Growing Old (and Less Enchanted) with Bono

JANUARY 2012: ESSAY

by Brian Porter

“One could do worse than be a lover of U2.” So said Howard Schaap in “Music and Politics: U2 and the Country of Adolescence” in the June/July issue of Perspectives. I agree. But I found it interesting that Schaap felt obliged to justify attending two U2 concerts this past summer. Meanwhile, I feel the need to explain my grappling with a similar U2 dilemma, but reaching a different conclusion.

After much deliberation, I chose not to attend the U2 360° concert last summer as it made a stop near my hometown. This was especially challenging because my two sons, ages ten and eleven, are also passionate about U2 (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree). Going to the show with them would have been a memorable experience. Even though U2’s most recent album, No Line on the Horizon, strikes me as subpar in comparison with the previous two, my hesitation about the concert is no indication that I have grown tired of their music. Rather, it represents a recent tempering of my enthusiasm and admiration for Bono and U2—a change in perspective that I am reluctant to share with other U2 fans, friends, and colleagues in particular, people who are otherwise sane and rational but who can tend to be a tad overzealous about the band. Will they understand if I dare to question Bono and U2? Or will I become an apostate guilty of U2 heresy?

To be certain, I am not a Bono basher and do not wish to lampoon him, something almost fashionable and done quite frequently—often cleverly and with good humor. I have been a fan of U2 since their beginning. Their first album, Boy, debuted in 1980, the year I graduated from high school. Boy was an innovative collection of songs themed on the emotional transition from adolescence to adulthood. These four Irish teenagers were about my age and expressing ideas more substantial than the standard superficial pop-rock fare of drugs, cars, and sex. The group’s lead singer and lyricist, Paul Hewson (a.k.a. Bono), was dynamic, inquisitive, and charismatic (in both senses of the word), and was a Christian, as were two other group members. The band attracted an eclectic range of fans, including a strong gay following in the early years. U2 was unmistakably on a higher plane, articulating what many of us felt at that time.

Schaap writes that he became a U2 convert in 1987, seven years after Boy, when the brilliant Joshua Tree, an album that catapulted U2 to superstardom, was released. In April of that year, Time magazine featured U2 on the cover with the headline, “Rock’s Hottest Ticket”—and so they were. Rob Bell, of Love Wins fame, recounts in his book Velvet Elvis that it was at age sixteen, while at a U2 Joshua Tree Tour concert, when the band started to play “Where the Streets Have No Name,” that he first experienced the awe of God. “I was caught up for the first time in my life in something so massive and loving and transcendent and…true. I specifically remember thinking the universe was safe, in spite of all the horrible, tragic things in the world. I thought I was going to spontaneously combust with joy. This was real. This mattered. Whatever it was, I wanted more” (p. 72).

Because U2 has been a fixture in Christian circles, including Christian higher education, it is possible to integrate U2 into both teaching and research. From time to time, I teach a seminar titled “Vocation and Calling: The Music of U2.” One of my most memorable academic meetings, “U2: The Hype and the Feedback,” was devoted entirely to U2 and attended by people from around the world. Admittedly, I felt a bit like a Trekkie at a Star Trek convention. No paper that I was aware of (including my own) was critical of Bono or U2. The conference, fittingly, culminated with our attendance at a U2 concert. Who says academic conferences are esoteric and boring?

Perhaps because I have held U2 and Bono to a very high, and possibly unrealistic, standard, I have recently found myself growing disenchanted. No doubt much of this stems from the inevitable transformation we undertake as we age. In the beginning Bono and the rest of U2 were struggling working class people. But for decades now they have been multi-millionaires surrounded by “yes people.” The once raw, idealistic boys from Dublin who had to borrow £500 from their parents to travel to London in search of a record deal have morphed into a heavily polished corporate machine. No matter how conscientious their efforts to remain real, their mega-fame and fortune have placed the band in a protective bubble. We can no longer relate to Bono, and Bono can no longer empathize with us. It is difficult for U2’s music to bridge the chasm.

How does one reconcile U2’s extreme wealth with Bono’s Christian faith and his firm conviction that God has a special place for the poor? In his poignant keynote address at the 2006 National Prayer Breakfast, attended by key government officials and heads of state, including the president of the United States, Bono cautioned that “God may be with us in our mansion on the hill; I hope so. . . But the one thing we can all agree [on], all faiths and ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and the poor. God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house.” George W. Bush, in his book Decision Points, recalls an Oval Office visit from Bono where the rock star brought him an old Irish Bible as a gift and reminded him that there are over 2,003 verses of scripture pertaining directly to the world’s poor and that the only place the Bible speaks directly of judgment is in Matthew 25 against those who have ignored the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned.

Bono’s public stance is admirable. Rare is the person, especially one of great wealth, who humbly recognizes God’s inherent partiality for the poor. Yet, if Bono believes this, why does he retain such riches? Certainly Bono is generous with both his time and money, as evidenced by his involvement with many projects, including One, Project Red, Edun, Greenpeace, DATA, Amnesty International, Chernobyl Children’s Project, Music Rising, and others. But is this sufficient? Though difficult to estimate, Bono’s net worth may be in the neighborhood of $1 billion. He owns homes and real estate throughout the world, including the south of France, Paris, New York, and Dublin. On top of the massive money earned as a member of U2, Bono moonlights as managing director and cofounder of Elevation Partners, a private equity firm with a reported $2 billion in committed capital, including a $700 million stake in Facebook. Jesus’ lesson in Mark 12:41–43 is uncomfortable to hear, but unmistakable: those who give abundantly from their riches give far less than the poor widow who gave two simple coins. Matthew 19:16–24 can seem to suggest that a rich person who follows all of God’s commandments but who does not give away all of her or his wealth may still fall short of the Kingdom of God. In U2’s infancy, Bono lived these scriptural teachings when he and two other members of U2 (The Edge and Larry Mullen Jr.) belonged to a Christian group called Shalom that practiced simple communal living. That was many years ago. Bono’s lifestyle is starkly different today.

