Is there a more hated band in the world right now than U2?Despite releasing albums that have sold millions of copies since the 1980s, U2 has recently been belittled by fans and critics alike as the standard for everything overproduced, commercial, and self-serving about modern rock music. Critics have called Bono “pretentious” and The Edge “overrated.” Making matters worse, the release of their new album / Apple promotional gimmick Songs of Innocence has angered legions of iTunes users. This is largely due to the album’s inexplicable intrusion into the media player’s libraries everywhere without user consent. As a result, U2 is currently held responsible for what the Washington Post calls “Rock ‘n’ Roll as junk mail.”All of this has placed U2 somewhere between Nickelback and root canals on the disdain scale: But is it really all warranted? U2 has been unfairly treated as the whipping boy and deserves much more credit that they usually receive from the music-listening public.
For starters, what’s lost in the recent controversy is that U2 released its album for free. In a landscape where mainstream music is increasingly monetized, this decision is deserving of at least some credit. After all, when Radiohead released an album with a “pay what you want” payment scheme, they were hailed as the saviours of modern music by critics. When U2 did Radiohead one better, it received widespread scorn.
Others have criticized Bono’s personality. The man certainly has an ego, but he has also committed his time and money to making the world a better place through his charity work. At the end of the day, it’s hard to say he deserves such a negative reputation.
However, these qualms have nothing to do with U2’s actual music. What is commonly overlooked these days is U2’s unique sound, longevity, and influence. This is primarily reflected in their ’80s and early ’90s work, when albums like War (1983), The Unforgettable Fire (1984), The Joshua Tree (1987), and Achtung Baby (1991) changed the landscape of what would become modern rock. Neither a punk band nor a standard “arena rock” band, U2 brought a distinct and dynamic sound that was as appropriate in bedrooms as in stadiums. The Edge redefined the way the electric guitar was used in mainstream music, adding texture and ambience rather than blistering leads. In these albums, Bono’s lyrics are poignant and pressing as he touches on a wide variety of subjects from pacifism to drug addiction. This was not only U2’s creative peak, but in comparison to any artist, an all-around impressive musical stretch.
This isn’t to say that U2 does not have missteps, bad songs, or even bad albums. Admittedly, the band’s recent work certainly doesn’t live up to their older music and, to an extent, does sound derivative and overproduced. However, U2’s been around for almost 40 years. Is it not somewhat understandable that the band’s going through a slump or have even exhausted its creative potential after such a long and prolific career? One can count on one hand the bands who are as old as U2 who are still releasing commercially and critically relevant music. Every band with a long history has a best-before date, yet U2 gets more hate than anyone else. This has much more to do with Bono’s exuberant persona than U2’s past—or even current—musical qualities.
Though U2’s musical output has maybe slipped in recent years, is there really so much wrong with a band continuing to work after its best days are behind it? Surely music fans shouldn’t expect the band to break up if its members still feel like they have more to say. For all their shortcomings, U2 still has not found what it’s looking for, and that’s something to admire, not belittle.