U2's new album hit me like a ton of bricks.
For eight days in a row, Songs of Innocence has nipped at my heels, beckoning less like a hungry puppy than a salty sea, washing my feet in its tides. The music bears (and bares) pain and joy in the way that only a U2 album can. It's frenetic, intuitive, calming, revealing. I haven't felt this way about an album in at least fifteen years. I didn't know how badly I needed it until I got it for free.
When Apple automated the push of U2's album Songs of Innocence into the iTunes libraries of more than a half billion people last week, it became the biggest release of all time. Apple paid U2, and we paid nothing. It was an act of brilliant calculation in which the world's biggest brand turned the world's biggest band into a post-consumer element, more of an ether than a product.
The Internet is aflutter with articles bashing the Apple stunt, chattering about U2's secret collaborations on new digital formats and the fact that only 35 million people have played Songs of Innocence on iTunes. Why are we all so hot and bothered by this album? Because we're on the precipice. There's a chance the music industry could fail further, leaving us with a dearth of uncompensated artists and scant recorded works. Music sales have declined consistently for a decade.
But, get this: the devaluation of music has also devalued the listener. Maybe the problem with music isn't technology. Maybe it's us. Could it be that the music industry is sinking and fewer people are buying music - not only because people don't want to pay for it, but because listening to music is now officially a lost art?
It's important to note that during the Apple event where the U2 "gift" was announced, Apple CEO Tim Cook didn't use the word "listener." Instead, he branded us as the Users that we've become. We've been conditioned to use music in the same way that we use apps. We users want music to interface, not interfere, with the other elements of our "user experience" lifestyle. We customize our days down to the millisecond and megabyte - from the app that knows our coffee order to the algorithms that shuffle the random, faceless songs our music streaming services aggregate for us. User experience is itself an oxymoron: using and experiencing aren't the same thing. Not until the digital age did the word "user " suddenly apply to every action associated with personal devices, including one of our previously most sacred visceral and physical experiences - listening to music.
We no longer feel the need to own music, collect it, cherish it, blast it in our bedrooms, drive it down country roads, hold it in our hands, flip the tape, change the CD, lift the arm of the needle and repeat. In turn, we've invested less money, time and mental energy as listeners. We allow Pandora to curate our aural experiences for our living spaces without fuss, but how dare Apple gift us a release that takes up space in our gadgets? Once upon a time, spending four hours making a mixtape was the ultimate act of cultural democracy - and sharing a tape with friends was the most personal gift you could give. We've forgotten how to discern, taste, choose.
I'm in love with technology as much as the next guy, but I refuse to identify as a User.
The cynic's math goes something like this: U2 needed a hit, and to get a hit, U2 needed to be used by 500 million users, and therefore U2 used Apple in order to use you and me.
But what if the altruistic side of U2 is the real story here?
If you listen to Songs of Innocence, you might begin to view this album release not as an invasion, but as an unbelievable act of sharing - the grandest attempt from the last greatest band on earth to bring us together as listeners, to be one with the music. Maybe that idea is too bold or too idealistic for some people to grasp, but you can't blame a band for trying.
No matter what your taste in music is, I challenge you to push play, hear Songs of Innocence and experience the art of listening. It will take less than one hour of your time, but it takes presence. You might not like the songs. You might get bored. You might smile. You might roll your eyes. You might cry. You might go searching for that "delete album" link Apple sent you. You might dance. You might get swept up in the stories about the perilous lives of young dreamers. You might get hooked on an old band in a new way.
Whatever happens when you play Songs of Innocence will happen because you, dear User, listened.