It was perhaps the epitome of the phrase "First World Problems" - U2 uploaded its new album Songs of Innocence into everyone's iTunes library and a small, vocal minority freaked the eff out, prompting frontman Bono to apologize during an online Q&A. In a moment of self-reflection, the often polarizing singer/activist blamed a combination of over-enthusiasm, fear of fading relevance for U2 and a healthy dollop of rock star megalomania. One is forced to wonder, however, why we have apparently become so touchy and spoiled that we now expect people to apologize for giving us something that we didn't necessarily want. Did we get all tantrum-y and demand that Mom and Dad say sorry for the socks and underwear under the Christmas tree instead of the hottest toy of the season? In later years, did we make them apologize for the fruitcake and the ugly shirt that didn't fit? Bono and U2 have apparently committed the worst sin of the digital age: infringing on our freedom to load our devices up with self-selected crap. And rather than just shrugging and deleting it and paying to download the next media-anointed, Auto-Tuned one-hit flavor of the month, we're going ballistic on a foursome of aging rockers who had the audacity to do something nice. The nerve of those guys.
Ever since they chose not to regurgitate The Joshua Tree ad nauseum in every subsequent release, rock fans, fellow musicians and the general public alike have been annoyed with U2, accusing them of being sellouts and sanctimonious preachers calling out the sins of the world from a comfortably bejeweled pulpit, bemoaning artifice and misguided priorities while strutting hundred-million dollar stadium stages. The band's gall to assume that every iTunes subscriber would want a free copy of U2's first studio album in five years was then just one more round for the rifle. But if you dial down the vitriol for just a minute and try to look at the dastardly deed absent the persistent filter of cynicism often as dark as Bono's trademark shades, you can perceive a nobler motive. Maybe the band, all in their mid-50's now, is feeling disconnected from an industry that is chewing up and spitting out acts with increasing frequency and diminishing mercy, mirroring consumer impatience and demand for light-speed gratification. The new generation doesn't have time to invest itself in listening to the nuanced, evolving textures of a complete album when appetites have been slouching towards prepackaged, disposable three-and-a-half minute pop (complete with a healthy dose of booty-shaking) for a few decades now. That's not the music U2 has ever been interested in making, and even their misguided venture down that pothole-filled road, 1997's Pop, could not stray too far from the earnestness and straining for spiritual truth that marks their entire output. Despite their occasional statements to the contrary, it simply isn't in U2's genes to make throwaway music. (That isn't to say some of their songs don't suck - "Volcano" on Songs is borderline unlistenable - but they never suck for lack of trying not to.)
Bono certainly, and to a lesser extent Edge, Adam and Larry, are unique creations of modern celebrity culture, occupying a stratosphere to which they have been elevated by the masses and from which the view must often be dizzying and alienating. Far be it from anyone to plead for sympathy for rock stars, but after thirty-plus years in that bubble you've completely lost touch with what it means to be an ordinary human being, with the simple struggle to pay the rent and raise a family and make things better for your kids while trying to figure out who you are and what your purpose is here on this finite planet. So too then has your ability to make music that truly touches those anonymous thousands in the darkened crowd before you on the stage become obscured behind the blinding lights of universal fame and obscene wealth. That's your life now, and you can't ever go back, no matter how many charitable causes you attach yourself to. But in his lyrics on Songs of Innocence, Bono has tried. He has attempted to reconnect with who Paul Hewson was before he traded in that most non-rock-ish name for the persona that would come to define his life. At their best, the tracks evoke the joy of attending your first rock concert, the ache of losing a beloved parent, and the longing for love however you choose to define it, physical or spiritual. We have all been there. Giving the album away for free is a throwback to the phenomenon of the unknown, unsigned band passing around its crude demo tape in faint hope of attracting the notice that will take them to the next level. And it's an invitation to wander back to the innocent era (pun intended) where you light a candle, put the record on and listen to both sides all the way through on the giant headphones. However, as honest as some of the songs are, impossible to overlook is the huge spectre of BONO singing them over THE EDGE's distinct guitar. We can't see U2 as those young wannabes anymore, and perhaps it's a fool's errand for them to try to fit those parts again given who they've become - but it's hardly their fault we chose to make them into gods.
Ultimately, the cynicism we apply to regarding a gift as a marketing ploy is of our own creation. We have become so jaded by the relentless push of consumerism into all aspects of our lives that we keep hunting for the catch, convinced that everyone is somehow trying to screw us into handing over our credit card number. Honestly, would people really have been any happier if the album had come with a $19.99 price tag? If it had been someone less outspoken, say, Paul McCartney or Tony Bennett, giving away a free album instead? If there had been more songs about shaking arses? The backlash over the free release of Songs of Innocence only erects a thicker wall between the big acts and the peons (i.e. us) keeping their careers going, and disconnection is antithetical to the purpose of music. U2 reached out a hand only to have it slapped back with a how-dare-you, when perhaps the better course of action would be to have said thank you, just as we would for that unwanted fruitcake at Christmas, and quietly consigned it to the bin. Or, heaven forbid, given it a taste and maybe discovered something worthwhile.
From this longtime fan though, thanks very much lads, and you know, if you wanted to mail me a couple of free front-row concert tickets for the next time you're in town, that would be cool too.