Why U2’s Fight for Our Attention Matters

It’s hard to imagine that the band that has spent the better part of the last three decades as the “world’s greatest band,” would have trouble getting attention.  Yet, after their critically acclaimed, but relatively modestly selling 2009 release No Line on the Horizon failed to capture the public’s imagination, U2 spent much of the intervening five years trying to figure out how to remain relevant to today’s music audience.  The end result was the fresh-faced collection of musings on their own personal and musical roots in Songs of Innocence, which they boldly gave away for free to nearly 500 million iTunes subscribers.

The question remains, nearly two months later, was it enough?

Over the past decade, U2 has produced the top grossing concert tour of all time and generated over $1 billion in gross touring revenue.  And, like many of their fellow top touring acts, such as the Rolling Stones and the Eagles, U2 could easily continue to launch hugely lucrative and popular tours without releasing another note of music.  Yet, for a band so used to occupying pop music’s bully pulpit, having their last album fail to make a dent in the public consciousness clearly stung — not only for their egos as rock stars, but also in their hearts as people who had given their lives over to music, only to see music become an increasingly devalued and disposable part of pop culture.

While Songs of Innocence certainly explores the youthful relationships and experiences of the band, an important unifying theme is their love of music as fans.  From the lyrical homage to Joey Ramone in “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” to the Clash-inspired sounds of “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” to the deft reference to Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine in “Iris (Hold Me Close),” the landscape of U2’s youth is one where music was a shared, profound experience.  In giving away Songs of Innocence, U2 attempted to recreate the shared public  enjoyment of music that has largely disappeared from the modern experience of recorded pop music, in particular.

There is no small amount of irony that U2’s last splashy collaboration with Apple was a signature iPod in connection with the release of their 2004 album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.  While the pirated music revolution started by Napster and still felt on YouTube has certainly contributed to the commercial decline of the music industry, it’s fair to say that those tiny white earbuds may very well have pushed pop music out of the cultural spotlight.  Moving music out of living rooms and into headphones, and music buying from record stores to data downloads has made music an increasingly solitary and insular experience, the background to life’s experiences rather than an important collective experience in and of itself.

By giving away copies of Songs of Innocence, U2 attempted to recreate a global living room, and to foster a dialogue, or at least a common experience of their music, like the experiences they shared as young people over records by the Ramones and The Clash.  Yet, as is typical for today’s snarky age, the gesture met with more backlash about the manner of distribution than discussion of the music itself.  Make no mistake, Songs of Innocence, is a very good album, but likely one that will not enter the collective consciousness the way The Joshua TreeAchtung Baby, and All That You Can’t Leave Behind did.  While the songs themselves and the performances on Songs of Innocence showcase a band at the top if its game, U2 has done this brand of earnestness before and wore the mantle more easily before becoming global superstars.  That is not to say that critics and long time fans won’t enjoy the album — they have, and will, but that is likely beside the point for U2 at this stage.

Bono is a man of grand ambitions, many of which have come to pass.  Not many bands have been able to assert and reassert themselves as the world’s greatest with three separate iconic albums released over more than a decade.  Even fewer of those bands feature a lead singer whose hobbies include tackling thorny problems such as global debt in his spare time.  But, the band’s latest challenge — reopening the hearts of the public to music as a transformative and fundamental experience, may be the most difficult task it has set for itself.  Undeterred by the relatively lukewarm response to their grand gesture with Songs of Innocence, U2 is continuing to make their case, and have already indicated that they are working on a new data format for music, one which they believe will force listeners to engage with music in a completely new way, or, perhaps, more accurately, more like we used to.   

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