With Or Without U2?
by Jon Lamoreaux Have you heard that U2 recently launched their Songs of Innocence and Experience world tour? What am I saying, of course you have. Everyone knows every move U2 ever makes. It’s a fortunate
by Jon Lamoreaux
Have you heard that U2 recently launched their Songs of Innocence and Experience world tour? What am I saying, of course you have. Everyone knows every move U2 ever makes. It’s a fortunate (or unfortunate depending on where you stand) byproduct of being The Biggest Band In The World (capitals are necessary when discussing an official title, as opposed to someone’s personal opinion). It’s important world news, like wars, famines, and gender transitioning.
U2 have had a rough last few years from an artistic standpoint, while also having made more money than most of the small countries Bono fights so hard to bring aid to. Their last album, No Line On The Horizon, back in 2009, took many years to produce and endured many false starts before limping to an underwhelming release, thus becoming their lowest seller in many moons. However, the adjoining 360° Tour is the most successful in history, grossing over $730 million dollars. In the ensuing years, the boys took serious stock of their place in the current musical landscape, as any CEO of a big business with quotas to meet would do in this situation. Surely, they asked must have asked themselves what many listeners have been asking for the last 20 years – does U2 even matter anymore?
From there they reached down into their Guinness-soaked souls for inspiration and what they came back with were their childhood influences. No Line was a failed attempt at artistic adventure with an eye toward the future. 2014’s Songs of Innocence is a decided look back, not a common practice for U2, except for maybe the dustbowl reverence of 1988’s Rattle and Hum. While any longstanding fan of U2 could have guessed what bands turned them on in the beginning (Kraftwerk, Simple Minds, The Stranglers, etc), Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton finally decided to produce an entire album paying homage to those artists, and adolescence in general. The sweetness of hearing a song that changes the rest of your life (“The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”), the loss of a parent (“Iris (Hold Me Close)”), reflections from the Dublin streets you grew up on (“Cedarwood Road”) and many others are put to strong melodies with a hint of post-punk angularity. Songs of Innocence is an excellent rock album. Unfortunately, the screaming din surrounding it caused few to give it much of a shot.
It all started about nine months before its release when what was meant to be the Danger Mouse produced first single, “Invisible”, flopped out of the gate. Who can forget their grand, rooftop performance of the track on the opening night of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. “Invisible” is mysteriously absent from the released version of Songs of Innocence, as if the band would prefer to ignore it ever happened, which is an odd move for a band with a fan base so huge, most of whom will eat up just about anything U2 produces. Granted, “Invisible’s” bouncy groove would sound out of place compared to Innocence’s rugged electricity, which is probably why it was relegated to a B side on the deluxe release, but fans would rather it was there than not.
The story goes that more tweaking took place after “Invisible’s” chilly reception. How does The Biggest Band In The World stave off further rejection? The teflon U2 brand simply can’t afford to take more hits like they have the last few years. And then Apple came to the rescue with a plan (referred to by some as “The Miracle”) and $100 million dollars. Songs of Innocence was born and you owned it, whether you wanted it or not.
Much ink has been spilled over the reckless, intrusive, big-brother-is-watching emergence of the Innocence album. According to Bono, he understood that the album would hang in the cloud for anyone who wanted it to go get it easily. Apple actually installing the album in your iTunes freely was a bridge too far, and not part of the plan. All hell broke loose. People practically rioted, governments nearly collapsed, and iTunes users were most definitely offended. To this I say – get over yourself.
This whole argument that a large corporation (Apple) shouldn’t be allowed to immorally just stick customers with content they didn’t order whether they want it or not is a weak one in this case. So, you got a free U2 album? Do you not know where the delete button is? Does the concept of free offend your sensibilities? Do you not have other music in your iTunes you can listen to? Don’t you probably already have some U2 in there? Is it causing a virus that’s eating the rest of your music? Of course not. Face it, you just want to hate U2. Katy Perry doing the same thing wouldn’t have elicited this much hysteria. Apple could have said “all our iTunes users will receive a hot new free song (or album) every week that we think you’ll like” and had the disturbance welcomed with open arms, even praised. “How cool is Apple that every week they send me new music for free!” the chants would ring. Instead, because U2 have built themselves up as The Biggest Band In The World, they get punched in the nuts for it. It’s really just blind bigotry on the listener’s side. In this culture of Comments Section critics, the haters just wanna hate.
So, how did U2 get here? Any band that ascends to their heights with as much pointed determination will attract dissenters like barnacle on a boat. That’s to be expected. No band can please everyone, no matter how hard Bono tries. But, it didn’t used to be this bad. Their first foray into shattering expectations (and overcoming writer’s block), 1991’s Achtung Baby, was met with universal acclaim. The album was a masterpiece, the ZOO TV tour a landmark, the singles iconic. Nobody hates that period, not even casual U2 fans. It’s probably the release of 1997’s Pop and the PopMart tour that planted seeds of doubt about the band’s motivations. Where once was Springsteen levels of earnest patriotism was now the cynical heart of consumerism’s worst tendencies. What wasn’t completely realized is that they were telling the joke, not the butts of it. Emotional grandiosity had always been U2’s stock in trade. Literal, empty grandiosity wasn’t their bag and suddenly skepticism took root in the hearts and minds of listeners. Truthfully, they were trendsetters when you look back on it. They sold cynicism about 10 years before the rest of the world generally calcified on its own.
Pop may not be essential, but it’s a decent little album. The good songs are really really good, while the bad are utterly forgettable. Here’s an idea, keep what you like and delete the rest.
While the spectacle of Pop is eating itself alive, Bono is taking on the world’s biggest problems. His four biggest charity endeavors, ONE Campaign, DATA, (RED), and EDUN have provided around a billion dollars to fight the AIDS epidemic in Africa. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize no less than three times. In a recent statement, he declared that AIDS being passed from mother to baby in the womb will be eradicated in 10 years if they stay on track. And yet, he is vilified for this work by sarcastic couch potatoes who think he should shut up and sing the hits. In fact, it’s this tireless charity work that seems to get under the skin of people the most. Where does this vitriol come from? What behaviors do people want the rich and famous to exhibit? Who would they rather be on the front lines fighting these fights? A lobbyist? A politician? A salaried employee of a major corporation with an agenda and a bottomline to consider? Why are we annoyed when famous people leverage that fame to fight for good causes? Maybe it’s charity fatigue. But, how can we fault people for doing the work we don’t (or won’t) do?
It’s a Kardashian world and we’re all struggling through it. Propaganda of any sort just joins the rest of life’s noise creating a toxic cacophony most of us just want to run away from. And there is A LOT of noise today. But, U2 don’t play that game. They put their money and power where Bono’s mouth is. In a world of phonies and strawman celebrities, if anything we should be glad there are artists out there fighting the good fight. No-one has to listen. No-one has to like them. You don’t have to see them in concert this year and you can freely delete the album they gave you. But, we should give them the respect they’ve earned. They try very hard to make their fans happy and our world a better place (versus most celebrities who make themselves happy and their own world’s better).
So, the answer to the question, “does U2 even matter anymore?” is Yes. Maybe more than ever.
Jon Lamoreaux hosts the weekly music-themed podcast The Hustle which can be found at http://thehustlepodcast.podomatic.com/ or on iTunes, tunein, Stitcher, Facebook, or wherever you access your podcasts.