In last week’s column, I made a passing comment about how much I hate U2, which garnered a couple of message board posts and several e-mails. I had intended on spending this entry talking about exactly why I hate U2, but then I considered my argument. As it happens, it turns out I don’t hate U2 outright; it’s more complicated than that. I won’t lie — I enjoy most of Achtung Baby (Listen via Napster) and if “With Or Without You” comes on the radio, I don’t change the station. My natural inclination was to waffle on my anti-U2 stance — after all, isn’t it hypocritical to write off a band but then allow that they’re okay in certain contexts?
In reality, my feelings for U2 almost match my feelings for Pearl Jam. I consider Eddie’s group of Seattlites one of my favorite bands in the universe, but I’ve only been able to tolerate a handful of songs (never mind an entire album) since 1996’s No Code (Listen via Napster). Yet I absolutely love Pearl Jam. Remember when they released 72 bootlegs from their 2000 tour? I own fifty-four of them, yet somehow I still count Yield (Listen via Napster) as one of the worst albums of all time.
So why when asked about either band do I say that I love Pearl Jam but hate U2? It cannot be about music, so what is it about? A lot of people dislike Bono for his political aspirations, but Pearl Jam have been just as involved in the political realm (they played rallies for Ralph Nader in 2000 and have been adamantly anti-Bush since his election).
Then I realized exactly why I reserve bile for U2: Career arc. There is one aspect of U2’s career arc that I’ve never been able to get over. To wit: The band spent most of the ’90s experimenting with weird sounds and going outside the box. Achtung Baby was an incredible departure for them, especially considering their attempted appropriation of American roots music a few years earlier. Anyway, Achtung was followed by the even stranger Zooropa (Listen via Napster) and Original Soundtracks Volume 1 (which was credited to the Passengers, but make no mistake — it’s a U2 project). It culminated with 1997’s Pop (Listen via Napster), which was a bold stab at reinvention that ended up being a zero-sum game. At the time, everybody was looking for the group who would combine rock music with “electronica” to create a new hybrid that would carry us into the 21st century. This is how groups like Prodigy ended up on the cover of Spin in that era. At the time, Pop was touted as the answer to everyone’s rock-dance questions, but it was lukewarmly received by critics and absolutely lambasted by fans. The subsequent “Popmart” tour took an especially large hit, as people were not amused by the gigantic lemons and bright shiny props of the stage show, a development that is especially confusing considering they were championed a few years prior for putting on an elaborate stadium show with the “Zoo TV” tour.
But rather than stick to their guns, U2 abandoned those instincts and ended up making a record that sounded exactly like The Joshua Tree (Listen via Napster) and called it All That You Can’t Leave Behind (Listen via Napster). That album was a huge seller, won a ton of Grammys, and re-cemented U2 as our international spokesmen for rock. But I don’t think I can stand by their retreat into comfort. U2 stared harsh criticism in the face, and rather than stick it to everybody, they made an album they knew would make everyone comfortable (and then followed it up with the exact same record, except this time it was called How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb).
So in the end, it isn’t the songs (some of which I love) or the politics (some of which I agree with). I hate U2 because they pulled the least punk move in modern rock history and were rewarded for it. Eddie Vedder has stuck to his guns, and while the albums aren’t any good, it’s a principal thing, you know?
Now Watch This: The video to U2’s edgy-period track “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”