Defending U2 against the cynics (including myself)

By Bill Wareham, MPR News

When the topic of this Saturday’s U2 concert came up in our morning editorial meeting, it exposed a cultural divide far deeper than one might expect among this rather homogeneous group of 40- and 50-somethings. On one side of the gulf there was open derision of the Irish rockers as dated, overblown and overrated rock stars. On the other side, you heard almost sheepish defense of Bono and company from those of us holding tickets.

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I understand the cynicism of my colleagues. U2 has dubbed the tour that arrives at TCF Stadium the 360 Degree tour, a name I find ironically appropriate – I’ve gone from fandom in the 80s to indifference in the late 90s and now find myself coming back again. Here are some of the key points on that journey:

1983: A Rolling Stone review gushes about War, the new album from U2, a band with which I have only passing familiarity (see “I Will Follow”). I pick up a copy (on vinyl – not because it was cool, kids, but because it was the only choice.) A really powerful mix of guitar and drums, politics and spirituality, it spends a lot of time on the turntable.

1987: The band releases The Joshua Tree. It’s another breakthrough for U2, an album with earnestness and ambition in equally abundant supply. And I feel my personal backlash emerging. It’s an album with high production standards, designed to be re-created in arenas and stadiums, not clubs. These guys are less like the punks and new wavers I embraced in the late 70s and more like the Rock Stars I thought I had left behind. After borrowing a brother’s copy of the album I decide I don’t need a personal copy for my collection.

bono_clinton_gorbachov.jpgThe 1990s and 2000s: I settle into a love-hate tension that manifests itself as indifference. I cringe every time I see flashbulbs pop at Bono as he shakes hands with yet another world leader. But then I hear the opening chords to “Mysterious Ways” as I drive to work and – I can’t believe I’m saying this, it’s so corny – it moves me. And so it goes: Achtung Baby, yes; Zooropa and Pop, no; All That You Can’t Leave Behind, yes; No Line On the Horizon, no.

2010: When U2 announces its stop in Minneapolis, I jump into the virtual ticket line. My reasons rely more on logic than passion. I want to see what a concert at the new stadium is like and I tell myself I need to finally see one of the most important bands of the previous three decades. Bono does nothing for my enthusiasm level when his back injury puts the tour on hiatus. We’re the same age and I can’t help but project my own aches and pains onto an imaginary stadium stage. It’s not a pretty vision.

July 2011: I’ve been listening to U2 tracks for the past few days, including The Joshua Tree — tunes I dismissed for their earnestness 20 years ago. They haven’t changed, which at first leads me to conclude that I must have. But I don’t think that’s the case. I can still be as cynical as the next editor (except maybe Mike Mulcahy, but he covers politics). I think it’s that U2 proved themselves to be consummate craftsmen, hewing unwaveringly to a vision of rock as something BIG, powerful, even transformative. And I’m not just talking about the songs, I’m talking about the whole experience. What the heck, I’m willing to surrender myself to that for a night. Cynics be damned, I expect to have a fine time.

  • Disco

    Their last good album was Zooropa. Everything since then has been forgettable. Achtung Baby was highly overrated.

    I’m partial to their first five albums. The first two, in particular, have some great tracks that haven’t been overplayed. Twilight; Into the Heart; Gloria; I Threw a Brick Through a Window, it goes on.

    There are outstanding tracks on the Joshua Tree, but I agree with you on the singles — way overdone. My favourite is Red Hill Mining Town. One Tree Hill is great. In God’s Country, Trip Through Your Wires. Mmm.

    But I looked at the playlist for their recent shows — it’s all the singles. No deep album tracks. No thanks.

  • lucy

    I saw him on Letterman the other night. Don’t get me wrong, I like Bono but his commentary seemed to be less um, thought provoking. He spent a good portion of the time in tellling anecdote blabbering over the amazingness of this performer and that performer by the time he got to the point I had already dusted the entire living room and washed the car.

    And then his comments on Africa. Yes millions are starving, kudos to the many that they have saved through the Aids effort, but then he made this point about how Africa will rise above in about 2050 due to unearthing (extracting and exploiting) it’s resources. Needle across the vinyl here.

    Democracy and extreme modernization is not the best avenue for all cultures. Why do we feel the need to inflict our ideas on all countries. Obviously they do not work in every situation

    I guess I expected more out of Bono as far as knowing about the countries he helps.

  • lucy

    oh and then they did-he and mr edge-did an accoustical of an epiphany or work of genius he said he experienced. The chorus line, “you got stuck in the moment”

    Sounded like the stuff he sang in the 80′s.

