U2 stunned its fans yesterday with the surprise free iTunes release of "Songs of Innocence," the band’s first album in five years. Apple then pushed an avalanche of downloads to the service’s half a billion users worldwide, whether they wanted it or not.
Sure, that may have triggered jokes on social media, but here’s the important thing to remember: Of those billions of account holders, millions and millions are actually U2 fans. The band’s most recent U2 360 Tour, which lasted from 2009 to 2011, is the highest-grossing and most-attended tour of all time, according to Billboard. That means more than $730 million gross with over 7.2 million tickets sold.
So why does it feel, for me and fellow U2 fans, that we’re so alone in liking the band right now? When U2 appeared on yesterday’s Apple Live announcement, and news broke about Songs of Innocence, Twitter exploded with snark comments and disapproval.
Let’s not get it twisted: Plenty of folks are still excited about the album. All you have to do is check out the #SongsofInnocence hashtag for proof.
Genuinely do not understand why Twitter seems to hate U2, who have enough great songs to forever justify Bono's dumb glasses— David Greenwald (@davidegreenwald) September 9, 2014
But it’s not easy to stand up for U2 (my personal favorite band ever) in the face of entrenched cynicism (what’s the point?), hilarious wisecracks (I can take a joke) and, frankly, some good points about the nature of U2 and why iTunes users don’t want U2’s music automatically downloaded to their iCloud or computer.
OK, he’s done two. (The talks, though, especially the second, are deeply inspiring.Seriously, check them out.) No one will ever accuse Bono of not preaching or lecturing his audience enough. Bono has self-criticized and ruminated over this at length in the press and in U2’s music. “It’s hard to listen while you preach,” he sings on the new album's song “Every Breaking Wave.”
I would be much more "surprised" if U2 suddenly had some dignity again. It's been decades.— LAID MISÉRABLES (@HETHERFORTUNE) September 9, 2014
Then there’s the “Back in the Day” argument. “I liked their old stuff.” “They were amazing in the 1980s.” Even people who claim to hate U2 can probably name one U2 song they know and love (or secretly love, despite themselves). There’s a good chance that song was released somewhere between 1979 and 1989, or, perhaps, 1994. Undeniably, that was U2’s heyday.
I’ll be the first to admit that U2’s best days in the studio are likely behind them. Nothing the band does will ever top "The Joshua Tree." But when’s the last time you heard 2000’s "All That You Can’t Leave Behind?" You’ve probably heard “Beautiful Day” several times in a waiting room or retail outlet somewhere.
Still, despite otherwise lackluster studio output, the band’s been doing fine—just, y’know, filling arenas and stadiums worldwide since then. Like so many bands of a certain age, U2 has become less potent in the studio, but more potent on stage, which is where it shines most.
After I saw the group in Mexico on the U2 360 Tour, I understood: U2 continuing its legacy and releasing new music isn’t really for Americans at this point. They’re more for the rest of the world, where industry wisdom and general sales trends indicate that at least two records sell in foreign markets for every one sold domestically.
“In the next 24 hours, over a half a billion people are going to have Songs of Innocence… should they choose to check it out,” reads a U2.com post from yesterday. “That is so exciting. People who haven’t heard our music, or weren’t remotely interested, might play us for the first time because we’re in their library. Country fans, hip hop aficionados from East L.A., electro poppers from Seoul, Bhangra fans from New Delhi, Highlifers in Accra … all might just be tempted to check us out, even for a moment. What a mind blowing, head scratching, 21st century situation. Over 500 million people… that’s a billion ears. And for the people out there who have no interest in checking us out, look at it this way… the blood, sweat and tears of some Irish guys are in your junk mail.”
"Songs of Innocence" isn’t all the U2 music haters are going to have to deal with. October brings the album’s official physical release, with extras like acoustic versions of Innocence’s songs on the way. And the post on U2’s website hints at another album, Songs of Experience. (Are you catching the William Blake vibes yet?)