Music

Debate – Are U2 actually any good?

Music perennial question is back on the agenda…

Yes – Jack Enright

When it comes down to it, hating U2 is on about the same level as kicking a puppy. Only that in this case, society has deemed puppy-kicking not only socially acceptable but also an extremely fashionable pastime. This is obviously an extreme analogy, but it is by no means unwarranted – because at the end of the day, just why is it that we all hate U2 so much? Ask this question of your flatmates and you will receive a uniform volley of rolled-eyes and contemptuous snorts. But press for an answer and most people end up stumped. A quick Google search garners much the same results – the most popular responses ranging from “because they’re U2” to the only slightly more helpful “because Bono wears sunglasses all the time”.

The real reasons behind this contempt runs far deeper than any aversion to wraparound sunglasses. It’s because U2 make pop music, and that makes us all feel a bit uncomfortable. And before you tell me that U2 aren’t pop, just remember that pop music is an amalgamation of every musical genre under the sun, and has nothing to do with what instrument your using.

So – pop. The P Word. Pop looms ominously over all modern music like the proverbial (titanic and garish) elephant in music’s front room – a horse that occupies a space in modern culture exactly equidistant between love and disgust. Getting a handle on pop music is like juggling rotten eggs – you’ve got to keep your mind on several different things at once, because if you slip up, you’re going to look like an idiot. This is because it’s extremely difficult to put your finger on just when pop became a dirty word – yes, Bieber really is an odious little toad, but who remembers The Beatles? Michael Jackson? David Bowie? Prince? Queen? Fleetwood Mac? Because all these names were pop acts in their own time.

So why do U2 attract so much vitriol? It has something to do, I think, with the changing attitudes to pop music within the last 20 years. In its golden years, pop was a serious art form. Pop wasn’t just about music, it was a means for social change – think Bowie’s androgynous assault on traditional ideas of gender-identification, or Michael Jackson’s track “Black or White”. These days though, all we’re ready to hear in our pop music is bland, ubiquitous hedonism, whether it’s Miley Cyrus singing that “it’s our party we can do what we want”, or Calvin Harris telling us to “get ready for the weekend”.

But U2 doesn’t fit into this scheme at all – U2’s music exhibits all the qualities of pop music, but it is wrapped in such earnest sincerity that we don’t know what to do with them. It’s not that the music isn’t any good (love him or loathe him, Bono is among the most talented melodists in recent times), it is that, like the puppy, U2 are sincere in the extreme, and within the current fashion for the vapid and inane, U2 just don’t fit. From the overtly political lament of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, to the 4-minute spiritual crisis of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, U2’s music is made to be taken seriously. The problem is that we aren’t prepared to do so – cynicism is much too comfortable for that, and no one wants to hear about the Bloody Sunday Masscre whislt downing shots in Mantra.

Whether you like their music or not, the sound of U2 is the sound of a band baring it’s soul – try and remember that before you put the boot in.

U2

No – Mike Vinti

It’s easy to hate U2, and there’s good reason for that. U2 are the least interesting, most banal, soul-crushingly earnest band to release an album this side of punk. In fact the only band that top U2 in the ‘not being very good at all really’ stakes is Coldplay; if there’s anything worse than Bono it’s Chris Martin trying to be Bono so hard you half expect him to start wearing awful sunglasses and stop paying tax.

U2 represent everything that’s wrong with the music industry these days: the music that sounds like Joy Division fronted by Rod Stewart, the image that’s somewhere between your dad’s juvenilia and Linkin Park. Even their names are terrible; has there ever been a less edgy name than ‘The Edge’? U2’s musical journey went straight from adolescent strife to midlife crisis and missed all the good bits in-between.

Believe me when I say that I take no pleasure in disliking U2 as intensely as I do – 2004’s How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb was the first album I ever bought as an eleven year old discovering rock music for the very first time. I have borderline traumatic memories of singing along to ‘Vertigo’ and ‘All Because Of You’ as the CD span in my dad’s Walkman. U2 are perfect for eleven year olds; their lyrics are obvious, their guitar riffs simple and their song titles act as a sort of guide to the approaching years of teenage angst.

I would never go so far as to say that U2 are so awful that they are unimportant; they have an undeniable influence over modern popular music, or at least they did until dubstep happened and Britney Spears came back. U2 pre-empted the popularity of nu-metal with the hip-hop style beats on Achtung Baby and endeavoured to stay relevant throughout the 2000s when guitar music was back on top. Ultimately U2’s failure to be any good comes down to how ‘try-hard’ they are. Whether it’s Bono criticising The West for not helping impoverished Africans while avoiding paying tax, or the fact that their music sounds dated as soon as its released, U2 will forever be seen as trying too hard to be cool.

Sadly, not everyone is as enlightened as me and you, and U2 have somehow managed to become one of the most popular bands around. They even headlined Glastonbury in 2011, which is deeply concerning. U2 fans walk among us, they dress the same as us, they have the same hobbies, they enjoy much of the same music as we do, and some of them even edit our student newspaper.

These U2 fans will cry “What about ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’?”, or clutch at your sleeve whilst trying to tell you that The Joshua Tree is the greatest album of the late 20th century. Pay these deluded souls no heed for they know not what they do wrong. Treat them with sympathy and compassion: but whatever you do don’t let them put on ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ at pre-drinks.

05/11/2013

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jackenright Jack enjoyed his time as Music Editor so much that he decided he’s decided to stick around for another year. In the short term, this means more think-pieces on the cultural importance of Young Fathers. In the long term, it means that Jack will probably get a 3rd. Either way, it’s sure to be entertaining.