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.


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.