I’ve listened to U2’s “Song of Innocence” since it was made available for free from Apple, and it’s a good album. It’s not the five-star “classic” album that Rolling Stone says it is but it’s good. In some ways, I think “How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” was a much, much better record, but I think Rolling Stone is trying to do their part to make people care about rock music at a time when rock music is in decline. Hip-hop, pop, and even country rule the airwaves — and record sales for the most part. U2 knows this, Apple knows this, and so does Rolling Stone, but despite sluggish album sales for acts like U2, they sure pack ’em in when they tour. So why not create a media buzz about a good record to make U2 relevant again. Their earnestness is certainly front and center (as it usually is), but they kind of sink into a style over substance trap that’s a hallmark of many performers today — but at least they are honest enough to parade that style in a commercial for an iPhone.
This commercial has many things that make me annoyed with U2 (even though they are one of my favorite bands): excessive posing, exaggerated musical instrument playing, and too much Bono-ing. It seems they are trying too hard to show how authentic they are about the music, but really they are in front of the camera acting as rock stars for a product, or products. One product is, of course, U2. The other is the iPhone. For a band that used to call into question hyper-consumerism and bemoan the reduction of art into commerce (see the “Zooropa” and “Pop” years), they have done an about-face and embraced the very thing they used to critique. Did they sell out? Not really. U2 has displayed many personas, but they’ve always been comfortably nestled in the bosom of capitalism — but not always corporate capitalism. For most of their career, U2 have been able to maintain their roots as earnest do-gooders who use their fame and some of their fortune to try to make the world a better place. If they were Beltway politicos, they’d probably be limousine liberals. But because they are rock stars, they can attend to matters of state as world citizens, and keep their day job as one of the most popular bands in the world.
I suppose because Bono is the lead singer, and is usually leading the political charge, I should hesitate to lump the other members into his causes. But as far as I know, The Edge, Larry Mullen, Jr., and Adam Clayton have never said no to Bono’s political agenda. While young people nowadays are probably more politically engaged than young people were in the ’80s, it’s difficult for U2 to plant a white flag on the stage and scream “No war” and not seem like a throwback to the Cold War era. Their message is certainly one that people would embrace, but the messenger looks too much like your cool older uncle for them to connect with. I remember seeing Joan Baez at the “Human Rights Now! Tour in 1988 in Oakland warbling her way through a cover of Tears for Fears’ “Shout” and just laughing at how ridiculous she sounded and looked. It’s not that I thought Baez was stupid, or that her message wasn’t important, it’s just that she was trying recapture the spirit of Berkeley in 1964 in front of a sea of people who weren’t even born in the mid-60s.
U2 is in a similar position. However, instead of delivering a series of politically charged messages, they are preening on a youthful stage where many in their teens and 20s will likely roll their eyes at how hard they are trying to be relevant as rock stars; a species that seems to be on its way to extinction.