Songs of Emptiness

Bono’s mission isn’t simply to provide capitalism with a human face. It’s to ruin music in the process.

Phil Romans / Flickr

As with all advertisements, there are a few deceptions at the heart of Apple’s commercial for U2’s newly released Songs of Innocence. The most immediate is that it ends with the tagline “free on iTunes now.”

Given that the album was delivered — without permission — into the digital libraries of over five hundred million iTunes users, implying any kind of choice in the matter seems at the very least misleading. A better version of the ad might read “yours whether you like it or not.”

The move to upload Songs of Innocence without the consent of hundreds of millions of music fans has been so strongly criticized that within days Apple posted a standalone webpage with instructions on how to permanently delete the album. Meanwhile, lead-singer Bono has been lashing out at critics as “haters,” calling the Internet commentary “enough to put you off democracy.” It’s a rather odd rebuttal, which is to say nothing of the rather unsettling implications such a marketing strategy brings with it in a post-Snowden world.

A much more subtle deception is embedded in the ad’s content, which features old footage of live performances from the Ramones, the Clash, and Patti Smith. But what about U2? They are relegated to empty blue-violet avatars, singing and performing the album’s lead single while images of Patti, Joey and Johnny, Joe and Mick are projected onto them.

It’s surely intended as an homage of sorts, an attempt to paint the band as following in the footsteps of punk rock’s greatest. But the resulting imagery only underlines the Washington Post’s Chris Richards’s description of the iTunes scheme: “rock-and-roll as dystopian junk mail.” This is the artist as a hollow vessel, a blank commodity for the sake of another commodity, ready-made for the transmission of whatever concept is deemed worthy at the time.

To be sure, Bono has viewed himself in such a way for some time now. He has famously spent the past twenty-five years glad-handing Clintonian economists and former World Bank honchos, heads of state, bigoted congressmen, and outright war criminals. He has penned asinine columns for the New York Times touting the benefits of the free market that make Thomas Friedman look positively eloquent. And then there’s his charitable work: providing money for AIDS research in Africa by teaming up with some of the very same Western companies that have profited so highly from the ongoing pillage of the continent.

Bono’s mission isn’t simply to provide capitalism with a human face. Whether he acknowledges it or not, it’s an attempt at constructing a full-spectrum artistic cocoon for Margaret Thatcher’s notorious dictum “There Is No Alternative.” Songs of Innocence — both its ham-handed aesthetics and its crass economics — fits right in.

What of the album itself, then? The title is a reference to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. (The group has promised a follow-up album Songs of Experience to be released “soon enough.”) This is the illustrated collection of poems that contains some of Blake’s most famous verses, including the author’s powerful indictments of the exploitation and extreme poverty that accompanied the Industrial Revolution.

Bono and company don’t seem to have absorbed much of Blake’s work past the title, however. Songs of Innocence revisits the group’s childhood growing up in Ireland. Surely 1970s Dublin, gripped as it was by recession and with the Troubles raging not far to the north, bore a certain similarity in terms of immiseration to capitalism’s formative years. What seems to have helped the young boys of U2 cope with all of it are the sounds of punk rock. This much is obvious in the lead single, “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone).”

“Miracle” is a catchy enough song. It’s notable that after all these years the Edge still has the ability to write a decent guitar hook (at least by “getting stuck in your head” standards). But whatever uplift might be promised by the quasi-choir vocals at the track’s opening is robbed from us when the chorus essentially delivers the same thing as the verse. There’s no exaltation, just a plateau of Bono’s sincere but nondescript appreciation for the title subject.

It’s a pattern that’s maintained throughout Songs of Innocence. There are a few fairly lovely moments — tracks like “Every Breaking Wave” and “Song for Someone” provide some of the ethereal moodiness that many have come to expect from U2. But the cathartic pay-off recognizable in “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “The Unforgettable Fire,” or even “Beautiful Day” is completely missing. For an album that wants to harp on the theme of escape from vicissitude so much, there seems to be no embodiment of that internal struggle. There is little investment, and no drama.

This is an album thoroughly lacking in coherence. The band rushes from one sound to the next without much thought or consideration, and Bono’s lyrics have far too little specificity to compensate or tie it all together. Nothing is stuck with long enough for an image to be conjured, let alone a narrative. Even references to the Troubles on the final track remain frustratingly oblique, relying on war-zone cliches that didn’t work when Bono sang about Sarajevo or Burma.

