Pop Rhetoric: NOT PRO-BONO

Arts & Entertainment by

I don’t know what I’m more annoyed with: the fact that Bono’s recent op-ed column was even considered for publication in the New York Times; the fact that in said column, Bono advocates for a new age of paternalistic Internet service providers; or the fact that U2 hasn’t released a decent album since 1991. Maybe all of the above.

Bono’s January 2 guest column, titled “Ten For the Next Ten,” had all the makings of a piece that, written by someone with any other name, would be simply unpublishable. A list of 10 things we should look forward to in the future (and not even 10 “top” things), the column begins in an annoyingly self-deprecating style, while being disjointed and dated at best – no one should still be talking about what you did backstage at a concert in the 90s, not even Bono. The article only goes downhill from there, straying far from enjoyable journalism, into the realm of an obnoxious, unresearched babble.

Not to mention his use of ellipses … which borders on … the really annoying.

Nevertheless, as a rock star, Bono has access to things that we mere mortals can only dream of, and inane columns are one of those things (see also his thoughts on Frank Sinatra, published last January in the New York Times).

The problem is this: writing a song is not like writing an op-ed. I can more than understand the Times publishing the piece as an attempt to attract new readers, but I feel that somebody else would probably do a much better job of presenting a compelling argument for subscription than would a disjointed top 10 list that is not funny, insightful, or useful.

Unfortunately, all of the above is evident in just the introduction. Once you get to Bono’s actual insights, what was before only annoying suddenly becomes truly disturbing with a tirade about Internet service providers that can only be called paternalistic.

“We’re the post office, they tell us; who knows what’s in the brown-paper packages? But we know from America’s noble effort to stop child pornography, not to mention China’s ignoble effort to suppress online dissent, that it’s perfectly possible to track content,” he writes.

Possible? Yes. A good idea? Certainly not.

Bono himself, of course, creates the type of content that is being so ferociously stolen by those who service providers are failing to monitor, and as a result, it’s perfectly acceptable for him to feel a little pissed off. Despite stressing that big rock stars like himself are not the victims compared to those musicians just starting out, he might have some residual hard feelings – the man is, after all, trying to build the 30-storey “U2 Tower,” so he’s probably feeling a little tight on cash at the moment.

But that’s still no excuse for paternalism.

Arguing that it’s a good idea to emulate China and monitor what users download is concerning at best – not least because it limits freedoms in a way that can only be called disturbing.

Bono argues, “The only thing protecting the movie and TV industries from the fate that has befallen music and indeed the newspaper business is the size of the files.” I would argue that another thing both music and newspapers now have in common is Bono’s involvement. It seems that TV will be next, with Bono as the next Dr. House, saving the world from cancer in ways recommended to him by “my bandmate The Edge.”

But the biggest problem with Bono’s op-ed is that U2’s last decent album was Achtung Baby, and when it came out, I was still listening to Fred Penner. And what have they done since then – released a signed iPod? Failed to get Bono some better sunglasses? Written music for “Spiderman: The Musical”? (Actually, that last one might be worth looking into.) All of which require no musical talent whatsoever.

The institution of the celebrity op-ed, such as it is, deserves to come to an end. Bono on Frank Sinatra? Annoying, not to mention exceedingly poorly written, but nevertheless understandable: a musician talking about music. Bono making snarky, more than questionable predictions about technology in the decade ahead? Unnecessary.

There is an understandable allure to publishing a guest column by a rock star, and attracting new newspaper readers is an admirable goal. I only wish that journalism, instead of narcissism – if there’s still a difference – was the way to do that.

There is a reason that U2 is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: they’ve made some good, influential music. But not all skills are transferable, and the ability to count improperly in Spanish is not necessarily an asset when composing something for the New York Times.