton join in with lead and bass guitars respectively. The riff is as close to concrete as sound can get. It is massive, almost solid. Then again, it has to be. U2 is endeavoring upon a subject and theme wide in scope. The message carries a great deal of significance. They must connect with every ear, every mind, every heart. The pounding beat and the heavy riff transport the listener to the scene of the killings, appealing to pathos. A violin glides in and out to add a softer, delicate touch. Caught in the musical attack, it reaches out to the listener, letting him or her know that the song’s grip will not strangle, but the firm hold must be kept nonetheless.

Before any words are sung, an ethical appeal has taken shape. The persona in this song is Bono himself. The audience knows he and the rest of the band are Irish and that, although not personally familiar with the event that gives the song its title, they have seen other acts of violence while growing up. Knowing the band’s nationality, the audience trusts them as they sing about the struggle in their homeland.

Bono’s first line makes use of aporia. "I can’t believe the news today," he sings. His words are the same words spoken by those who have learned of yet another attack in the name of a great cause. They express the confusion such violence leaves in its aftermath. The murdered and the wounded are not the only victims. Society suffers as some individuals continue to try and comprehend while others take arms and join in the so-called revolution, continuing the vicious cycle.

Epizeuxis is common in songs. It helps to make songs memorable. In "Sunday Bloody Sunday," epizeuxis is a necessity. It is necessary because the message against violence must be drilled into the audience. With this end in mind, epizeuxis is modified to diacope throughout the song. It is found in three different instances. The first is the erotesis "How long, How long must we sing this song? How long?" In asking this question, Bono not only replaces the pronoun I with we (which serves to draw the members of the audience closer to him and to themselves), he also implies the answer. The instinctive reply is that we should not have to sing this song any longer. In fact, we should not have to sing this song at all. But the second time he asks the question, we are not so sure of the answer. It ceases to be erotesis and functions as epimone, again for emphasis. Furthermore, it is somewhat akin to ploce, in that its essential meaning changes.

Before repeating the "How long?" question, Bono uses enargia to vividly recreate violence. The images of "broken bottles under children’s feet [and] bodies strewn across a dead end street" appeal to pathos in an effort to disturb the listeners. They are not disturbing because they are too horrible to imagine; they are disturbing because they do not have to be imagined. These images appear too often on television, in newspapers. These images are real.

But Bono cautions against acting solely based on the pathos of a situation. To keep his pathetic appeal from working too well, Bono sings that he "won’t heed the battle call." A metaphor for refusing the temptation to avenge the dead or hurt, this phrase conveys the strength needed in doing so. He employs antirrhesis to support his statement. If he allows himself to be seduced into becoming a rebel for the sake of revenge, his back will be put "against the wall." He will have no further choices in life. Once he picks up a gun he will have to use it. It is also an appeal to logos, weighing the consequences of his actions beforehand. When he repeats "How long?" the audience realizes that it has become a real question. People are still being killed. People are still killing. It is a fact made all too clear on November 8, 1987. As a crowd gathered at Enniskillen town in Fermanagh, Ireland, to observe Remembrance Day, a bomb placed by the IRA was detonated killing 13 people. This sparked the now infamous dehortatio during a performance of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" that same evening. "Fuck the revolution," Bono declared, reflecting his anger and the anger of his fellow Irishmen at another senseless act of violence.

The second diacope is "tonight we can be as one. Tonight, tonight." Utilizing hysteron proteron to emphasize "tonight" and therefore the immediacy of the situation, U2 offers a solution, a way in which peace can be restored. Clearly an appeal to pathos, it evokes the emotional comfort gained by human contact. The paradox is easily dismissed by the hopefulness resonating in the words. Bono tells us it is possible to become one, to unite. And we believe him--we need to believe him.

The third diacope is also the major epimone in the song. "Sunday, bloody Sunday" is, after all, the central image. The use of diacope differs in this phrase. By placing bloody within the two Sundays, U2 demonstrates how significant this day is. To many, thinking of the date will forever be linked with remembering the brutality inflicted on that date. Surrounding bloody with Sunday, U2 forces the audience to experience, at least in some way, the link. In doing so, they provide a manner by which the audience can further unite.

U2 employs various other figures to persuade their audience. In the erotesis, "there’s many lost, but tell me who has won?" U2 extends the battle metaphor. There is an example of paronomasia in lost. In relation to the battle metaphor, which is now the struggle to unite, lost refers to the losers, those who have fallen victim to the violence by either partaking in it or experiencing it. Lost also refers to those who do not know whether to refrain or take part in the violence, and do not know which path to follow. Paronomasia is used earlier in "dead end street." Here dead means physically the final portion of the street. It also means lifeless, like the bodies strewn across it. The two sides of these words express the two sides of the Irish struggle. On one hand there is the idealistic cause for freedom and independence. On the other there is the result of trying to attain these goals through terrorism: bloodshed.

The battle metaphor continues when Bono sings "the trenches dug within our hearts." Appealing to emotion again, he compares souls with battlefields. The paronomasia of "torn apart’ in the next line supports the metaphor by illustrating the casualties (both those physically torn and hurt by bombs and bullets, and those torn and separated by allegiances to the revolution). The list of victims is displayed as a tricolon to suggest no importance of one over any other. "Mother’s children, brothers, sisters," they are all equally cherished. They are all also equally vulnerable, likely to fall victim to the often random attacks.

Finally, the last stanza contains a variety of rhetorical devices. Like the paradoxical solution suggested in the opening stanza, the paradox of fact being fiction and television reality is not difficult to accept. To this day there remains controversy over the shootings that occurred more than twenty-five years ago. And with both major protagonists in the violence distorting the truth for their own sake, fact is certainly capable of being manipulated into fiction. The terrible images of lines 5 and 6 support the television paradox. This phrase and the antithesis "we eat and drink while tomorrow they die" add to the sense of perplexity and urgency. There is also a trace of irony in enjoying basic human elements while the next day someone else dies. It causes the listener to ask him or herself, who are they? It causes him or her to wonder if it could be a neighbor, or a friend, or a family member that dies next. Many probably think of those who have died as statistics, numbers in a growing list of murdered. The juxtaposition of we and they confronts the tendency to distance oneself from unknown victims. It asks that they be considered as people, not numbers. Another opportunity for unification is thus presented. Besides uniting with each other, we must also unite with the memories of those slain.

As the song heads towards the closing diacope, one last metaphor is employed. "To claim the victory Jesus won," sings Bono. The words immediately connote the blood sacrifice particular to so many cultures. The listener hears "victory," but also remembers that Jesus had to die in order to achieve it. This makes an appeal to pathos, stirring religious emotions. Bono wants the listener to know that it is not an easy journey he is pleading for them to embark on. It is difficult, but well worth the price. The final metaphor also appeals to ethos by linking their struggle to that of Jesus, and therefore making it morally right.

"Sunday Bloody Sunday" remains as powerful today as it was when U2 first performed it. The irony of its longevity is that it is still relevant. U2 would no doubt rather they did not have to sing it anymore. As it stands, they will probably have to continue singing it.

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Nordquist, Richard. "A Rhetorical Analysis of U2's 'Sunday Bloody Sunday'." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/rhetorical-analysis-u2s-sunday-bloody-sunday-1690718. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). A Rhetorical Analysis of U2's 'Sunday Bloody Sunday'. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/rhetorical-analysis-u2s-sunday-bloody-sunday-1690718 Nordquist, Richard. "A Rhetorical Analysis of U2's 'Sunday Bloody Sunday'." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/rhetorical-analysis-u2s-sunday-bloody-sunday-1690718 (accessed March 24, 2023).