It’s probably healthy, especially in a winner-take-all era of enormous superstars and plutocrats towering over the rest of us, that we reserve a bit of resentment for people who are incredibly rich or famous. Our grudge is not as good as turning the tables, but it’s something.
But the grumbling about U2’s decision not to play two scheduled shows in Paris, in the immediate wake of Friday’s terrorist attacks, doesn’t make any sense. They were scheduled to play Bercy Arena Saturday and Sunday night, about 24-48 hours after terrorists murdered 89 people and critically injured almost 100 more at Bataclan Theatre during an Eagles of Death Metal concert.
You can find U2 occasionally obnoxious and musically uninteresting – as I do – and still be a bit baffled by Tim Sommer’s entirely unforgiving piece in The Observer, in which he calls the postponed concerts "the biggest mistake" of U2's career:
In a career bursting with gestures, U2 had the opportunity to make what could have been the grandest and most meaningful gesture of their careers. Never, ever would U2’s message of Coexistence have had more meaning; Bono, the Edge, Clayton and Mullen could have begged for compassion, shed tears of mourning, shredded chords of anger. They could have walked in the bloody path of atrocity and opened their arms to the angels of peace. In other words, they could have done everything U2 always do in every concert; only they could have done it in a setting where it actually would have meant something.
He then concludes, “Fuck them forever.”
Sommer is certainly right about something: U2 it not just another band, not even another really huge band. Bono and the boys have put themselves in an unusual position, one that goes beyond their riches or grandiose tours with enormous pieces of hardware. From the beginning, this has been a band that loves big public statements – about peace in Ireland, peace in general, religious tolerance, and so on. ("Jesus, Jew, Mohammad, it's true. All sons of Abraham," Bono declaimed after the 2005 bombings of London trains and buses.)
So when they dodge high-profile shows that seem tailor-made to a grand statement about peace or perseverance – the high profile version of people who head to Paris cafes to smoke and drink wine and show off their indomitable sectarian Frenchness – it’s natural that haters would pile on.
The band did not drop out of sight entirely: They attended a memorial, and Bono made a statement that’s hard to find fault with. This is from EW:
“If you think about it, the majority of victims last night are music fans,” Bono said. “This is the first direct hit on music that we’ve had in this so-called War on Terror. And it’s very upsetting.”
… “These are our people,” Bono said. “This could be me at a show, you at a show … It’s a very recognizable situation. All our thoughts are with the Eagles of Death Metal fans.”
But what do we really expect U2 to do in this case? As Bono told Irish DJ Dave Fanning in a radio interview last weekend, the band didn't call off their concerts. "It was cancelled, honest, and I understand perfectly why … It's up to the French authorities and the city to decide when we can go back," said Bono.
The scheduled show would have exposed everyone at Bercy Arena – band, audience, crew – to potential danger. And U2 is not exactly at the stage where they can play a small club or anonymously busk on the street instead. (“But are you telling me they couldn’t busk in the street, or show up at a club?” Sommer wrote. Sigh.)
There’s plenty of reason to be scared, frustrated, or angry about these attacks on a city steeped in symbolism. Much of the world is reeling. But taking it out on U2?
One of the voices of reason on this one has been the music writer Caryn Rose:
To which I can only agree.
Sure, keep giving U2 a hard time for being pretentious, bombastic, and less musically inventive than they used to be. I wish they had made a few great albums and quit sometime in the Bush Sr. years, with their dignity intact. We can make fun of Bono for being a gasbag and for The Edge for holding onto his silly name into his 50s.
But for complying with requests to avoid a likely scene of violence? Come on.