FEATURE: Pro Bono? Is the U2 Frontman Right About the Music Industry?



Pro Bono?


 PHOTO CREDIT: Martin Schoeller (for Forbes

Is the U2 Frontman Right About the Music Industry?


APPARENTLY; modern sounds are “very girly”.



Those are not my words - they emanated from U2’s esteemed lead, Bono. There is a tinge of irony hearing those words from a band-leader who has not produced anything truly raucous, masculine and essential in a fair few years. U2’s latest record, Songs of Experience, has been backed by many critics and, yes, it does have passion and shots of urgency in it. One gets the sense of desperation and alarm when listening to the record: you never feel like the songs are addressing vital issues and speaking for the nation. The songs are not overtly angry: they are not girlish or feminine, either. It is as well the current U2 record has commanded kudos – many seeing it as the best album the Irish band has produced this century – but I wonder whether the comment from Bono is a hype move – a marketing tool to get people invested in Songs of Experience?! There are truisms and clichés on the record; so I wonder whether Bono should be talking about originality and inspiration in music – rather than judging whether there is enough anger in music? I get a little aggrieved when people like Bono make this kind of statement: proclaiming the industry too soft...and there is no real righteousness and indignation. He went on to say the only real anger is coming from the men of Hip-Hop – and that is not a good thing. I feel that quote has been taken out of context: he does not mean it is bad to see Hip-Hop put in the spotlight: it is a poor show seeing only one genre take the initiative (when the whole industry should be...).


PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

I wonder whether, as the title of this piece implies, Bono’s remarks are for the public good?! Is it wise to make statements when you head a band who are being accused, in some quarters, of lacking the spark we know they can produce?! I have been clenching quite frequently this year when reading about various musicians making statements in the press. The furore and smog of Morrissey’s latest clanger is still hot and being punted around. Whether his remarks were isolated and misrepresented – he claimed some abuse victims, when speaking about Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, knew what they were getting themselves into – or not; it has not been a great time for the biggest musicians. We ended them to lead the way and provide guidance; rather than come out with ill-advised opinions and sweeping statements. I wonder whether Bono’s comments hold any clout. One can argue the predicted revival of Rock has been rather damp and homogenised. The fiercest albums of the year – Royal Blood, Queens of the Stone Age and Foo Fighters among them – have not concerned themselves too heavily with political issues and societal cancers. Queens', to be fair, flexed their observational muscles a bit but there was never that sense of an all-out-aggressive and pumped-up record. The Disco edges added kick and swagger but lacked the teeth and motivation of earlier albums.



I have not heard an album this year that coherently and impressively articulates the anger and frustrations of the people. Eminem’s Revival was plenty angry enough but remains scattershot, diluted and bereft of the wonder we know he can summon. I wonder if it is a case of – to flesh out Bono’s remark -  music being angry AND good?! I don’t think it is a bad thing Hip-Hop and Rap are carrying the torch for the disaffected and riled – Bono did not mean to slate them; only to suggest they are the only visible voice of rebellion – because the genre has struggled to get proper mainstream acceptance. The closer (Hip-Hop) gets to the mainstream, the better for music as a whole. While the genre(s) is largely male: it is not the case the men are the only ones capable of standing out. That is the role Hip-Hop has always played. The genre, alongside Rap, is for the minorities and the poor; the people who have to struggle to get attention and are trampled underfoot. The finest poets of Hip-Hop established themselves as the voice of those who had none. That has not changed in the modern day – even if there is not the same quality and innovation as past decades – so one should not be shocked Bono should make such a remark.



 I agree there is not enough genuinely fresh and memorable Rock/Alternative music around. The likes of IDLES and Wolf Alice are a rare breed that does not epitomise the industry. Maybe the up-swing is around the corner – I think it will not happen for a few more years – but I wonder whether it is a case of patience and waves? The reason we had legendary bands like Oasis and Rage Against the Machine in the 1990s was (because) there was an outlet to be heard. Those bands are passionate and angry in different ways – Oasis a more positive and all-come-together vibe – but there were more working-class journalists that supported their music; they could thrive and evolve because the scene was set up for them; keen to welcome them in and stacked with like-minded artists who can challenge them and push their creativity. The reason we do not have the same angry, awe-striking bands is down to the way the industry is structured. There are comparatively few working-class writers in the bigger publications – most newspapers and magazines look for interns; those in paid jobs tend to come from more privileged stock – and there is less visibility regarding magazines. The likes of NME – once the natural destination for proper, big bands – is digital and losing its edge. Maybe there is a lack of talent and desire but I feel the cessation of masculine, angry music is the lack of understanding writers – those who have the same background, and therefore, are likely to spot potential when they hear it!



It was the ‘girly’ part of Bono’s remarks that cheesed me off somewhat! He is making the assumption that, A) angry, proper music is being made by men and, B) anything that lacks a Molotov firebomb is wimpy and effete. U2, as I said, aren’t exactly N.W.A. or Slipknot, are they?! An ageing Rockstar – albeit it one who has helped shape music for the better – should not really make generalised, unsubstantiated remarks when his own output lacks real spirit and charge. Anger and aggression are only valid and purposeful when they have depth and speak to the people: if it is personal vitriol, or has no way of connecting with the people, then there is no point putting it onto the page. (Do we really need to hear that all the time?!). Before I take the defence against Bono; I agree we need to open the legs of music a little more – it is wearing a cardigan, sitting shyly and reading a book at the moment! That is not to say it should rip off its knickers, lay on its back and, well…you can finish the rest! Where we are now – in terms of pertinent, potent Rock – is light-years detached from the strength evident in the 1990s/early-2000s. I do not believe there is a lack of potential and ammunition out there (I hear a lot of independent acts who can provide hope) but we need to look at the structure of the industry and the artists we elevate to the highest positions.



