World Leader Pretend

U2 has gone from the band that mattered most to arguably the most irrelevant.

There, I said it. But just because I threw myself on the proverbial cross and 'fessed up, I don't expect you to go out and hawk your tickets to U2's sold-out show at American Airlines Center this October. Or pawn your U2 iPod. Or trade in How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb at CD World. Or disown the band you still foolishly believe is the Greatest. Fucking. Band. Ever.

All that takes time. At least 20 years. That's how long it took me, and I was their Biggest. Fucking. Fan. Ever.

Yeah, I was--long before Bono's ascension to would-be president of the World Bank. Before U2 traded in the challenge of making groundbreaking music--for which it earned its keep upon the perch of modern rock from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s--for the Top 40 of the aughts.

U2 has not only gotten cosmetically younger, reaching out to the Now That's What I Call Music! crowd. It's become musically immature, so much so that I half expect the foursome to leave Earth in about 25 years as toddlers returning to Ork.

It's not the corporate sellout even U2's most loyal fans acknowledge, coupled with five consecutive years--and two consecutive albums--of mediocrity. (Although, if iPods were being sold with War, The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby as the commercial soundtrack, rather than a lame attempt like "Vertigo" to court a younger audience, you wouldn't hear a peep from the purists anyway.)

The shit that gets me most is Bono's pressing flesh with Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Kofi Annan, Nelson Mandela and dozens of other global power players, while he and his bandmates--The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. --try to force U2's self-invented legacy down our throats as we're puking up the sales pitch.

Every time Bono flashes a Cheshire grin after an inconsequential discussion on Third World debt relief or funding for AIDS research, I think of the tourists who smile for the camera in front of the gaping hole where the World Trade Center once stood.

It's all so disingenuous. And downright insulting.

When Bono publicly lobbied for U2 to reclaim the title of "best band in the world" in 2001 on the Elevation tour, I thought to myself, "You don't apply for the position, dude. You're anointed by history."

Of course, U2 has manipulated history for the better part of three decades, which is partly why I believed U2 would outdo the Stones, Bob Dylan and Neil Young--the once-mighty who falsely believe they're still making good music--by actually continuing to make good music as part of the music-plus-savvy-marketing equation. Sadly, the jig is up.

This wasn't an easy conclusion for me, as I haven't always been a U2-basher. Quite the opposite.

Of course, I own every album (yes, I bought them; they're not burned copies), including a half-dozen low-quality bootlegs and this decade's major disappointments, All That You Can't Leave Behind and Atomic Bomb. As a teenager, I read from cover to cover, in one sitting, Eamon Dunphy's gratuitous blowjob of a book, Unforgettable Fire: The Story of U2, and believed in every bit of it. I groaned aloud when Bono didn't win "Sexiest Male Rock Artist" in the 1987 Rolling Stone readers' choice poll (George Michael took first place, with Bono a distant fourth). And I'm not even gay.

As preposterous as it was that Zooropa won the Grammy for Best Alternative Album over Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream in 1993, I belted out a thunderous "Hell, yeah!" and rubbed it in every hater's face.

But I've realized in the past five years--my loyalty slowly chipped away--that U2 won't be the band Bono always promised us.

While the majority are still in denial about U2's worth to progressive music, there's a small minority of rock critics around the country, not employed by Rolling Stone, who are calling U2's bluff.

For instance, there's Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot, who penned one of the more honest pieces about the band's decline--both musically and ethically--I've read. In his February 13 column for the paper, he wrote: "In recent years, [U2's] business practices have become more suspect, their attention-seeking more transparent, their principles more readily compromised, and their music less challenging."

Still, with every new album and every subsequent tour, some fake, highbrow critic's gotta gush that there's something new and brilliant about Bono that no one's ever caught on to before. Or that every pompous move Bono makes has to have some deeper meaning.

Like Kelefa Sanneh's New York Times review of U2's Vertigo tour opener in San Diego on March 29, in which Sanneh observed: "While Bono delighted in playing the diplomat and playing the showman (and in hinting that these two characters have something in common), the rest of the band got down to work, creating the deceptively simple sounds and textures that appear again and again in their songs."

In other words, Bono screwed around and created a spectacle of himself to draw attention away from the fact that the new songs suck.

And therein lies the core of how U2 has dismantled itself, because really, this isn't a rant about the ills of selling out, as U2 has clearly done. The Stones did it, too--long ago--albeit by way of Budweiser, which never could have been used as a guise for a creative outlet in the way U2 has lately attempted to justify its deal with Apple.

What U2 has done--in its quest to become bigger than the Beatles (and, in turn, claim that no one is bigger than Jesus)--translates to this:

They fucked up a really good thing.

Like the girlfriend you never cheated on breaking your heart.

Like the bastard who breaks up a championship team.

Like W., post-Clinton.

Like Bono and U2 for almost a decade now.

Have fun in October, suckers.

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Joe Watson

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