I Listened to the New U2 Album So You Don’t Have to

Who said anything about you wanting the music?
Who said anything about you wanting the music?

I, like millions of other Apple users, woke up to find that Tim Cook had bought me an album. Incredibly, the tech giant had decided to (sort of) download a new U2 record into everyone’s iTunes library for free. The publicity stunt prompted speculation about what the move meant for the music industry—the decline of the album as a format vs. streaming/piracy, and the way U2, whose sales have been declining for years, benefited from Apple’s mass distribution in order to promote its more-lucrative tours. Not to mention the fact that, more than a decade after the launch of the iTunes store, it was Apple that seemed to be running the show, not labels or artists.

To me, the U2 move called to mind Radiohead’s celebrated release of In Rainbows in 2007, when it let fans pay whatever they wanted (or nothing) to download the files, as well as Prince’s inclusion of Planet Earth as a free giveaway with Britain’s Mail on Sunday newspaper the same year. Both were releases by artists with enough name recognition and wealth to give their music away for free, and both albums eventually ended up selling reasonably well as traditional discs in stores anyway. Whether a free distribution model could work for smaller artists remained an open question, though many musicians launched careers by making their recordings freely available on BandCamp, YouTube, and other platforms.

What I’m interested in is the way this whole model works for listeners, for the experience of music. Including an album for “free” in a newspaper could be an ingenious marketing strategy, or it could simply reduce music to something near the status of the little toys that get packaged along with a box of Corn Pops or Cracker Jacks—a flimsy, and not particularly valuable, add-on.

The same goes for Apple “dumping” the new U2 album into iTunes applications the world around. It’s an audacious display of the company’s power; one imagines CEO Cook cackling on his throne, a wizard-cum-mad-scientist: “With the push of a button, I can make everyone in the world have to look at the playlist for the new U2 album. Bwah-ha-ha-ha!” Some have noted that Apple had suddenly made Songs of Innocence the most widely distributed album in history in a single stroke—a claim that seems doubtful to me, even with the scope of Apple’s global market-share. Contrary to many reports, it did not, in fact, “auto-download” on my laptop or my phone in any meaningful sense—the tracks just appeared there, but I still had to click to download them. Even if the album found its way into 500 million Apple accounts in this fashion, it does not mean that it was really distributed far and wide (indeed, it seems likely that a tiny fraction of Apple users will ever actually download and listen to the tracks). Compare this “distribution” to the massive sales of album-era giants like Thriller and Saturday Night Fever. As I discuss in my book, the official sales figures for these records scarcely capture the way that they spread, through licit and illicit channels, into every crevice of the world market, from New Jersey to North Korea.

Tim Cook’s press conference reminded Clem of a Cuban lounge singer he’d once seen jiving himself into a tizzy at a HoJo in Indiana: “Where the sheets have no shame, baby!”

But beyond demonstrating the reach of Apple’s power—it can (sort of) make you have music you don’t want—it also speaks to the increasing ephemerality of recorded sound, a trend that began with the growing popularity of the MP3 file format in the late 1990s and has continued ever since. Even the iTunes store was based on the premise of buying “something”—a compressed audio file—that downloads and resides on your computer. (Last year’s ReDigi ruling cast doubt, though, on whether owning an MP3 means anything in a traditional sense.) The growing popularity of Spotify, Pandora, and other streaming services has made the idea of owning music even more tenuous.

And now, a band whose latest release would have been eagerly anticipated twenty years ago, has almost forced its record on fans and non-fans alike. (Indeed, U2 felt compelled to move the release date for its album Pop forward after the lead single “Discotheque” leaked online way back in 1996—ironic foreshadowing, anyone?)

U2 tried not taking themselves seriously once in 1996 – this is what happened

In any case, I settled into my office on Friday morning, with the unmistakably U2-ey song titles of the band’s new album staring out at me from the gray interface of iTunes: “California (There Is No End to Love)”! What would it mean to “have” an album you didn’t want—but also an album that you don’t exactly “have” either, since Apple has merely primed your software to receive it? All the track names are there, but you still have to make that micro-movement to click the little download button for each one. Perhaps these tracks do already belong to me in some sense, residing in the ether of my iCloud somewhere—a platonic stratum I have neither used nor wanted, but which Apple has probably set up for me, just in case.

So I sheepishly closed my door to a crack, so no other faculty or grad students would overhear me listening to (gasp) a new U2 album. (Is there something more discrediting? Even Pinkard & Bowden have camp value.) Maybe there’s a good little album nestled inside a publicity stunt of a band well past its prime. It could happen.

