U2, Oxymorons of cool


When Brian Eno decided to take U2 under his technocosmic tutelage in 1985 he said publicly that one of the reasons he was interested in the band was that they were uncool. He said that he’d always been highly suspicious of the word ‘cool’, that to him it denoted a lack of emotion, a lack of human warmth, and that U2 seemed miraculously free of the aloof self-consciousness he associated with the term.

Now I read that by launching themselves into the rather epic cross-marketing exercise that is Apple’s U2 iPod, Bono, The Edge, and the two quieter guys from the rhythm section, have finally found a product ‘cool’ enough to warrant their head-on leap into new millennial merchandising. Yes, to quote the Mephisto from Malahide himself on the @U2 website: ‘People have offered us fortunes to go commercial and we haven’t turned them down for any religious reasons, it’s just that we couldn’t find products cool enough.’

Rather than being disappointed that yet another group of evangelising musicians have proven themselves to be less than politically pure-as-the-driven-snow, or automatically viewing U2’s frottage with Steve Jobs as a sellout, I prefer to think of it as a question of scale. I mean, where can a band with such a huge appetite for adulation go when they’re all in their forties and therefore a dubious high rotation choice for ‘cool’ youth radio?

The brilliant but flawed career they managed to pull out of the fire with 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind was surely destined for some kind of vaguely geriatric sale bin this time around. So something had to be done. To maintain the annual turnover.

Let’s face it, who would want to settle for two or three nights at the Royal Albert Hall with a seating capacity of 5 222 when you could soar through the concert-giving stratosphere with outsize, gargantuan rockgod gestures while playing to literally millions on a world tour?

Coming from a country chock-full of guinness-lipped, manic depressive musicians full of street credibility I imagine U2 would be well allergic to settling for some musically worthy Christy Moore style status. No, leave that for the folksy dotage, for the minute there are new galaxies to explore.

‘So, what do ya reckon Edge? How about we get together with the technologists? Just think man, it’ll be like Caruso teaming up with Edison for a sexy new satin-black phonograph! Yeah, a total blast, right.’

It is indeed a fact that Bono has called the U2 iPod ‘the sexiest object in music since the electric guitar’. Well, what about the guitar-synth? I hear you ask. What about the electric Kalimba, for god’s sake?

Of course the thing that separates the iPod from the electric guitar, or the guitar-synth, or the electric Kalimba for that matter, is that it does not create music. It is a spectator sport, a small box of plastic & perspex with inferior MP3 fidelity that promotes consumption rather than creation. Sure, it is the ultimate accessory for the topographically challenged US troops in Iraq, who need nothing more than a handy gizmo to fuel their neo-Vietnam dreams, but as far as making new sounds goes, it’s nothing but an aid to procrastination.

One of the great ironies of U2’s decision to become the ‘new cool’ of the corporate world is that anything that is hip to the corporates is, by definition these days, way out of touch with new music. Can you imagine John Zorn or a young songwriting god like Will Oldham lending their curious ears to anything that the new MacU2 has to say? I doubt it.

I’m sure to them the band widths of the wind down a Chicago street or the enigmatic hertz ratios of a spur-winged plover would be far more edifying. It’s just that at this point in the somewhat concentric circle of cultural history the powers that be seem to have forgotten that a sound can still be music, whether or not it has a frame around it or comes in a ‘beautiful’ package.

Does anyone out there remember Stockhausen, or Jimi Hendrix? Has the grand sonic experiment that was the twentieth century bred nothing other than a fat kid with A.D.D. and 20gb of choice jammed into his ears?

Steve Jobs says that the U2 iPod is ‘the most gorgeous thing you’ve ever seen’ and if you’ve ever wondered how you could become as rich as him that comment should give you a fair indication. Personally I prefer my beauty made of flesh and blood, rather than a conglomerate of steel & plastic in a squat casing reminiscent of a 1985 IBM.

But hey, I know what you’re thinking. ‘This guy’s obviously got a bad case of golden ageism, he’s probably still stroking his two inch analogue tape when he beds down in his Chelsea hotel bed for the night.’

Well, sorry folks, but you’re wrong. When I go to bed at night I like my legs and arms, my feet and stomach muscles to be weary, not just my eyes. You see, I’m the kind of guy who likes to kick-on rather than hit the sack with a user’s guide and a headache, and my main objection to the U2 flip is that it represents the ultimate victory of THE NERD. Sure, we live in psychotic times but fixing yourself to a listening device like it’s a life-support system is no way to document it. No way to express its fucked-up textures, or the edgy excitement of its song.

Now if the U2 iPod had a built-in ProTools function that allowed me to mix down and edit while I’m walking through the landscape or coming home on the train, then I might see the future in it. But as it stands it’s just pure 1950’s American gizmo. Which is perfect really, given the name of the album, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, that has caused all the fuss.

For an unflattering review of How to dismantle an atomic bomb in the Guardian click here.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.