[Ed. note: This is the second in a "U2 Lists" series currently being revisited by the @U2 staff. The first series, which focused primarily on Top Tens, ran from August through October of 2002.]
On a day-to-day basis, I doubt that many U2 fans, hardcore or otherwise, stop to actually think about why they bestow so much of their time, energy, affection and finances upon Bono, Larry, Adam and the Edge. What is it that keeps us returning to U2 and their music, whether via concerts, fan sites or just the songs themselves? In particular, for more than just the casually observant, what is it that makes us go that extra mile in terms of devotion and commitment?
The list below is an attempt at articulating the things that many of us probably feel intuitively most days about U2, or may, at the very least, have used one time or another as ways of explaining our fandom to various baffled outsiders. Obviously, it is by no means definitive, and particularly for those who may be new to the band, I feel compelled to stress that it barely scratches the surface of what it means to be a U2 fan. As with any medium that has a tight connection to people's hearts, whether it's music, religion or sport, words can only say so much; the reality often transcends any effort at defining it.
The most I can say is that this list goes at least some way to explaining why I am who I am. Who knows; maybe it'll do the same for you.
5.) Bono's consciousness-raising
I won't lie; there are times when the things Bono says and does outside of music come across as excruciating. Nowadays I often skip past the songs on my iPod from the Vertigo tour where Bono launches into full-on preacher man mode, unable to repeatedly stomach his sermonising. It's also been pointed out to me on more than one occasion by experts in the fields of development, economics and anthropology that his weakness lies in his attempting to navigate areas where he lacks understanding.
The latter point I won't argue with, mainly because Bono will most likely never have the same level of knowledge as the majority of people working in the areas he is campaigning about. As a result, I would agree that when he is clearly out of his depth knowledge-wise on a particular issue, he should step back.
But more often than not, when I have examined my uneasiness at the things he says and does, it isn't because I feel that he's meddling in things he doesn't understand; it's my own selfish pride that makes me uncomfortable, my desire not to be shaken out of my comfort zone. Even after six years of U2 fandom, Bono is still my alarm clock, an antidote to my own apathy.
Although in the wider world Bono's extra-curricular activities are probably always going to earn him more than his fair share of detractors, within the U2 fan community he is, rightly in my view, still seen by many as a hero, a tireless campaigner against poverty, injustice and exploitation. One only has to look as far as organisations like the African Well Fund -- which, for all Bono's political associations, remains steadfastly apolitical and charitable to the core -- to see the extent to which he has inspired the faithful among U2's ranks to make the world a better place. From one fan who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for AIDS victims in Africa, to a 9-year-old fan who, inspired by Bono, felt compelled to write to his senator about the lack of funding for anti-retrovirals, to the millions who have become activists for Make Poverty History, Amnesty International and Greenpeace with him as their catalyst, Bono's deeds outside of U2 continue to touch, change and enlighten many lives wherever he goes. Whether the actions of the aforesaid individuals made a difference or not is irrelevant; it is the very fact that a mere rock star was able to make them think beyond themselves and consider the sufferings of those around them that makes him so remarkable.
And by consciousness-raising I mean more than just charity. It is perhaps telling that the deeds that have earned him the most respect among fans of U2 are those that have not reached the headlines. Bono still cuts a rare figure within the materialistic and self-obsessed world of celebrity as one who almost never travels with a posse of bodyguards, who regularly roams the streets of his home city without paranoia or mistrust, and who engages with all those who seek an audience with him with warmth, generosity and grace. And despite the accusations of pomposity and egotism that abound toward him within the public sphere, one doesn't have to look far on fan Web sites to find accounts of his actions that have revealed what many believe to be the real Bono: loving, decent and deeply spiritual and idealistic.
More than a few of us will continue to wince at times when in terms of his campaigning he oversteps the mark. But it is his everyday gestures, coupled with the way he conducts himself as a person, that have arguably inspired so many of us to not only try to better the world, but also ourselves. As one U2 fan aptly wrote on a birthday card sent to Bono by the African Well Fund, "So I try to be like you...." And try we still do.
4.) Musical innovation
It's been said more than once that in terms of skill and proficiency, musically U2 are far from the best. Most of us are familiar with their roots as a schoolboy band, where Bono wound up being the singer simply because his guitar playing was so appalling. In most early reviews of U2's gigs, it is worthy of note that the only member ever complimented by critics for his playing was the Edge. But even then, the guitarist could hardly have been said to be on a par with Jimmy Page.
