In February, whispers that the Rock 'N' Roll Messiah—also known as Bono, the 49-year-old frontman of the Irish rock band U2—was coming to town started circulating. Blogs went crazy. Reporters made some calls. But for months, we had nothing but speculation: No venue would confirm an upcoming U2 appearance. No promoter would offer a clue. The band simply and slowly rolled out tour dates via an ornate Web site. Raleigh, meanwhile, clutched its rosaries and prayed for "Where the Streets Have No Name."
U2 is bigger than a concert announcement. While most bands can't wait to tell you where they're going to play and how great it will be, U2 handled itself with the utmost self-importance, waiting until people had to ask, until reporters had to inquire, until Raleigh was ready. And now we know: Bono is coming to deliver us from the ordinary.
Sure, Bono's got his noble causes, and when he's not browbeating politicians, he fronts a pretty decent rock band. But he's a hard man to love. He projects enough smug self-righteousness and narcissistic love for the spotlight to make Kanye West feel understated. Those sunglasses aren't made of subtlety. You get the impression that the first time he asked a girl out, he made sure it played to the back row. From his moniker to his leather jacket, Bono was made for rock stardom. But these days, is that really such a bad thing?
See, Bono's part of a rapidly vanishing breed. Culture simply doesn't make rock stars like it used to. Indeed, we hardly make them at all. Coldplay? Too mopey. Radiohead? Too self-conscious. Kings of Leon? Too shallow. Most big bands don't suffer from a lack of stature, but it's not just about acting big. It's about having the frame, will and gumption to pull it off. Really, those bands are just another casualty of an increasingly fragmented world, perhaps best described by Chris Anderson's Long Tail Theory, which suggests a steep drop-off between popular mass sellers and the legions of niche favorites. Blockbuster's flirtation with bankruptcy is instructive. You won't make money stocking two dozen copies of each year's 20 best sellers.
U2 formed in 1976, just as punk was changing music's outlook. This was before radio and labels mined their own version of the Blockbuster financial plan. The labels soon shrank their rosters. Radio trimmed its playlists. Everyone focused on multimillion-selling acts (goodbye, catalog and prestige artists!). People sought alternatives, bifurcating the music scene starkly into the mainstream and the underground.
But U2's self-importance stood in stark contrast to the spirit developing in the underground, which sought to diminish the gulf between the stage and the audience. Bono and his boys simply worked to create an even larger pedestal to stand on.
They almost immediately seemed to sport arena-sized ambitions, doubling down on grandiosity and bluster, the coin of the rock realm. They never shied away from broad gestures and were unafraid of the inherent contradiction in trying to make a stadium-size action seem intimate.
The sound was suitably large and epic, especially early on, with Edge's guitar chime echoing over oceanic grooves. The lyrics matched the musical scope, too, copping Christian overtones and incorporating evocative political conflicts in Northern Ireleand ("Sunday Bloody Sunday"), Poland ("New Year's Day") and the American South ("Pride (In the Name of Love)") to make powerful statements.
And whether it was gravely reading his lyrics to B.B. King or pausing the splendid "Silver and Gold" for an annoying rant that concluded, "Am I bugging you? I didn't mean to bug you," pretense never seemed to bother Bono. They even stole the Beatles' old move, playing on a liquor store rooftop in Los Angeles for their video "Where the Streets Have No Name." And remember how Charles Manson stole "Helter Skelter"? Well, don't worry—Bono stole it back (and told the crowd he was doing so) on the 1988 live album Rattle & Hum.
In the early '90s, the new guard sought to reverse rock's grandstanding tradition, forging a humbler, less ego-driven tone that replaced masturbatory solos with immediacy. U2 wasn't tone-deaf. They expressed the spirit of the times with Achtung Baby, which dialed back the world-changing rhetoric, turning darker and more introspective as the music explored a colder, electro-addled hum that harked back to the experimentation of David Bowie's Berlin era. Bono described it in typically grandiose fashion: "The sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree," he said.
The subsequent Zoo TV Tour mothballed their previously earnest delivery in favor of an intentionally over-the-top multimedia presentation presided over by Bono's parodic leather-clad alter-ego The Fly. Of course, The Fly wouldn't scratch Bono's ego itch for long, and by 1997's Pop, he was again writing anthemic redemptive odes like "If God Will Send His Angels." The nadir of their recording career, it sent the band scurrying back to their rock heritage for 2000's appropriately titled All That You Can't Leave Behind. The retreat continued with 2004's even more rock-essentialist (but still glossy) How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, as Bono regressed into bad habits, like the ad hoc admonition at the opening of "Vertigo," to "Turn it up loud, Captain." Aye, aye, Admiral! And while you're at it, tell Edge to play the blues, too.
It's hard to get too disgusted with Bono, though certainly not impossible. Rock-star bombast has its purpose, appealing via outsize importance and scope that makes our world seem larger for it, and sweeping the audience up in its momentousness. If a rock song can be that big, just imagine how big you and I can be, right? Sure, it can drown in pretense, but sometimes we want to see something more massive than imaginable. Punk rock ethos aside, there's a reason they're on stage and we're not.
There's value in the shared sense of spectacle. Few cultural artifacts remain that reach broad swaths of the populace like a Seinfeld or, in this case, U2. No enduring "grunge" acts crossed over to sustained mainstream success, Pearl Jam included. Ditto subsequent music bubbles in rap-rock, electroclash and garage. Instead we have untold acres of subdivision, with little impetus to leave one's Facebook circle jerk. Maybe, for you, Death Cab for Cutie is king. Try telling mom and dad or kid sister that.
"I'm really proud of all the people who fought to get us in," Paul Stanley of Kiss said last week when the band was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "I'm also really proud of all the people who fought to keep us out, you know?"
Entertainment at its best is big enough for us all to argue about. So let's hear it for U2. Even if their hi-def musical activism's grown a little threadbare at times, it's a welcome reprise of an era featuring ambitious dreams and a world that doesn't seem so large you can't tame it. Why, there's even subtlety and slow-pan atmosphere on their latest, No Line On The Horizon, suggesting U2 hasn't given up attempting to reinvent itself. Maybe one day they really will figure out how to make the epic small enough for everyone.
U2 plays Carter-Finley Stadium at N.C. State Saturday, Oct. 3, at 7 p.m. Muse opens. Tickets are $30-$250.