A few days ago, U2 released a new song. It is not that good.
Thirty years ago, U2 released Achtung Baby. It was very good.
A lot has happened to Bono and the boys and how they are viewed by the world since they released their seventh album on November 18, 1991. They could do no wrong, they could do some things wrong, they could do no wrong again, they could do stuff and it was fine, they could do one major thing wrong and then they could mainly do things and not many people really cared anymore. Such is life for a band that possibly overstays their welcome. Achieving and maintaining longevity is a tough business, especially when you operate within a business model that is comprised of taking yourself possibly too seriously and also taking risks. In hindsight, it should have been obvious that U2 wasn’t the kind of band that would age well but in order to subscribe to that line of thinking, you would need to ignore how many different times that they were the biggest band in the world and seemed unstoppable. That’s some tricky mental gymnastics.
Those mental gymnastics would be even harder if not for the Apple incident of 2014. Once that happened, the fall of U2 escalated fairly quickly.
A year hadn’t even passed since we as a nation, let alone an entire world, were still on good terms with U2. They had won a Golden Globe for their song “Ordinary Love” from the movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and that was cool. “Ordinary Love” was a good song. Then they were the first musical guest on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, playing a song on the roof of 30 Rock and then an acoustic version of “Ordinary Love” in the studio, to which we responded, cool. Because at that point, U2 was still at least kind of cool.
Fast forward a year and U2 became a punch-line, a threat to our way of life. U2 was now a band that no one was cool with! It wasn’t just because their new album, Songs of Innocence, was supposedly not that good. No! It was because it forcefully invaded our iTunes account. They snuck into our cloud while we were sleeping! Our cloud! That’s where we keep…things! And now one of those things was this effin’ new U2 album. It was decidedly NOT COOL and now U2 was also not cool.
As we all turned on U2, we should have been wondering why it was really happening. Was it really because of the whole sneaky album drop thing? Come one now. People do sneaky shit all the time and we don’t get all that fired up about it. Someone is probably doing something sneaky right now and you could care less.
The phone thing felt different though and I guess it was partly because that particular sneaky act was orchestrated by U2 and it seemed like the band had finally gone too far. They had flirted with crossing the line for years but then they went and did it. Frankly, we had had enough. Enough of Bono’s lectures! Enough of The Edge’s quietness! Enough of those two other dudes who have the audacity to not even have nicknames! Yeah, U2 used to be cool. But so did fanny packs and MySpace. Times change and so had our nation’s opinion on U2.
However, some clarification is in order.
The whole stealth album drop was not U2’s fault. If it was anyone’s fault, it was Apples. Apple deserved the lion’s share of the blame for the whole situation for thinking that A) a U2 album was still an eagerly anticipated thing and B) we’d be okay with such a blatant invasion of our privacy. It was Apple and not U2 who seemed to ignore the fact that any recent conversations at the time about the Cloud involved Jennifer’s Lawrence’s boobs and it was Apple who didn’t realize that everyone being able to see said boobs meant that Cloud security, or lack thereof, was a very real thing and something people were concerned about. If the security of something is an issue, then the last thing that should happen is the stewards of this security flaunting the flimsiness of that security. Apple was at fault, not U2, who were just the ones who answered Apple’s call first. If U2 had passed, who’s to say the album in question wouldn’t have belonged to Taylor Swift or someone else. The artist was just a patsy and our collective rage was grossly misdirected.
Yet part of the problem and part of the reason U2 became the face of the whole debacle was that U2 had been flirting with irrelevance for a while leading up to the album sneak attack. Prior to Songs of Innocence, their last album was 2009’s No Line on the Horizon, which was a blip on the radar if it was even that. “Ordinary Love” might have been a good song, but it wasn’t the kind of song that made people long for more U2. If anything, it was a song that made people want to reminisce about U2, find their old copy of Achtung Baby, and blast “Mysterious Ways.” The reality is that at the time, people weren’t out in the streets clamoring for new music from U2.
