This song can be interpreted many ways. Bono, who wrote the lyrics, has always been a bit vague, saying it is "about relationships." Here are some interpretations:
1) The song could relate to reunification of Germany, where the band recorded it.
2) It could be about the dissolution of The Edge's marriage to Aislinn O'Sullivan. The couple was having problems in their relationship and split soon after the sessions. Bono was the best man at their wedding.
3) It could be about the band putting their differences aside and coming together to make the album.
4) Bono may have been writing about his good friend, the Irish painter Guggi, who was having girl trouble.
5) The song could represent a conversation between an AIDS victim and his father.
The band wrote this song in Berlin after toiling there for months trying to record Achtung Baby. The Berlin Wall had just fallen, so the band was hoping to find inspiration from the struggle and change that was coming to the region. Instead, they found themselves at odds with each other and unable to do much productive work.
This song came suddenly - the bones of it written in about 30 minutes by most accounts, and it rejuvenated the band creatively. When they left Berlin, they had little to show for it except for this song, but they were able to complete the album back home in Ireland with this song as the centerpiece. Says The Edge: "It was a pivotal song in the recording of the album, the first breakthrough in what was an extremely difficult set of sessions." (From Q Magazine, September 2005.)
Proceeds from the single were donated to AIDS research, which was stated on the liner notes of the single. Also printed on the notes was this statement: "The image on the cover is a photograph by the American artist David Wojnarowicz, depicting how Indians hunted buffalo by causing them to run off cliffs. Wojnarowicz identifies himself and ourselves with the buffalo, pushed into the unknown by forces we cannot control or even understand. Wojnarowicz is an activist artist and writer whose work has created controversy recently through its uncompromising depiction of the artist's homosexuality, his infection by the H.I.V. virus and the political crisis surrounding AIDS."
The Edge came up with the guitar track while working on "Mysterious Ways
." Once he came up with this guitar part, they quickly started writing "One."
The message of acceptance was welcomed by members of the gay community, many of whom interpreted it as a son telling a father he is dying of AIDS.
Three different videos were made, each interpreting the song differently. The first, directed by Mark Pellington, shows a buffalo running in a field. The second, which was mostly seen in Europe, featured U2 in drag. The third, shown mostly in the US, is built around Bono reflecting over a cigarette.
Director and photographer Anton Corbijn was at the helm for the video that featured the band in drag. He told The Guardian September 24, 2005: "I had been working with U2 as a photographer for 10 years at this stage and we'd had our ups and downs. I'd done one video for them in 1984 for 'Pride.' It was a disaster and no one ever saw it. It took them eight years to give me another chance. I really wanted to put a lot of effort into it to prove myself to them as a director. I even hand-painted the cars that appear in the video myself. I themed the whole thing around the notion of 'one' although I don't think that's what Bono was actually singing about. That's why I filmed it in Berlin because the wall had just come down. And I filmed the band performing in a circle like a single unit. I showed Bono's dad at one end of a seesaw to suggest that on your own you are not always balanced. I liked Bono's father very much but they had a very complex relationship.
I think it meant a lot for them to appear together. These were all my own ideas but U2 are very much a band who like to meet up and talk about things. There are always a lot of meetings with them! But they cleared all the ideas, including the one about them appearing in drag. Later though, they decided that some of the proceeds from the single would go to Aids charities. They became nervous that the drag element in the video might link Aids to the homosexual community in a negative way. So they dropped the video and got someone else to film something.
It was so painful for me at the time. They replaced it with a video of Bono in a bar surrounded by models, which I particularly didn't like. But once the song had died in the charts a few months later they got MTV to start running my video instead. That's why I like working with U2: they have stayed very loyal to me, which is rare in music."
According to The Guardian, Bono's father, Robert Hewson, appeared in the song's video. He later complained to his son that he hadn't been paid.
This has charted on three other occasions on the Billboard Hot 100 apart from U2's original #10 placing:
2006 - Mary J. Blige and U2 (#86)
2009 - Adam Lambert (#82)
2010 - Glee Cast (#60)
This was voted best single in the 1992 Rolling Stone
reader's poll. U2 also won for best album, band, and comeback of the year. In 2003, it was voted the best song ever by Q
Adam - Dewsbury, England
In 2005, Bono got involved in the "One" campaign, which tried to convince the US government to give an additional 1% of its budget to help poor regions in Africa. On the Vertigo tour, fans who signed up had their names displayed on video screens when U2 played this.
Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen performed this at the "MTV Rock n Roll Inaugural Ball" for Bill Clinton in 1993 with Michael Stipe and Mike Mills from R.E.M. The impromptu group became known as "Automatic Baby," a combination of album titles Automatic For The People and Achtung Baby.
The "buffalo" video directed by Mark Pellington was comprised of projections he made for the Zoo TV tour. In a Songfacts interview with Pellington
, he explained: "They had made a video for the song already - that Anton Corbijn had done - of them in drag, and they weren't really crazy about it. So, they released mine, and it was out there for a while. It was a very 'anti-video': no band, a slow art piece. And they made a third version of the video with Bono singing in a bar.
It always was interesting to me to have more than one video for a song. I don't know why bands don't do that more."
Pellington later worked on the 2007 film U2 3D
On the Popmart
tour in Mexico City, while the Edge played the intro Bono said, "This one goes out to a mate of ours, a great mate, a great singer, we're sorry, we're sorry, for Michael Hutchence."
Bill - Johnstown, PA
On their 2001-2002 tour, a list of victims of the September 11 attacks was projected on a screen while they performed this.
In 2006, after Bank of America merged with MBNA, BoA held a corporate conference where Ethan Chandler, who managed a New York branch, performed a new version of this song celebrating the merger. Sample lyric: "And we've got Bank One on the run. What's in your wallet? It's not Capital One." Thankfully, someone leaked the video and it ended up on YouTube, where you can see it in all its glory
. Watch for the standing ovation at the end.
Mary J. Blige sang this with Bono in 2006 for a benefit for victims of hurricane Katrina. Blige then recorded it with Bono and U2 for her album Reminisce.
In a March 2007 poll carried out by The Tony Fenton Show on the Irish radio station Today FM, this was voted the Best Irish Single Ever.
Bono explained the meaning of this song to Rolling Stone
in 2005: "It's a father-and-son story. I tried to write about someone I knew who was coming out and was afraid to tell his father. It's a religious father and son... I have a lot of gay friends, and I've seen them screwed up from unloving family situations, which just are completely anti-Christian. If we know anything about God, it's that God is love. That's part of the song. And then it's also about people struggling to be together, and how difficult it is to stay together in this world, whether you're in a band or a relationship."
Bertrand - Paris, France
The line "One life, with each other, sisters, brothers" was voted the UK's favorite song lyric in a 2006 poll by music channel VH1.
Anyone thinking of using this at their wedding might want to reconsider. "'One' is not about oneness, it's about difference," Bono points out in the book U2 by U2. "It is not the old hippie idea of 'Let's all live together.' It is a much more punk rock concept. It's anti-romantic: 'We are one, but we're not the same. We get to carry each other.' It's a reminder that we have no choice. I'm still disappointed when people hear the chorus line as 'we've got to' rather than 'we get to carry each other.' Because it is resigned, really. It's not: 'Come on everybody, let's vault over the wall.' Like it or not, the only way out of here is if I give you a leg up the wall and you pull me after you. There's something very unromantic about that. The song is a bit twisted, which is why I could never figure out why people want it at their weddings. I have certainly met a hundred people who've had it at their weddings. I tell them, 'Are you mad? It's about splitting up!'"
The Edge offers his take: "The lyric was the first in a new, more intimate style. It's two ideas, essentially. On one level it's a bitter, twisted, vitriolic conversation between two people who've been through some nasty, heavy stuff: 'We hurt each other, then we do it again.' But on another level there's the idea that 'we get to carry each other.' 'Get to' is the key. 'Got to' would be too obvious and platitudinous. 'Get to' suggests it is our privilege to carry one another. It puts everything in perspective and introduces the idea of grace. Still, I wouldn't have played it at any wedding of mine."
This was featured in the trailer for the 2000 Nicolas Cage movie The Family Man. It was not used in the movie itself.