U2 used to be great at creating big moments. From the band’s fiery, satellite-fed coming-out party at LiveAid 1985 to the universally-beloved Joshua Tree to the seizure-inducing multimedia orgy of the Zoo TV tour, Bono, Edge, Larr and Adam lasted a long time as A Band That Meant Something, musically and politically. But just like past-their-prime politicians, U2′s public image since the late ’90s has been a mix of global diplomatic efforts and lucrative corporate gigs.
U2 is as much a brand as band at this point, moving assets to avoid taxes and lending their accumulated goodwill to any number of capitalistic schemes. Through his ownership stake in Elevation Partners, Bono’s known to use buzzwords like “disrupt” and “massive scale” as much as he sings about dismantling and horizons. U2 developed a synergistic relationship with Apple starting in 2004, when Steve Jobs concluded that year’s Music Event by unveiling the U2 iPod. Like a regular white iPod but much uglier, the $349 20GB gadget featured simulacra of the band’s signatures on the back, a poster and a coupon for $50 off the digital U2 box set — the equivalent of Wal-Mart rewarding you for buying something from Wal-Mart with a Wal-Mart gift certificate.
Apple has grown into one of the most valuable properties in the world thanks in large part to these annual events, which turn any new tweak to an existing product into a highly-anticipated unveiling, ginning up demand for months with strategic leaks and some of the most draconian PR policies imaginable. In other words: From a promotional perspective, Apple Events aren’t much different than a modern major album release. The difference lies in the product being released, of course: It’s one thing for a team of designers to collaborate on expanding the iPhone’s dimensions by a centimeter on each side, and quite another task for a group of four musicians to remain relevant well into their fifth decade.
Which brings us to yesterday. Ten years after the the U2 iPod clunked, and on the same day that Apple officially retired the iPod Classic, Apple’s Tim Cook once again ended an Event with U2, who debuted their new track “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” (huh?) for an IRL and URL audience still salivating over the unveiling of the Apple Watch. That wasn’t enough, though: with hands clasped over their heads like they’d just signed a peace treaty, Bono and Cook announced that U2′s first album since 2009, Songs of Innocence, was available — for free! — via iTunes. But what should have elicited gasps triggered shrugs instead. After all, it’s been five years since No Line on the Horizon, and “Miracle” registered more as a weak grasp at authenticity; the band name-dropped a punk icon in the title of a song that sounds like a band out of breath, trying to remind fans of when they mattered, while playing catch up with a couple of their more hip and current descendants of note: Imagine Dragons and Arcade Fire.
Just last December, Beyonce managed to conquer the world with a very similar gesture: dropping her self-titled album unannounced via iTunes mid-month, complete with a video for each song. Fans went bonkers, but the stunt was only a welcome mat for a remarkable set of songs that pushed R&B and pop forward and created countless memes; the kind that are still proliferating nine months later. In the moments after U2′s stunt, critic Tom Breihan aptly noted on Twitter what many were thinking: so, what else is new? Unlike Radiohead’s In Rainbows “tip-jar” stunt, or Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and Jay-Z & Kanye’s Watch the Throne surprise online releases requiring credit card charges, Songs of Innocence managed to come out of nowhere while still feeling overly calculated. What’s worse is that it was boring.
The closest relative to Innocence is Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, of which Samsung pre-purchased a million copies to stream exclusively on their Galaxy phones, giving Hova similar exposure, while ostensibly guarding it against pre-release leaks as well. U2 pairing with Apple for Innocence itself serves as a hedge against leaks — let’s not forget that one of Universal’s own digital subsidiaries accidentally leaked No Line on the Horizon two weeks early five years ago. Furthermore, much like MCHG and Samsung’s data-collecting app raised privacy concerns, once Innocence appears in users’ iTunes, it doesn’t go away. As musician and writer Damon Krukowski noted on Twitter, it’s impossible to delete the files, they’re merely “hidden.”
The maneuver also fails as innovation: Where Radiohead’s 2007 stunt redefined how fans think about digital music’s value, and Beyonce’s gesture functioned as the Queen of Pop blessing her minions, U2′s Apple gambit reeks of the staid odor of the corporate boardroom. The music itself is pitched as an “autobiography” of the band’s influences — most often a sign that the spirit has long flown — but that’s not the extent of it. Read Bono’s accompanying blog post on U2′s website, and you can almost feel an Apple PR flack peering over his shoulder. He opens by saying “hello” in several languages, not unlike the pre-loaded animation greeting past Mac OSX installers. After thanking Apple and iTunes, he notes that “in the next 24 hours, over a half a billion people are going to have Songs of Innocence,” and rattling off a list of multicultural stereotypes, a sly merging of the band’s own world-conquering aims and an embedded quantitative nod to iTunes’ vast user base.
Yet it’s the requisite nod toward digital music’s value that most clearly defines the original sin of Innocence. In a Time.com article doubling as a U2 PR blurb, Bono claimed: “I don’t believe in free music. Music is a sacrament.” Set aside for a moment that communion wafers are themselves free, and think about the broader idea at play. When framing their stunt release, U2 and Innocence are miles apart from Trent Reznor saying “This one’s on me” when giving The Slip to his fans, or even “business, man” Jay-Z embracing Samsung as a corporate partner. Instead, it’s Bono clumsily merging art and commerce, gift and commodity: “To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of our iPod commercial, they bought it as a gift to give to all their music customers. Free, but paid for.” Bono’s tenor might still be in fine shape, but as the spokesperson for U2-the-b(r)and, he sounds awkward speaking out of both sides of his mouth.
CORRECTION: The original version of this piece stated that the Samsung Galaxy pre-load of Jay Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail earned him a position at the top of the Billboard charts. It has come to our attention that Billboard did not count the Samsung pre-loads toward Jay Z’s chart ranking, and that the number one coincided with the album’s physical release, not the Samsung pre-load. We regret the error.