Sunday, October 25, 2009

U2: An Almost Extinct Species


One could say that as goes U2, so goes capitalism. Few rock bands have provided so effective a bellweather for the health of the world economy than this one. In previous eras, any strong criticism of Saint Bono and his apostles was guaranteed to be met with a mix of shock and aversion: "But he does so much for the poor. Plus, he's such a good entertainer!"

Now, the possible decline of one of the world's biggest rock bands isn't just a matter of opinion--it's in the numbers.

Despite being on the road for seven months and playing over 40 shows for an estimated 3 million people in support of their most recent album No Line on the Horizon, financially U2's current tour has yet to break even.

They've sold out every show, charging between $30 and $250 for tickets. Such figures might normally make for a monetary bonanza. But the sheer overblown bombast of their stage show has made for massive overhead. The custom-made, 140-ton stage used on the tour--the biggest of its kind in history--costs a whopping $750,000 a day to transport, assemble and maintain.

And so the group that has waxed sanctimonious for years about aiding the poor has to date spent at least $30,000,000--enough to feed countless impoverished families--on their stage alone! Add to that the price tag for the group's flights and extravagant hotel accommodations, and you're looking at a total cost for this tour that makes mind-boggling little sense--especially in the midst of the worst economic crisis in decades.

Even Bono himself might be aware that his eyes have gotten bigger than his stomach. As he told USA Today before the tour's launch, "I want to put on an extraordinary show, but I'd like to own my house when it's over."

The character of U2's concerts is especially confusing given that such decadence is looked at today with more suspicion than ever. The modern "indie" aesthetic, with its emphasis on substance over spectacle, has more or less become the dominant current among today's young musos--not just in rock, but in dance, electronic and hip-hop too.

If there's a term that can easily describe them, it would be "out of touch." This is highlighted by the disappointing sales of No Line on the Horizon. The album was released in March, but only recently has it surpassed 1 million copies sold worldwide. Compare this to 3.2 million for 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and 4.3 for 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind, not to mention 14 million for 1987's The Joshua Tree, and it's clear that No Line is the slowest selling U2 album in quite some time.

Neither of the album's two singles, "Get On Your Boots" and the laughably longwinded "I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight," have broken the top ten. With the music industry in a deep crisis, U2's efforts to stay ahead of the curve have fallen flat. Bono vented his frustrations to Spinnermusic: "We felt that the album was almost kind of an extinct species, and we should approach it in totality and create a mood and a feeling, and a beginning, a middle and an end. And I suppose we've made a work that is a bit challenging."

It's a bizarre logic straight from the dead horse's mouth: we thought we could stay alive by flogging ourselves.

Contrary to Bono's condescension, No Line on the Horizon isn't "challenging." It's more of the same. The Edge's hypnotic guitars and Bono's testimonial vocal style might have been stunning fifteen, even ten years ago, but in 2009 we've been there, done that, bought the t-shirt and are ready for something new. The world's music fans have reflected this by spending their ever-dwindling dollars elsewhere.

According to U2's twisted reasoning, though, albums fail because the public just don't understand, the millions blown on their tour are justified as long as they throw crumbs to starving Africans, and their own rich-boy arrogance is actually just a reaction to being "humiliated."

Irish veteran activist and journalist Eamonn McCann, who has made something of a hobby out of chronicling U2's excesses, quotes drummer Larry Mullen as having noticed "a new resentment of rich people in this country ... We have experienced [a situation] where coming in and out of the country at certain times is made more difficult than it should be--not only for us, but for a lot of wealthy people ... The better-off (are) being sort of humiliated."

Says McCann: "Perhaps Larry was angry that peasants arriving on no-frills airlines hadn’t formed a human carpet on the tarmac for people like himself... to walk over."

Indeed, whereas U2 were once considered ambassadors for an economically prosperous Ireland, nowadays they're in the running for most hated Irishmen. Ever since news broke that the group were basing their business in the Netherlands to dodge taxes in their native country, pickets and placards demanding "Make Bono Pay Taxes" have come to reveal a growing resentment on the part of Irish workers.

The gap between their own existence and simple, basic reality has come to personify U2. As time goes by, their words and actions smack less of a righteous rock band than they do the pompous pronouncements of CEOs using our money to pay their own bloated salaries. Much like these prehistoric parasites, they are now left scratching their heads, wondering why their profits have tanked and the world seethes with rage. They have nobody to blame but themselves.

This article first appeared at the Society of Cinema and Arts.

*****

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good article. It is hard to fathom how U2 could be so out of touch when the financial crisis has been growing for such a long time. Maybe they should call this the 2009 economic stimulus tour if they are dropping nearly a million dollars a day in their wake. I would like to believe that the lead time it takes to design and develop such a gargantuan show would explain it, but I think it is more a case of a mid (end-of?) life crisis on the part of the band. It is hard to believe that the normally PR savvy Bono didn't pick up on the rewards to be reaped from taking the "band of the people" angle and going minimalist with deeply discounted ticket prices.