U2's songs of emptiness -- a cautionary tale

October 26, 2014
Apple CEO with members of U2.

As with all advertisements, there are a few deceptions at the heart of Apple's commercial for U2's newly released Songs of Innocence. The most immediate is that it ends with the tagline “free on iTunes now”.

Given that the album was delivered ― without permission ― into the digital libraries of over 500 million iTunes users, implying any kind of choice in the matter seems at the very least misleading. A better version of the ad might read “yours whether you like it or not”.

The move to upload Songs of Innocence without the consent of hundreds of millions of music fans has been so strongly criticised that within days, Apple posted a standalone webpage with instructions on how to permanently delete the album.

Meanwhile, lead singer Bono has been lashing out at critics as “haters”, calling the Internet commentary “enough to put you off democracy”. It's a rather odd rebuttal, which is to say nothing of the rather unsettling implications such a marketing strategy brings with it in a post-Snowden world.

A much more subtle deception is embedded in the ad's content, which features old footage of live performances from the Ramones, the Clash and Patti Smith. But what about U2?

They are relegated to empty blue-violet avatars, singing and performing the album's lead single while images of Patti, Joey and Johnny, Joe and Mick are projected onto them.

It is surely intended as an homage of sorts, a bid to paint the band as following in the footsteps of punk rock's greatest. But the resulting imagery only underlines Washington Post's Chris Richards' description of the iTunes scheme as “rock-and-roll as dystopian junk mail”.

This is the artist as a hollow vessel, a blank commodity for the sake of another commodity.

Bono has viewed himself in such a way for some time now. He has famously spent the past 25 years glad-handing right-wing economists and former World Bank honchos, heads of state, bigoted congresspeople and outright war criminals. He has penned columns for the New York Times touting the benefits of the free market that make Thomas Friedman look positively eloquent.

And then there's his charitable work: providing money for AIDS research in Africa by teaming up with the same Western companies that have profited from the pillage of the continent.

Bono's mission is not simply to provide capitalism with a human face. It is a bid to build a full-spectrum artistic cocoon for Margaret Thatcher's notorious dictum “There Is No Alternative”. Songs of Innocence ― both its ham-handed aesthetics and its crass economics ― fits right in.

The album's title is a reference to William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. This is an illustrated collection of poems containing some of Blake's most famous verses, including the author's powerful indictments of the exploitation and extreme poverty that accompanied the Industrial Revolution.

Bono and company don't seem to have absorbed much of Blake's work past the title, however. Songs of Innocence revisits the group's childhood growing up in Ireland. Surely 1970s Dublin, gripped as it was by recession and the Troubles raging to the north, bore a certain similarity to capitalism's formative years in terms of immiseration.

What seems to have helped the young boys of U2 cope with that is the sounds of punk rock. This much is obvious in the lead single “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)”.

“Miracle” is a catchy enough song. It is notable that after all these years, the Edge still has the ability to write a decent guitar hook ― at least by “getting stuck in your head” standards.

But whatever uplift might be promised by the quasi-choir vocals at the track's opening is robbed from us when the chorus essentially delivers the same thing as the verse. There's no exaltation, just a plateau of Bono's sincere but nondescript appreciation for Joey Ramone.

It's a pattern maintained throughout. There are a few fairly lovely moments ― tracks like “Every Breaking Wave” and “Song for Someone” provide some of the ethereal moodiness that many have come to expect from U2. But the cathartic payoff found in “Where the Streets Have No Name”, “The Unforgettable Fire”, or even “Beautiful Day” is completely missing.

For an album that wants to harp on the theme of escape from misfortune so much, there seems to be no embodiment of that internal struggle. There is little investment, and no drama.

This is an album thoroughly lacking in coherence. The band rushes from one sound to the next and Bono's lyrics have far too little specificity to compensate or tie it all together. Nothing is stuck with long enough for an image to be conjured, let alone a narrative.

What could be an album about the tortures and frustrations of childhood in an unforgiving world ends up doing nothing more than leaving us with vague feelings.

Nor is it a way of working through the demons of past trauma. It is memory without purpose. Nostalgia for nostalgia itself. A nondescript sense of longing, self-referenced and reprocessed and redistributed for the thousandth time.