And this happens to the best of them. By 2014 U2 had unfortunately moved on to the Nostalgia Act phase of their career. And there is no shame in that. U2 released their first album, Boy, in 1980. 1980 was 34 years before 2014. 34 years! I’d say that’s a decent enough career. I’d actually say 10 years is a decent enough career. U2 staying together for over 30 years is an accomplishment in its own right. It’s enough of an accomplishment that they can get by on it, still get free drinks because of it, and most importantly, don’t really need to trouble themselves with the young band’s arduous task of releasing new material. Let the kids toil away in the studio, U2. You guys should be touring selectively, a month or so here, a month or so there, selling out stadiums, playing “intimate” theater shows, being considered for the Super Bowl Half Time show, and if you are looking to spend some time in front of a computer, going through your archives and selecting recordings of live shows to be released as live albums. A new album isn’t necessary. It’s not necessary for you to record, for us to enjoy, for the charts to ignore.
In 2014, U2 was at the stage of the game where new material has the ability to hurt a career much more so than help a career and that definitely seemed to be at least partially what happened. Songs of Innocence wasn’t a bummer because it was a bad album or because it landed in our possession sans our permission. It was a bummer because no one asked for it, no one needed it and ultimately, no one really wanted it except for maybe a handful of people out there, still longing for new music from the Irish legends.
Regardless of who was exactly to blame for the Apple incident, the dust-up that was caused by Songs of Innocence’s release was not a victimless crime by any means with U2’s legacy taking the biggest hit. We very much live in the present and history is just that, history. I feel like our collective recall stretches all the way back to a week ago and anything before that can only be recalled with the assistance of photographs and resources like Facebook and/or Instagram. U2 went from being a legendary rock band with a decorated history to old has-beens in the span of an afternoon.
Let’s be honest, that’s kind of unfair. Thirty years of awesomeness and occasional almost awesomeness and only brief bouts of insufferably shouldn’t be totally swept under the rug just because of one unfortunate misstep. Something my dad always said that I generally subscribe to is “one ‘, oh, shit’ ruins a whole slew of ‘attaboys.'” It’s tough but fair but shouldn’t always be applicable, certainly not with U2. They had stockpiled a war chest of attaboys and for that chest to be demolished because of one ‘oh, shit,’ moment, albeit a pretty decent-sized one doesn’t add up.
U2 used to be amazing, a transcendent rock band unafraid of taking chances and embarking on various transformations. Yet after that day in 2014 when their album appeared on people’s phones without their permission, so much of that seemed to have been forgotten. U2 didn’t seem to be viewed in the same way again. In the years that have followed, they have gradually descended into the unfriendly and dark pit of irrelevance despite having multiple decades of massive relevance on their resume. Fairly or not, their past achievements seemed to have been largely wiped off the board and so much of it was because of one phone-based blunder.
Some years removed from 2014 has helped improve our opinion and view of U2 some though. And that makes sense. U2 released three landmark rock albums: The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, and All That You Can’t Leave Behind, with each one representing a re-boot of sorts for the band. Most bands can’t even put together one landmark album, let alone three. U2 are one of those bands that you can’t ignore on classic rock radio and their songs will always be ones you can sing along to. Calling them The Biggest Band in the World wasn’t an understatement; it wasn’t a joke. It was true and more impressively, it was true at different points during three different decades.
I was lucky enough to see U2 once. It was during their Pop Mart tour and was at Foxboro Stadium, due south of Boston, and where the Patriots played before it was torn down and replaced with Gillette Stadium. To this day it was the best Big Time Concert I have ever seen and I don’t think any show will knock it from that spot in the rankings. There was a forty-foot lemon for crying out loud! And at one point, it moved to the center of the floor seats, opened up and U2 emerged to play a few tunes. The sheer spectacle of it is something I’ll never forget. I saw Dave Matthews Band at the same stadium a year or so later and it paled in comparison. U2 just did stadiums better than Matthews (or most bands for that matter) could ever dream.