What could be an album about the tortures and frustrations of childhood in an unforgiving world (and perhaps a worthy tribute to punk) ends up doing nothing more than leaving us with vague feels. This isn’t the kind of poignant (if very flawed) memorializing of bygone adolescent wonder one finds in such albums as Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. Nor is it a way of working through the demons of past trauma. It is memory without purpose. Nostalgia for nostalgia itself. A nondescript sense of longing self-referenced and reprocessed and redistributed for the thousandth time.

This isn’t entirely U2’s fault. Over time the concept of pastiche, so central to postmodernism, has been torn apart and restitched so many times that nothing is left but threadbare strings. It’s a logical outcome of neoliberalism’s cultural rationale. Whenever contemporary culture looks forward, it can’t help but see decay and apocalypse, be it The Walking Dead or beautiful shining synth songs dreaming of annihilation. With no sense of future, it ends up looking backward and pining for the past, rehashing it until all that’s left are memories minus their emotive power.

What separates this approach from that of U2’s influences is simply a question of time and self-awareness. Blake’s revolutionary romanticism certainly idealized the verdant fields of pre-industrial England against the “dark satanic mills” that took their place, but he wasn’t one to let himself get lost in the ether of what was. His embrace of the French Revolution proves as much.

As for punk rock, the cries of “No Future” can be woefully misleading. The music of the Clash and Patti Smith not only dealt with the decay of an England or America long since past, but a sense that something new and dynamic might form in the rubble. Even the ironic smirk of the Ramones (whose politics were undeniably anti-Communist) seemed to grapple with the present in such a cartoonish way; the laughter necessitated something to look forward to.

Though it seems hard to fathom, and though they were far from the most radical or interesting of this milieu, U2 came out of the first wave of post-punk wave inspired by such acts. The 1980s saw much of this scattered to the wind. But even then, with the group’s support for the anti-apartheid movement and opposition to the West’s meddling in Central America, it seemed that there was at least a vague sense that their sound represented some kind of break with the realities of Reagan and Thatcher.

Now, thirty years of inertia have allowed that sound to sit comfortably within the same stadiums that those just a few steps away from U2 were trying to shun. While it would be far too mechanical to crudely hitch the group’s sonic dead-end to Bono’s reactionary politics, both have been increasingly nurtured over the past three decades by Fred Jameson’s cultural logic of late capitalism.

Apple apparently dropped $100 million to distribute Songs of Innocence for free. (No word on how much of that is going to Island Records.) Most likely the label is hoping that the massive upload will translate into massive sales when the physical album is released on October 13 — particularly considering the relatively lackluster sales for their previous record, No Line on the Horizon. That album sold over five million copies worldwide, but in the key markets of the US and UK sold less than a third of the band’s 2004 effort, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

Atomic Bomb, like Songs of Innocence, was heavily promoted through a tie-in campaign for Apple’s iPod. Both Bono and bass-player Adam Clayton have publicly lamented the dip in sales for No Line, so it’s a safe bet that with the Apple deal they are trying to recreate a magic formula that allows them to maintain their status as the “world’s greatest rock band.” Just for safe measure, they’ve thrown in comparisons of themselves to sanitized and static versions of punk’s most legendary.

Which begs the question: how much of this album was designed simply to promote itself? At least the annoying ads pushed through our mail slots every President’s Day promise us great deals on furniture. All U2 and Apple have promised is the selfsame ad, wrapped in the same trite notions, but this time with a price tag.

Such a ploy would explain the album’s reliance on nostalgia, the vagueness of the imagery, the indecisiveness of the sound. In an effort to become “the band that everyone likes,” they have promoted themselves into a state of perpetual self-reference, becoming as empty as their commercial might suggest.

To say “this is what capitalism does to music” is certainly a cliche. We may roll our eyes at how flagrant it’s all become, but with time the music business will manage to shock us all again by innovating itself into a tighter ouroboros. Jameson is surely correct in pointing out that none of us can truly escape this pattern, at least not this side of socialism.

Songs of Innocence is a cautionary tale, then: an example of what kind of blandness awaits those of us who so enthusiastically — and unironically — embrace the artistic ethos of the market.

If only U2 would have listened to their hero, the late Joe Strummer: “selling is what selling sells.” Maybe they might have avoided such a milquetoast fate.