This is not entirely U2's fault. Over time, the concept of pastiche, so central to postmodernism, has been torn apart and re-stitched so many times that nothing is left but threadbare strings. It is a logical outcome of neoliberalism's cultural rationale.

Whenever contemporary culture looks forward, it cannot help but see decay and apocalypse, be it The Walking Dead or beautiful shining synth songs dreaming of annihilation. With no sense of future, it ends up looking backward and pining for the past, rehashing it until all that is left are memories minus their emotive power.

What separates this approach from that of U2's influences is simply a question of time and self-awareness. Blake's revolutionary romanticism certainly idealised the verdant fields of pre-industrial England against the “dark satanic mills” that took their place, but he was not one to let himself get lost in the ether of what was. His embrace of the French Revolution proves as much.

As for punk rock, the cries of “No Future” can be woefully misleading. The music of the Clash and Patti Smith not only dealt with the decay of an England or United States long since past, but a sense that something new and dynamic might form in the rubble.

Even the ironic smirk of The Ramones that seemed to grapple with the present in such a cartoonish way; the laughter necessitated something to look forward to.

Though it seems hard to fathom, and though they were far from the most radical or interesting of this milieu, U2 came out of the first wave of post-punk inspired by such acts. In the 1980s, much of this scattered to the wind.

But even then, with the group's support for the anti-apartheid movement and opposition to the West's meddling in Central America, it seemed that there was at least a vague sense that their sound represented some kind of break with the realities of Reagan and Thatcher.

Now, 30 years of inertia have allowed that sound to sit comfortably within the same stadiums those just a few steps away from U2 were trying to shun. It would be far too mechanical to crudely hitch the group's sonic dead-end to Bono's reactionary politics, but both have been increasingly nurtured over the past three decades by the cultural logic of late capitalism.

Apple apparently dropped US$100 million to distribute Songs of Innocence for free. Most likely the label, Island Records, is hoping it will translate into huge sales of the physical album, released on October 1 ― particularly considering the relatively lacklustre sales for their previous record,No Line on the Horizon.

That album sold more than 5 million copies worldwide, but in the key markets of the US and Britain sold less than a third of the band's 2004 effort, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

Atomic Bomb was heavily promoted through a tie-in campaign for Apple's iPod. So it is a safe bet that with the Apple deal, U2 hope to recreate a magic formula that allows them to maintain their status as the “world's greatest rock band”. Just for safe measure, they've thrown in comparisons of themselves to sanitised and static versions of punk legends.

Which begs the question: how much of this album was designed simply to promote itself? At least the annoying ads pushed through our mail slots promise us great deals on furniture. All U2 and Apple have promised is the self-same ad, wrapped in the same trite notions, but this time with a price tag.

Such a ploy would explain the album's reliance on nostalgia, the vagueness of the imagery, the indecisiveness of the sound. In an effort to become “the band that everyone likes”, they have promoted themselves into a state of perpetual self-reference, becoming as empty as their commercial suggests.

Songs of Innocence is a cautionary tale, then: an example of what kind of blandness awaits those of us who so enthusiastically ― and unironically ― embrace the artistic ethos of the market.

If only U2 had listened to their hero, the late Joe Strummer ― who said “selling is what selling sells” ― maybe they might have avoided such a bland fate.

[Abridged from US Socialist Worker.]

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Bono thinks, and he was quoted as saying, that the tax 'competitiveness' of Ireland is what's brought it back from the doldrums. I wonder what the Irish people think about this. Bono has been banging on for years about these supposed moments where he had an epiphany of some sort. Like seeing The Ramones live or hearing London Calling and things like that. The Clash called one of their albums Sandanista! for crying out loud. Imagine U2 having anywhere near the balls to name their album that, or at least something relevant to any objective event or time period. Didn't Bono once toy with calling Bullet the Blue Sky 'Nicaragua' at some stage? Not surprisingly, he opted for the untethered 'poetry' that simultaneously sounds impassioned and indignant yet vague enough to be denied if someone questions your actual true feelings. We have to conclude that he sees music and politics as inherently separable, or at least where it suits him and his mythology, where he discovers music, saves the world and takes his billion of dollars to heaven with him.

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