When do people stop saying they have a favorite band? I think it happens sometime after college, when you realize that the images you’ve spent your whole life crafting don’t mean much to anyone besides you. More than that, we realize that we don’t have to pin our colors to just one tribe. Much like we stop worrying too much about who our “best friend” is in adulthood, so do we stop defining ourselves so heavily through our music. At age 31, I don’t know if I could name a favorite band. The White Stripes, Arcade Fire, They Might Be Giants, all of those bands are more than just something to enjoy. They are part of who I am. So it is with the music that speaks to all of us. But when I was in college I knew exactly who my favorite band was.
U2 is the kind of band who is damaging to one’s music cred. Part of that is simply because they’re kind of an obvious tentpole. The in thing to do now is to find an obscure band that a lot of people haven’t heard of, or at least one who doesn’t obviously care so much about being big and famous. Part of that is ire directed towards Bono, who clearly enjoys attention and doesn’t mind using it for the causes he cares about. These days a good chunk of it is directed towards the idea of U2 as a brand. They’re 360 Tour was heavily promoted as being sponsored by Blackberry, they have an incredibly cozy relationship with iTunes, and they are the sort of band who advertises themselves, like Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones. Such commercialism doesn’t sit well with today’s rock fans, if it ever did to begin with.
When I dug into U2’s music in college, they were all I could listen to for a long time. It was a period where they were enjoying something of a resurgance, when they were suddenly culturally relevant again after some time in the wilderness. I listened to them so much that my college roommate could probably sing a lot of their songs for you.
But at some point adulthood intervened and I grew a little distant with them. Part of it was the general antipathy I sensed around the internet, but it also coincided with a period where they began to struggle mightily with recording music. Their last two albums both had five-year gestataion periods, and one of those albums was kind of lofty and difficult. If I’m honest I was a little self-conscious of my fandom, like I was ashamed to have loved them so much. And just recently I’ve been able to rediscover why I liked them so much, after having a family and eventually realizing that to care about how cool your music makes you look is very sad when you’re an adult.
It’s interesting that we don’t just enjoy the music of our favorite bands. We have a weird kind of relationship with them, especially when we’re young. We follow every bit of news, we eagerly purchase new albums, and we either feel affirmed when we it or betrayed when we don’t. I’m not sure we give this up in adulthood, but we don’t allow ourselves to be ruled by it nearly as much. The relationship moves from a weird adolescent thing to a far steadier adult friendship, one where you might not keep in touch like you used to but you are able to start things right up again when able.
I find myself thinking about all of this in connection with U2’s Songs Of Innocence, because it’s been a time for me to reflect on what I love about them, what has never really worked for me, and why I got there in the first place. It’s been a time to revisit all of their own albums, which has been an interesting process. Not so much because I’m hearing new things, but because I’ve lived with most of this music for at least a decade and a lot has changed for me. So I’m going to write about it, talking about each of U2’s albums right up to Songs of Innocence. I’m also going to include a little bit of personal insight into why they work for me.
Hopefully it’ll be a time when fellow U2 fans will be able to share their enjoyment of a band they love without having to slog through acres of comments from people who hate them. Or maybe even people who hate U2 (assuming they read it at all) will see something in there that makes them think about how their favorite bands shaped them. Mostly I’m writing it as something I know I would like to read.
So we’ll start next week with U2’s 1980 debut, Boy.