It didn’t even matter that Pop was one of the band’s worst albums. It was U2! That’s all that mattered. Bad dance songs be damned, Bono was in the house with a giant lemon, one of the largest video screens ever up to that point, and a catalog of some of the most memorable songs ever recorded. Whenever I think of U2, I think of that show, think of the feeling, the excitement, the awe.
When you were at a U2 show during one of their peaks, you were in the presence of greatness.
That’s what U2 have done over their thirty-year career- created memories. inspired awe and admiration and grew and changed as you did the same. The big, important bands do that. They stick with you. They provide the soundtracks to benchmarks in your life. Think back, could any band effectively capture and properly reflect the mood after 9/11 like U2 did during halftime of that year’s Super Bowl? U2 was an important band before that performance, but they became the important band after.
Well, at least for a few years.
In the wake of the Songs of Innocence Debacle of 2014, U2’s history cannot be forgotten, overlooked, or cheapened. A big part of the outrage that came from the whole fiasco was that a band as big as U2 was involved. They made the story bigger than it really was and their presence also created an interesting subplot, especially in light of other albums released by fellow big-timers like Jay Z and Beyonce around that time. It’s worth noting that Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail also went straight to your phone (specifically Samsung phones.) No one is buying albums anymore nowadays and this was true in 2014 as well. As a result, in 2014 new methods of releasing albums, especially the big ones, were beginning to be employed. Now albums are released every day of the week, at all hours and how they’re delivered is all over the place. It seems commonplace now but this was in its infancy in 2014 and as with anything in the initial stages, mistakes were bound to be made. And of course, they were.
Seven years later, how U2 released Songs of Innocence isn’t talked about that much. If anything, it is noted as a tipping point of sorts, symbolic of when things really started to change for the band, when how the band was viewed and perceived had changed. The past handful of years have been rocky for the band but they haven’t been a total loss, especially on the touring front. In 2017 they hit the road to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree and over the course of two years and shows all over the world, generated nearly $400 million in revenue. Songs of Experience, which was meant to be a companion album to Songs of Innocence, but was retrofitted following Brexit and other events in 2016, was released in December 2017. The band’s Experience + Innocence Tour ran during a break in The Joshua Tour and also performed well. So while there wasn’t an appetite for the band’s new material, there was still one for the band itself.
I do still believe that one “oh, shit” ruins a bunch of “attaboys” but I also think that context matters. U2 had simply logged too many attaboys for them all to be wiped out because of one oh, shit moment. But at the same time, the phone incident did prove to be a significant hurdle for them as they embarked on their fourth decade together as a band. And now we’re into the fifth decade and while the decade is still young, early returns aren’t great. It’s worth asking if there is still a place in the world for U2 and it’s no longer that shocking of a question given the band’s recent track record coupled with the overall standing of rock music in the zeitgeist and musical hierarchy. They might not like it, but nostalgia may be the best card they have left to play. It may be their only card actually.
There is nothing all that wrong with it though. As was previously stated, it happens. At a certain point, the scales start to tip and the pull of nostalgia outweighs the allure of what’s new. Just ask the Rolling Stones or a contemporary of U2’s like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who also celebrated the 30th anniversary of a landmark album this year and similarly face an uneasy and unsettling road ahead. There comes a time when people just want the hits, just want you to play what they like to fondly remember. And recent hiccups and murky future aside, we will always remember U2.
We’ll remember “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and The Unforgettable Fire. We’ll remember songs like “In a Little While” and “Sweetest Thing” and we’ll remember Bono, The Edge, and the other two dudes Larry Mullen, Jr and Adam Clayton. We’ll remember that halftime show and the giant lemon and the video for “Where The Streets Have No Name.”
We’ll remember because U2 always strived to make us remember and we’ll remember because it’s U2 and U2 was one of the biggest and best rock bands ever.