The dominance of privileged, middle-class artists at the forefront means many artists are concerned they will not gain acceptance and promotion from taste-makers and the public. It is not a case of Rock’s new attack being right on the horizon: the air is so thick with smog and cloud we cannot see the horizon right now. You cannot expect things to take a complete about-face without any structural changes and questions being raised. IDLES are a great working-class band who possesses anger and solid songs. They are never going to be on the same level as, say, Ed Sheeran whilst music (the charts, at least) favours the wealthy and commercial. I am encouraged by the likes of Wolf Alice and IDLES but one would be pushed to rattle off a list of fellow artists who could overpower the mainstream and provide a resistance. That is not their fault but that of the labels, media and, I guess, public. Music is becoming more insular and personal than any other time. Shows like Top of the Pops and the charts meant people would eagerly tune in and watch as the best artists in music played their latest song – we would go out and buy that and, in turn, that would build a market and compel others. Now, we do not have a music T.V. option and the charts are less relevant than ever. Streaming services make it easier to gain access to music’s bountiful bosom - but most people are ignoring the charts and proffering their own tastes. Social media has its benefits but is less powerful (when it comes to leading a rebellion) than a cohesive and populist chart/T.V. show.


IN THIS PHOTO: Wolf Alice/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

There are angry, manful and primaeval artists ready to rampage and slake but, until the doors are open and the rose-coloured glasses are cleaned – how likely are they to get anywhere near the dinner table? I know Bono has not put as much thought into things as me but maybe he should. In order to give any credence to anything the likes of him say; one needs to dig deeper and look at the argument from both sides. If the ‘best’ Rock/Alternative artists out there are concentrated on their own lives and issues; do we need to look elsewhere, until we can transform music for the better, for something concrete and physical? I think, when Bono talked about the ‘girly’ side of music, he was not meaning it is a sexist way. Music, unfortunately, has not been overrun with female-made sounds nor is it too florid and sensitive. I think – I hope – he meant there was too many Electronic/Electro-Pop acts and artists who favour texture and colour over a kebab to the face? Music can only grow and survive if we welcome new artists and foster their personality. I disagree things are girlish and weak: anger, impression and spirit can come from different sources and genres. It is awfully close-minded and offensive to suggest anything that strays from Rock and Alternative sounds is, by omission, inferior and pointless. Music goes through stages and, whilst we saw a prevalence of harder sounds in past times; now, there is a wider market, and with that, one will find a less concentrated and one-channel sound...



I think, in many ways, we are in a better position than we were decades ago. New artists can have a say and do not need to rely on a record deal; new sub-genres are coming and there is far greater choice than ever before. The recent this feature is less succinct than one would hope is because you cannot challenge/address Bono’s comments without justifying your decision – and looking at the flip-side of the debate. Maybe his was a flippant and misconstrued remark but I do agree with the assumption there needs to be a kick up the backside of the industry. Whether we can reach the same peak as the 1990s remains to be seen – I suspect not; for many reasons – but that is not to say all hope is lost. A lot of the older, established order have passed their best days and are not in the position to inspire the new generation. The most essential and energised albums, in the Rock milieu, are from newer acts; those closer to financial and personal struggle than those who are more comfortable and successful. Struggle and hardship compels great music with stature: if we are augmenting musicians who are so removed from that way of life they cannot authentically rally and protest – are we ever going to see change?! I disagree with the term ‘girly’: maybe ‘demure’ is a better term?



Most musicians have anger in their hearts – one cannot look at the world and the way politicians are mismanaging huge issues – and not feel a sense of disgust and aggression. The reason Pearl Jam and The Who (two bands Bono named-check when looking at better days) managed to articulate and define the feelings of the masses and isolated alike was the willingness of the industry and public to open their arms (and wallets). We have a lot of angry artists playing but I feel a lot of that anger is less creative: many are angry because they cannot get their voices heard and have to fight so hard to get noticed. One cannot rationalise a remark like Bono’s without querying why we are in the position we are in right now. I agree with Bono that we need those big, epic-sounding artists at the forefront: that is impossible when there are so many issues and oversights being ignored. Rather than condemn Bono as foolhardy and offensive – maybe a thesaurus would have been a good Christmas present! – we should use it as a chance to review and challenge the contemporary order. If, as I suspect, he feels Pop, Folk and Electronic music is taking too much of the pie – what can we do to make it so the music industry has better quiet-loud, genre-mix balance? I love a lot of the less ‘masculine’ and experimental music around but feel there are valid reasons why we are seeing fewer Rock heroes/heroines emerge – that go beyond talent and quality reasons. I disagree with the way Bono expressed himself; him saying music is girly: I do agree with the fact there are fewer exciting and society-defining artists that will stick in the mind decades from now. Overriding that is a complex issue - but one I feel we need to tackle...



AS soon as the New Year’s Day hangovers subside!