I first tried to open the iTunes digital booklet, only to find that the file was damaged. I wonder if the literally tens of people around the world who tried this had the same experience. This, of course, would mark the first time I had ever even tried to look at a digital booklet for an album. But no bother. Onward to 1980s nostalgia and no-nukes victory.

photo (2)

Right out of the gate, we are reminded of Bono’s unmistakable brand of soppy, confessional lyricism, which marries the personal to the sweeping generality found in mid-grade psalms and teenage poetry. See “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone),” a nostalgic look back to Bono’s days as a young buck, writing music that sounded very little like the Ramones even when U2 was at its most punk (or postpunk?):

I was shaking from a storm in me
Haunted by the specters that we had to see
Yeah, I wanted to be the melody
Above the noise, above the herd

Or something like this, “Song for Someone”:

If there is a light you can always see
And there is a world we can always be

The song is actually moving in a mawkish U2 sort of way, though its title takes the premise of universality behind Elton John’s “Your Song” and somehow makes it more generic, even lackadaisical. Elsewhere Bono exhorts the listener to “free yourself, be yourself”—the ardor of the old flag-waving spirit of “Pride” or “Sunday Bloody Sunday” having long since cooled into bumper-sticker platitudes.

Don Henley and U2

Overall, the album is distinctly okay, if one can take Bono and the gang for the terminally sincere people that they are. Hokey and misplaced punk nostalgia aside, “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” is actually a big, swaggering rock anthem that would probably sound pretty good with a line of coke. “Every Breaking Wave” recycles the taut emotionalism of past ballads like “With or Without You.” “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” has a nice zip to it.  Despite its unfortunate title, “California (There Is No End to Love)” is not a bad entry into the vast catalog of California songs, bursting with good old-fashioned U2 yearning for a more halcyon place, where the streets have no name.  (As H.I. said at the end of Raising Arizona, “Maybe Utah?”)

In the interests of full disclosure: I’m not a confirmed U2 hater. It doesn’t surprise me one iota that a very large constituency of music fans detests the band, but I can suspend cynicism from time to time the same way a viewer suspends disbelief during a sci-fi film. I was a huge fan of Achtung Baby, although its vaguely gothy-industrial sheen doesn’t look like quite the bold stylistic departure that it felt like back in 1992, when everyone had known the band primarily as oh-so-serious crypto-Christian troubadours. I loved the arty perversity of Zooropa—possibly the weirdest album ever released by an incredibly popular band at the height of their commercial success. (Yes, Kid A is a suitable candidate for that distinction, though Radiohead were never as epically big as U2 had been in the Joshua Tree-to-Achtung Baby era.) I even appreciated Pop’s opportunistic bid for electronica glory up to a point—although the band still could not keep its trademark earnest moralism from poking through all that glib disco.

U2 songs of innocence album cover 2
Notably, the album’s “cover” not only emphasizes the novelty of its means of distribution by evoking the older technology of the LP — it also appears to deliberately evoke the Beatles’ White Album in its unadorned aesthetic, as well as Dylan’s Great White Wonder (also published in a plain white sleeve), the bootleg that touched off a huge wave of piracy in 1969.

Taken in its own terms, Songs of Innocence is a pretty not-bad U2 album, especially when considered alongside the late-career works of a lot of other rock dinosaurs. It’s cookie-cutter in the way it imitates the sound of the band’s late-1980s peak, but it’s not truly awful.

But the question remains: what does this mean for the way we listen to music? Like most people north of 30, I fondly remember going to record stores the very first day an album by a favorite artist came out, and poring over its liner notes and lyrics for months thereafter—investing more in the album because it was a thing and I paid for it. When the MP3 age began, I started to listen mostly to scattered tracks and playlists, and even when I paid to download an album online I rarely felt as attached to it as I did a tape or CD.

I don’t know if the trajectory of this experience lines up with that of other music listeners, but I suspect it will for some. The advent of piracy and free music led me to sample a much wider range of artists and genres styles that I might never have considered when it cost $15 to give them a try, and streaming services have since reinforced this trend. Research suggests that fans who take advantage of file-sharing have music collections that are both broader and shallower, including a greater number of artists and styles but fewer recordings, on average, per artist.

It gets better?
It gets better?

What does it mean when music is not only “freely” available through file-sharing or streaming, but actively pushed on the listener in the way that U2’s new album was? Perhaps it really does broaden the audience.  I certainly would never have listened to it otherwise—I haven’t listened to one of their albums since Pop in 1997. Perhaps it’s simply the novelty of the marketing strategy that makes any of us even pay attention; if Apple starts doing this on a regularly basis, it will likely be a nuisance at best. (Of course, as a friend commented on Facebook, getting a free U2 album is “the ultimate first-world problem.”)

It’s as if the music industry’s twenty-first century crisis has entered its self-parody stage. You used to have to go to the record store to get an album, and even after Napster you had to make the effort to search for it on a file-sharing network. Meanwhile, the RIAA and Lars from Metallica wanted to make sure music wasn’t readily available. Now Apple and U2 are making you have the music whether you want it or not—an ungainly digital ornament on your pristine iPhone. The aural equivalent of Aunt Cindy’s Thanksgiving fruitcake. What was that about history repeating itself once as tragedy, then as farce? Or is it the other way around?

Indeed, given the largely negative response to U2 and Apple’s ploy, it appears that most fans don’t like having music foisted on them, whether it’s being force-fed by auto-download or merely “bundled” with a piece of hardware or software. Even in the age of ephemerality, many people may not be ready to view music as little more than a cereal box toy.

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