This house holds that the U2 hatred is justified.
Let me start off by saying that I do not hate U2 but that is because I do not believe in hatred. However, I have as a low opinion of U2 as anyone who begrudgingly accepts the subjectivity of music taste can have. For those who do believe in hate and hating U2 in particular, I agree wholeheartedly.
Now, let me follow this up by saying that I do enjoy some of U2’s music. I listen to ‘War’ on occasion and have watched their simply astounding Glastonbury set from 2011. The Edge is a fantastic guitarist, Bono has a strong voice. Musically, U2 are no worse and are no more interesting than any other garden variety Dad-rock band. However, U2 aren’t just about the music.
Everyone has heard the joke-cum-story of U2’s gig in Scotland when Bono clapped his hands every few seconds, announcing that every time he clapped, a child in Africa died, only to have a member of the audience tell him to stop doing it, “ya evil bastard”. Not to disparage U2’s activism, as the world’s wellbeing is more important than music, but it is this holier-than-thou attitude that draws the ire of the masses.
In 2014, I had gotten three months of Spotify premium for free thanks to Vodafone Cherry Points. This ran out after a certain stage and I was faced with a choice; walk to college with no music or walk to college listening to that U2 that was put onto everyone’s iPhone without being asked if they wanted it.
U2 drew an awful lot of criticism for this, most of it being along the lines of a) I don’t like U2 and b) why wasn’t I asked? I grew curious as to why they did this and then an interview appeared online in which Bono says “Oops… I’m sorry about that”, and puts it down to megalomania amongst other things, such as generosity and wanting to be heard.
Megalomania? In 1991, the band Negativland were sued over their ‘U2’ EP, which featured two songs centred around a sample of ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’. On first, second, and last listening, it should be clear to anyone that this was not an attempt to rip off U2’s sound, it’s plain and simple parody. Negativland were subsequently sued by their own label, SST, and had to withdraw the EP.
Megalomania indeed. In 1990, John Oswald had all copies of an album he had given away for free to radio stations for educational purposes destroyed after Michael Jackson took exception to one of his songs being put through a similar treatment. As Chris Cutler points out in his ‘Plunderphonia’ essay, Michael Jackson used over a minute of unedited Mozart on his ‘Dangerous’ album.
U2 may not have sampled a dead classical composer but it is this corporatism that creates the hatred. And as for that U2 album on my iPhone? They didn’t give that away for free, Apple paid (reportedly) between $5 and $52 million for exclusive rights.
This house holds that the U2 hatred is not justified.
Before they became the butt of cynical and lazy jokes, U2 were a band. These days, they are unrivalled in their ability to divide opinion and antagonise people while simultaneously being a relatively inoffensive band whose only crime seems to be caring too much.
While I believe the hatred they incite to be undeserved, I’m not going to argue that they are the best band of the last 30 years – a period of time in which they’ve released an impressive thirteen studio albums – but they absolutely are full of quality, sincerity, and conviction. Musically U2 have always been hit and miss. For every hit album there’s been a disappointment, and for every grand gesture there’s been an equally grand misstep. At least six of their albums are more than good and with two classics amongst them in The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, they boast a back catalogue that most bands would kill for.
But we’re not here to talk about their music, are we? We’re here to talk about their pretentiousness. We’re here to talk about their ‘false’ righteousness. We’re here to talk about Bono’s stupid glasses, as that’s where all the hatred originates, in Bono and his stupid glasses.
One of the criticisms regularly thrown at U2 is their perceived self-importance, something I read to be borne from a desire to be liked by everyone. U2 never wanted to be the band your friend loved, they wanted to be the band you loved. This distinction is important, and can be seen from their early days where even post-punk songs like ‘I Will Follow’ had a certain anthemic quality to them. This sound got bigger and bigger over the years and helped U2 become one of the best live bands on the planet, with their performance at Slane in 2001 being undeniably enthralling.
As they grew in stature, so did the idea that Bono was insincere in the messages he put forth. As fame arrived, so did the idea that Bono was only interested in human welfare for his own gain. His problem here being that a postmodern world doesn’t like anyone who cares about something unashamedly, and has a special kind of dislike for anyone who has the cheek to try and tell you about that certain something.
However, the fact remains that songs like ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ just don’t come from an insincere place. In fact, they emerge from good intentions and a decent heart, two things U2 can’t be criticised for having. I often wonder in what regard U2 would be held if they had stopped making music before the turn of the century. Would they be loved? Probably not, but they wouldn’t be hated. Anyway it’s to their credit that they’ve continued as things could be worse, they could’ve ended up like one of the Gallagher brothers – tweeting insults at nobody in particular at 2AM on a Sunday.