The immensity of Bono’s wealth makes giving it all away difficult—but not impossible, as others have demonstrated. The late singer/songwriter Harry Chapin (“Cat’s in the Cradle” and “Taxi”), albeit an atheist, was in many ways similar to Bono (although he never attained Bono’s stature). Chapin was a humanitarian and activist who fought against world hunger and lived a relatively simple life, free of material possessions. He died in his seven-year-old Volkswagen Rabbit on the way to give a free performance. Charles Feeney, like Bono, is a billionaire businessperson of Irish descent. He has given over 99 percent of his fortune away (largely in secret) because of his conviction that the “haves” have an obligation to the “have nots” and that “there is great pleasure in giving while living.” Feeney, like Chapin, shuns material comforts, owns neither a house nor a car, flies coach, wears a cheap watch, and has only one pair of shoes. According to Feeney, there is no reason to buy an expensive watch or multiple pairs of shoes when a ten-dollar watch works just fine and a person can wear only one pair of shoes at a time. Bono’s advocacy for the poor and his life of faith are laudable, but they would be even more profound and inspiring—and arguably more biblical—if he more closely followed the examples of Chapin and Feeney.

Unfortunately, U2’s decision in 2006 to move a portion of its business from Ireland to the Netherlands in order to take advantage of a lower tax rate doesn’t bring to mind either Chapin or Feeney. Band manager Paul McGuiness justifies the move by saying that U2, as a global enterprise with over 95 percent of its operations outside Ireland, pays many taxes around the world. No doubt this is true, but that doesn’t make it any less disconcerting in its apparent incompatibility with Bono’s relentless campaigning for governments to provide additional aid and debt forgiveness to developing countries—a noble endeavor that requires tax revenues. The contradiction between Bono’s advocacy for governments to spend more and his band’s efforts to pay less in taxes has not gone unnoticed. At last year’s Glastonbury music festival, the activist group Art Uncut attempted to inflate a huge banner emblazoned with the message “U pay tax 2” while the band performed onstage. Festival security quickly confiscated the banner, allegedly because it was blocking the view of other festival goers (even though banners are commonplace at concerts)—an ironic turn of events given U2’s own rather extensive history of exercising its right to peacefully protest.

Other trivial concerns contribute to my dissatisfaction. Although diehard devotees would fervently disagree and paint me a renegade, I would contend that U2 lacks the energy and hunger of its youth (then again, don’t we all?) and is more in sync with its own corporate behemoth, “U2 Inc.,” than with its followers and fans. The U2 fan club website, with its slick marketing of paraphernalia and $50 annual membership fee, exemplifies this disconnect, as does the high price of concert tickets. While the group can’t be expected to control or manipulate the basic economic forces of supply and demand that are at work, couldn’t they at least experiment with creative ways of sharing their music at a lower cost? Simple gestures—such as extending their time on stage at concerts, taking a cue from Bruce Springsteen; spending time after concerts visiting with attendees, as Harry Chapin was known to have done; not charging a fan website membership fee, à la Coldplay; or learning from Radiohead’s endeavors to distribute music at a fair and lower cost—would demonstrate the band’s commitment to reconnecting with followers who genuinely appreciate their music. When, as I saw firsthand at an early concert in the 360° tour, shows are increasingly populated by people who seem to be there only because it is “the place to be,” including many who casually mill about, almost oblivious to the show—even going for concessions during the quintessential U2 anthem “One” (sacrilege!) and leaving the stadium before or during the encore, presumably to beat traffic—something is obviously out of sync.

Still, there is much that I continue to admire and appreciate about U2 and Bono. Remaining together as a band with seldom a public conflict is rare among super groups and is testimony to the character of the four men. The band’s essence and music has always been about something greater, casting the spotlight on spirit, heart, and soul. As one of the most recognizable individuals on the earth, Bono has used his power of celebrity to improve the world as a voice for the poor and disenfranchised. He is even rumored to have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Though not without problems, the 29-year marriage of Bono and Ali Hewson, his high school sweetheart, is famously strong. Bono’s Christian faith, as expressed in songs and interviews, is mature, emphasizing love and grace. His concept of God is inclusive, embracing respect and interfaith understanding. Though troubled by religious narrow-mindedness, Bono scarcely, if ever, expresses a negative word about anyone, even those with whom he strongly disagrees.

U2 and Bono have long been a significant, intimate part of my life and will always be so. I am still torn about my choice to forgo their show last summer with my sons. But because of my concerns, I was uncomfortable supporting the U2 corporate machine. I am confident the $300+ that the tickets would have cost was better used elsewhere. Members of the band have stated that they hope to tour again, so I might have another opportunity to reassess my relationship with U2 and Bono. Next time I may just have to overlook my concerns, at least for an evening.

Brian Porter teaches management at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.