Artistic Licence column (Sunday Business Post, September 14, 2014)

We have to talk about U2, don’t we? That’s the funny thing about U2. Even when you’re tired of talking about them, when you’d rather talk about anything else but them, you still find yourself talking about them. The band who hyperactively need to be acclaimed as the biggest band in the world; who just won’t settle for being their already brilliant fiftysomething selves, are – like your granny in a miniskirt – back once again clamouring for your full and undivided attention. Sigh.
Before I complain, however, let’s at least applaud them for a stealth marketing plan that, to be fair, borders on genius. On Tuesday, all you had to do was click on your iTunes library to discover that – hey presto! – the new U2 album was magically there for your listening pleasure. The album itself will be released by Island Records on October 13, but since more than half a billion iTunes customers already possess it, that release date is effectively redundant. The album is out and you own it. How could you not talk about that fact? In homes, by office water-coolers, on blogs and in social media all over the world, people who couldn’t give a fig about U2 are talking about U2. Smart move, guys.
U2 have hobbled their musical critics, too, in what was probably Section 5, Paragraph 17 of their fiendish Pinky and the Brain-style world domination plan. Said plan has been orchestrated by Guy Oseary, their new manager, who has it all to prove after becoming the successor to the band’s unofficial fifth member Paul McGuinness. The thing about inserting an album into iTunes by stealth is that every major website and newspaper in the world instantly needs a review of it. Cue urgent calls to rock hacks and queries about how fast something could be cooked up. So what if the album has 11 tracks and is 49 minutes long? You only need to hear the record once, right?
The problem with this scenario is that reviewers barely have the time to listen to the new record, much less digest it. Without the appropriate examination time, all but the most naturally vituperative of critics will default to a positive analysis, hesitating to criticise without the time to properly formulate their feelings. In double-quick speed, the Daily Telegraph whipped up a four-star review by Neil McCormick, who – despite his status as Bono’s school chum – admitted he did not get access to the album any earlier than anyone else. His review was a feat of hesitant positivity, full of wavering lines like “on first impressions” and “on first contact”.
The truth is that albums need to be lived with. They need to be examined like you might inspect a horse: have their teeth checked, be weighed, get their hooves felt. By short-circuiting the usual advance promo copy listening format, U2 denied themselves the benefit of early reviews last week that were genuinely the product of serious consideration. Still, they’ve downloaded themselves into the homes of millions, and that’s self-evidently a good thing for them in terms of keeping their profile stratospheric and earning them a fortune on the touring circuit. More people will see U2 live because of this move, and that’s where the real money is.
But – and call me naive – I question why, at this point in their career, the marketing and the money are so important to them. Aren’t there greater imperatives for artists at this juncture? What is this confounded insistence on being the biggest and best? Would, say, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen or David Bowie so nakedly require or seek out such status?
I can’t say a bad word about U2’s plan. It’s bloody brilliant. But I wish that I didn’t feel so manipulated by them, so exposed to them, so forced to talk about them. I’d rather write about them because I thought their new music was great. That’s the best reason to write about any band. Bono, you might break into my iTunes, but my heart has sturdier firewalls against you.

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