  • Drew Salisbury

    U2 has never really been an album-band for me. They’re a pop group. I don’t mean to imply those things are mutually exclusive, just to say they’re the type of pop group that is big, and is about the singles. And Achtung Baby, even more so than Joshua Tree, is their best album because I think it’s the album where they finally realized how pop they were, or I guess what kind of pop they were. “One” and “Mysterious Ways” might be way overplayed, but when I rediscovered these songs and the rest of the album after eschewing them for ten years, I realized I love “Mysterious Ways” really BECAUSE it is so big and unsubtle. And “One” is really among the greatest songs ever written. Yeah. That just happened.

    My feelings about this band are obviously shaped by the fact I was introduced to War and their early material a few years after hearing and singing along to some of their most unabashadly pop songs. They’ve just always seemed more realized to me as an arena pop group than a punk or new wave one.

    I wouldn’t go to see a band like U2, especially at this point in their career, to see and hear deep cuts. That’s what I want when I go to see The Breeders. And the majority of U2′s deep cuts aren’t that great anyways.

    Bono, the Edge, and the rest might bother me with their corniness sometimes. Their kind of earnestness just isn’t very cool. The Joshua Tree’s is specifically a really, really awkward album, for me at least, but I’ll probably come back around on it eventually.

    They’ve also put out a lot of crap, like a lot of bands that have been around as long as they have.

    But I’d go to that show in a second if someone bought me a ticket.

  • Karyn

    I also had to sit out the ’90′s and 2000′s, but your tentative enthusiasm makes me begin to wonder (possibly even consider) if anything U2 ever does again will inspire me as much as “I Will Follow”, live, in the mainroom at 1st Ave in 1981? or was it 1982? memory fades, but the thrill…..

  • Karyn

    …hold on…never mind….I can never go back. I just saw the photo of the claw. How many times can the shark be jumped???? I’m done, but I have my memories.

  • Tyler

    I’m not a huge U2 fan – I like listening from time to time, but not for the lyrics – just for the music. I think they have an overinflated sense of importance, but I would also say that the band isn’t appreciated for being genuine showmen – in the sense that Johnny Cash and Garth Brooks were/are. They’re entertainers. It’s a unique, almost theatrical skill to be able to gracefully host a concert for 1 or 2 hours.

    I haven’t been to a U2 concert – I’m not a big fan of the ticket prices, or being in a crowd of 25,000. However, I did see U2 3d at the Minnesota Zoo, and it was one of the most compelling and entertaining experiences I’ve had. I hope it comes around again – I would definitely go once more.

  • Bob Collins

    I’ve deleted comments in which commenters can’t seem to make a point with hurling insults at other commenters.

  • Joanna

    I think setting aside cynicism to reconnect with the passions of our youth is a health thing to do from time to time ;) and we always hope that our former idols don’t let us down… if they are still around.

    I paid a lot of money to see Tina Turner not long ago, and it was respectable, but nowhere like my memories. I saw the Pixies recently and they kicked butt, but I had never heard them before. But when I saw X play a reunion show not long ago, I reconnected with my younger self and that passion for rock that I (and they) never lost. That’s probably as close as I’ll get to what U2 fans are looking, but without the arena.

  • Junie

    I can’t help myself. I continue to love U2′s music. I found No Line on the Horizon to be far more subtle than many of their earlier works, but there is brilliance on that album with the exception of “Get on your Boots” which does nothing for me. Thee song “No Line on the Horizon” is amazing, as is “Moment of Surrender.

    We have to stop expecting perfection of bands and realize all they can do is aspire. U2 have taken us to amazing heights, and they have incredible stage shows. Plus, they are nice guys who try and help people. They are cynics and they aren’t cool.

    But they are hot.

  • http://www.oldtokyo.com noodleman

    Overblown? Dated? Overrated?

    All those adjectives have, at one time or another, described The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. And, yet, who would turn down an opportunity to have seen either band years, perhaps, after their best work was behind them? (Can you imagine how sullied the Fab Four reputation would be if they’d hung around together long enough to record “Silly Love Songs”? lol)

    Heck, from the moment Springsteen appeared on BOTH the covers of TIME and Newsweek he was called “overrated.” A decade later, he could still pack them into stadiums … and play a four-hour show. Two decades later, he can still fill a stadium … and play a four-hour show.

    Alas, we live in a very cynical age. Seeing U2 today, almost 30 years after their debut, should instead signal to us that pure talent and mastery of craft outweighs and outlasts any and all cynicism.

  • Ken

    I have loved the music of U2, even their journey into music styles not best suited for them (Popmuzic – anyone?) Bono and crew have been interested in providing thought-provoking songs and causes. I admire their humanitarian work but I admit that I was disappointed when U2 decided to leave Ireland as a base for their operations and relocate to the Netherlands for tax purposes – especially in light of all the trouble that Ireland is having with its economy.