For the past two years, U2 has been enjoying a miraculous run. After its disastrous '90s flirtation with irony, the Irish quartet returned to the swaddling comfort of earnestness at just the right moment. U2's 2000 album All That You Can't Leave Behind—a throwback to the sweeping righteous love of The Joshua Tree and The Unforgettable Fire—was raved by critics, hit No. 1 in more than 30 countries, and continues to throw off huge singles. Since Sept. 11, their super-sincerity has been in particularly high demand. Bono orchestrated the all-star remake of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," proceeds going for Sept. 11th relief. And both "Walk On," off All That You Can't Leave Behind, and the old hit "One" have become Sept. 11th anthems.
In December, U2 finished one of the most profitable concert tours in rock history, was named Spin's Band of the Year and Rolling Stone readers' Artist of the Year. Next month promises more glory. The band is nominated for eight Grammys—more than any artist—and will almost certainly win a handful at the Feb. 27 ceremony. And next weekend, U2 headlines the Super Bowl halftime show, a gig for 800 million viewers.
U2 has now been good longer than any other important band in history. The Rolling Stones have been around forever, but their creative period lasted only 15 years. The Beatles imploded after a decade. U2—the same lineup of Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen—has been making acclaimed albums since 1980's Boy.
The band's achievements depend on two neat tricks. First, Bono—the public face of U2—has a genius for cognitive dissonance. He is the upstairs, downstairs king of rock: He simultaneously inflates himself into the most grandiose, arrogant, self-righteous rock star and deflates himself with self-mockery and modesty. He describes U2 as reapplying for the position of "best band in the world"; calls the band "magic" and "extraordinary"; announces on Rattle & Hum that "All I have is a red guitar, three chords, and the truth"; and insists that "We've always been about more than music. We're about spirituality. We're about the world we live in."
But Bono counters every claim of godliness by throwing a pie in his own face. Asked by an interviewer if he is a pioneer, he declares that he is "one of the inventors of the mullet." The band mocked themselves on The Simpsons. Bono cheerfully disses his own political activism: "The only thing worse than a rock star is a rock star with a conscience."
David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.
Both stances are sincere, and it is a very winning combination. The worshipful fans adore the earnest grandiosity and sing along as Bono claims transcendence. A U2 concert is one of the few places on the planet where intelligent people wave cigarette lighters without irony. In those moments when you want to believe that rock music is something bigger than entertainment—and who doesn't haven't such moments?—U2 offers exalted nourishment. They're about more than music, man. They're about spirituality. They are the unforgettable fire!
But U2's self-consciousness inoculates them against critics, who can find no point of attack. If you ridicule Bono for his pomposity, he will not only laugh at the joke, but will twist the knife deeper in his own chest. They are grand spectacle, but with a wink for those who are looking for one. The combination of self-important grandeur and self-deprecating humor is exceptionally rare, especially among celebrities. Many popular musicians have one or the other (almost always the self-important grandeur). The few that have both—the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and Elton John are at the top of the short list—can survive greatness and don't get destroyed by their pretensions (as did humorless sorts such as the Doors, Guns N' Roses, Led Zeppelin …).
U2's other trick is to pretend that it is a political rock band. It's true that U2 is politically promiscuous. The liner notes for All That You Can Leave Behind,for example, endorse Amnesty International, Greenpeace, the charity War Child, the Jubilee 2000 debt-relief campaign, freedom for Burma, and justice in Sierra Leone. And that's just one album. U2's roster of cause songs includes: "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (one of many about Ireland's troubles); "Seconds" (nuclear war); "The Unforgettable Fire" (also nuclear war); "Pride (In the Name of Love)" (Martin Luther King Jr.); "MLK" (also Martin Luther King Jr.); "Bullet the Blue Sky" (U.S. Central America policy); and so on.
It's also true that Bono is exceptionally political off stage. Click
U2 is perhaps the world's vaguest band. If a U2 song isn't written in the first person, it is penned to an unnamed, indistinct "you." Instead of stories or wordplay, they rely solely on fuzzy imagery. I opened the liner notes to All That You ... and wrote down the first three lines I read: "See the canyons broken by clouds"; "I and I in the sky"; "A man takes a rocket ship into the skies." Classic U2 haze—skies, rockets, clouds, canyons. Doesn't anyone have a name? There are never any actual people in U2 songs, never any characters. (Compare U2 to the narrative specificity of Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen.) This vagueness drains U2's lyrics of any content: It is impossible to think about a U2 song. "One" includes depressing lines like "We hurt each other/ Then we do it again" and "You say love is a temple. … You ask me to enter/ But then you make me crawl"—yet this hasn't stopped fans from turning it into a Sept. 11 anthem. If it is political music, it is for the Bob Kerreys of the world, for folks who seem full of great, but totally inchoate, ideas.
U2's music—especially the Edge's soaring guitars—supports this lyrical vagueness. Their songs are gorgeous and majestic, but they produce only a single (though wonderful) emotion: a kind of lovely swelling of the soul. (For a sample of this in its purest form, listen to this snatch of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.")
This is the U2 paradox. Bono and Co. are constantly dedicating songs to specific causes, exhorting their fans to think and act in the world. Yet their music does exactly the opposite of what it intends. Politics is the process of channeling the heart into thought and action. U2's music declares that the heart is all that matters.