You can't walk away from U2 -- even though you'd like to.
U2′s television special “A Year in Pop,” which aired last weekend on ABC,
started off with a song. That song. It was the first one of theirs I
ever heard. The year: ninth grade. The setting: a high school talent show
at an outdoor band shell on a damp Montana night. I remember my friend’s big
sister performed something from “South Pacific,” a jazz combo did “I
Can’t Get Started” and a garage band made up of seniors I barely knew played
a song that made me look at them in a whole new way. The guitar part had
this persistence, like it was tugging on your shirt sleeves, and the lyrics
were simple, but slotted into a circular rhythm that had this way of
kidnapping your head: “If you walk away walk away walk away walk away, I will
follow.” I was impressed enough to think out loud; when I expressed
admiration for their songwriting skills, the kid next to me said, “That’s U2,
you idiot.” I bought “Boy” the next day, and U2′s version of “I Will
Follow” was even better than those high school students’. Because U2
had … bells!
Other than some Elvis albums purchased under the influence of my mother
before I turned 10, “Boy” was the first rock record I ever bought. At
15, I fancied myself a serious connoisseur of the classical tradition, and I
think I wrapped myself in its pretensions as a way of escaping the horrors of
American adolescence. Debussy and Beethoven had absolutely nothing to do
with me or my life or my friends or lack thereof, and that’s why I liked
them. They came from separate planets where there was no such thing as P.E.
or driver’s education or student council, and since I didn’t have it in me to
imagine a better world, I’d check out for hours at a time, escaping to some Vienna or
Paris or Leipzig that no longer existed. Buying “Boy” was a big step, a
way of admitting to myself that art didn’t have to be abstract
or incomprehensible or 200 years old to be worthwhile — it could be anything that
sparks a direct, emotional response.
So hearing those bells and chords of “I Will Follow” the other night
inspired a fairly clichid sense of nostalgia — but only for about three
seconds. At one time, that song meant everything to me — it delivered me from
Mozart. But I don’t even particularly like it anymore. I no longer hear in it what the teenage me heard. For starters, the words, which once seemed so powerful, now seem
debilitating. I know now that if someone walks out on you, you don’t fucking
follow — you hate them until you don’t care anymore. But for the most part, the problem
is purely sonic. Having grown up with the here-there-everywhere U2, their trademark
aesthetic has become so ingrained and wallpapery (that Edge guitar, that Bono
moan) that any and all of their songs have become as unnoticeable as the McDonald’s “You Deserve A Break Today” jingle.
Like most everyone else, I gave up on U2 after seeing their ballyhooed 1988″rockumentary” “Rattle and Hum.” I’ll admit to having consumed a 32-ounce gin and
tonic before the curtain rose, but even drunk it was bad:
a drippy insult to American culture in the name of blood-sucking fandom.
Oddly, a discussion of the backlash against the film was one of the first
segments in “A Year in Pop.” Talking about the debacle, Bono defended his naiveti:
“It was complete news to us that the blues existed.” He probably only really understood the
blues after everyone started hating him as a culture vulture. By placing this fiasco of earnestness at the top of what was essentially an hour-long ad for their icy new album, “Pop,” the band seemed to be saying that since its audience rejected their love affair with rootsy, soulful authenticity, from now on they were only going to dish out vapid, glitzy cheese.
Any documentary narrated by the crazed Dennis Hopper, as this one was, is bound
to be uncomfortable. Between Hopper’s endless arsenal of rock
platitudes (“When they wind themselves up, U2 are still the biggest, baddest
band in the world”) and a cameo by the now late great Allen
Ginsberg (I really hope he got a lot of money for reading Bono’s lyrics to the
“Pop” song “Miami”), the whole hour felt like damage control. By
explaining their creative and financial lust for bigger and bigger stadium
shows, their infamous Kmart press conference and their launching of the tour
in Las Vegas, they tried to disguise their greed as ambition, using irony as their tired defense.
During “A Year in Pop,” Bono erroneously claimed, “In our moments, we’re definitely the most
interesting band on the planet.” Well, for a few moments when I was 15, they were the only band on the planet. But all that has changed. On “A Year in Pop,” U2 came off as stuck-up and pointless. And on their new clubby-cold album, I can’t even tell the songs apart. Still, even though I walked away from them years ago, I can’t bring myself to hate them. So what if I don’t care about “Pop,” or their Pop-Mart tour, or “A Year in Pop”? They gave me something bigger than a little old pop record: They gave me an introduction to a Pop life.
Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive. More Sarah Vowell.
More Related Stories
- What's 2013's "Gone Girl"? Here are this summer's best reads
- Fox executive behind "Does Someone Have to Go?" leaving the network
- Hillary Clinton memoir shows up on Amazon
- A brief history of Jennifer Weiner's literary fights
- First look: Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard shine in "The Immigrant”
- No women allowed: Summer music festivals are dudefests, again
- Vivica A. Fox tapes anti-gun PSA in front of poster for her movie
- This is what Guy Fieri looks like as a balloon
- Mariah Carey's rambling, cursing, dress-popping "Good Morning America" concert
- Fox's new reality TV show threatens regular people with unemployment
- Amanda Bynes arrested after hurling bong from window
- Steamy lesbian-sex movie has Cannes abuzz
- Stop what you're doing and go watch "Borgen"
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- New York chef serves up eight-course meal around "Arrested Development" jokes
- HLN: Jodi Arias "pleading for her life" got us a ratings win!
- Michael Ian Black on Maron feud: He "considered me a poseur"
- Chekhov's story mirrors Russia's own
- Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina denied parole
- Joe Francis apologizes for calling jury "retarded"
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11