In fact, from the beginning U2's musical ethos has arguably been more about what it isn't than what it is. The band stayed away from both the Led Zeppelin-style blues-based metal, characterised by half-hour-long guitar solos, and nihilistic three-chord punk that dominated much of the musical landscape at the end of the 1970s, and instead chose to draw on their own specific talents, their lack of musicianship forcing them to create music in far more original ways.
This has pushed them in wildly different directions with each album, from new wave and post-punk to minimalism, to blues, country, folk and gospel to dance and electro, back to mainstream rock. Not all of theses ventures have been successful, but U2's reputation as a band that has never been afraid to reinvent itself, changing, experimenting and innovating whenever the members feel the need, remains unrivaled. I still relish the fact that I never know what to expect from each new U2 album; and few would deny that for a band that has been making music as long as U2, that is a rare thing indeed. Sure, they aren't great musicians, but as Brian Eno once noted, the strength lies "in those four people, not those instruments."
This may come across as a slightly cheesy point, but it's played such a major role in not only turning me into a U2 fan but also keeping me being a U2 fan, that I can't help but draw attention to it. The fact is, U2 are a band that loves its audience. One of my numerous road-to-Damascus moments during my time as a fan was when I first watched footage of the 2001 show in Boston, where I was stunned to see Bono lift a girl out of the crowd to lie with him on stage during "With or Without You." I was overwhelmed almost to tears by the tenderness with which the two regarded each other, with Bono's embrace managing to paradoxically be both platonic and sensuous at the same time. It's bizarre how, in a kitchen in southeast England 18 months after the show had actually happened, I felt something similar to what the girl in his arms must have felt. In a way it didn't matter that it was her who was there and not me (although obviously I wished it had been); it could have been anyone. She was merely symbolic of what Bono felt for everyone in the audience.
Equally, when at the end Bono turned and thanked the audience for "giving us a great life" before launching into "Walk On," the feeling was indescribable. Despite the time and distance barrier, I felt wanted and accepted like I never had before.
Such a degree of closeness to their audience is probably demonstrated the most by any U2 show, where I still marvel at how, physically and mentally, the barrier between the band and the audience appears to be so diminished, with Bono regularly reaching into the crowd either to pull people on stage or to simply grasp their hands. And outside the concert hall, where tales abound of fans who have hung 'round outside the band's recording studio being indulged by one or more members, to those who have simply been granted time with them after running into them on the street, U2 have rarely taken their audience for granted.
Perhaps more than anything, that moment in my kitchen nearly six years ago, along with the many more like it that have followed, are why I'm still here, writing theses words now.
In the intro to Steve Stockman's 2001 book, Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2, Steve Beard describes U2's music as having "an undercurrent of depth flowing through it" that was out of step with the majority of mainstream acts. Seven years later, his words still ring with the same relevance. One never has to look far within a U2 song to find some kind of deeper meaning, whether it's musical, philosophical, political or literary.
From Irish poet Brendan Kennelly's epic poem, The Book of Judas, providing the inspiration for Achtung Baby's "Until the End of the World," to the beat writings of Kerouac, Bukowski and Ginsberg playing a major role in the musical and thematic development of The Joshua Tree, to Huxley's Brave New World and Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death influencing the band's experiments with irony and post-modernism on the Zoo TV and Zooropa tours, U2's music provides a rich seam of fascination and insight for the intellectually curious.
For those who choose to, treading the same path as U2 in terms of their influences can provide numerous opportunities for cultural, spiritual and intellectual development. In a memorable incident, one Australian fan even showed me an entire bookcase full of literature that he'd collected, directly and indirectly, because of U2 -- and I don't think there are many other bands whose fans have been inspired in similar ways.
1.) A band that's not afraid to be big
A simplistic point perhaps, but a relevant one I feel in light of the "big is bad" culture that still continues to pervade parts of the music industry. U2 have never been afraid of letting anyone know of their ambition to be not only the best, but the biggest band in the world. More than once, Bono has even had the audacity to state that U2 had long ago grown out of the idea that business and commerce were inherently evil -- no small declaration when one takes into account the near-destructive charge of "selling out" that the music industry has at times levied at non-conformists.
As with Bono's charitable efforts, not all of U2's attempts to stay big have been successful. Their conquering of the American market in the mid-'80s when many European bands were choosing to stay on their home turf was one thing, but the band have attracted much criticism for ventures such as their teaming up with Apple to create the U2 iPod, and their changing and transferring the running of the U2 fan club from Propaganda to a higher fee-paying company. However, no one can ever accuse U2 of not being true to themselves. Through their well-publicised failures as well as their achievements, the band has conformed to no one's image of success except their own. Take it or leave it, they uncompromisingly remain their own men.
To weigh in on Maddy's list (and post your own), visit this topic in the @U2 Forum.
© Fry/@U2, 2008.