Sell-out

One of the biggest criticisms I hear from people who hate U2 is that they feel the band is a “sell-out.” Over the last several weeks, I’ve been contemplating just what people mean when they accuse U2–or any other band of equaling popularity and fame–of being a sell-out. And I’ve come to one conclusion: people inherently hate when someone is much more successful than they can ever dream to be. I can back up this theory with many other non-musical examples, such as how people leer at those who have money or are apparently successful with their careers when they themselves are not successful. Resentful people seem to think that others who have achieved relative success have somehow gained their success in some magical way: they were lucky, they knew the right people, they were somehow favored by a higher power. Because we–yes, “we” because even I’ve fallen victim to resentment–only look upon these people from the outside, we never see all the sweat and hard work it took a person to achieve their goals. To us, it looks like magic. But really, in most but the very few exceptions, a person has worked hard to achieve their goals. They were not magically bestowed on them because they prayed to the god of success or sold their soul to Satan.

In the world of music, I have noticed a tendency for people to only like bands before they are popular. Like it’s hipper or something to love the band when they are struggling and working in small venues waiting for their break. And I can agree on some level that it’s great when you find a band early in its inception and you get to enjoy the intimacy of a small, local venue. When you can walk right up to the band and get their autographs. It’s fun to be a groupie and follow them around with your little group of 10-20 people. I’ve been there. I’ve seen lots of bands at places like the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland, loved the fact that I could see the expression on each band member’s face from all the way across a room. These are great days, made even greater when the band really starts to catch on beyond your home and others see the brilliance in them that you do.

However, don’t be fooled into thinking that every band does not want to achieve success in the numbers of artists like U2 or The Beatles or [insert name of a famous artist]. Every artist wants to be able to make a living off of their art and not struggle with it as a second-hand hobby to their “day job.” Every artist of every type. Plain and simple. No one wants their art to be only locally appreciated and then withered away into obscurity. As much as they like their own group of original fans, every band would love to achieve success. One some level, ever artist is a narcissist; if they weren’t, they’d never take their art out in public.  I can’t speak for exactly what every artist personally hopes to find in success, but I can say that for myself, I’d like my writing to reach a wider audience so that I could, if possible, touch other lives in a significant way. A rather noble goal, yes, but that’s what art is all about–it makes you feel and it does touch you. We like music because it resonates with something within ourselves. We love a good fiction book because for a period of time, it distracts our senses so completely, we are drawn into its make-believe world and entertained. We love a good non-fiction book because it teaches us something or speaks a truth to our own experiences, and makes us feel less alone. We love a good movie for similar reasons to why we love music or a fiction book. Stories and music are largely about the human experience, something we can all share and acknowledge together.

I’d be more than honored if I could give back to the world in that way. And I believe Bono considers the same things when he writes his own lyrics. U2 always strives to remain relevant in the world because they believe that music is more than just a river of sound to float on; they believe it’s a conscious experience, a way to reach people, an outlet to inspire. I truly believe that art has a social responsibility to the world. If art does not teach you something about yourself or about someone else, it’s not really doing its job. If it doesn’t make you feel anything, then there’s simply no point. Art should anger you, inspire you, make you cry, elate you, and otherwise move you. U2 music does all of these things for me.

I think people have problems with U2 partnering with products like Blackberry and iPod, too. Or they are angered by Bono’s affiliations with organizations such as the ONE campaign, Product (RED), DATA, etc. I won’t go into the humanitarian causes Bono is involved with–I’ve discussed that before and I personally have no problem with a band using their name and position to push for social reform (I would gladly do it if I had the position and power, I assure you). Because it needs to be done. Plain and simple. As for product affiliations–well, you have to keep in mind that managing a band of the magnitude and popularity of U2 is a business like anything else. At that level, it’s no longer possible to just be an artist for the sake of art, especially in this day when it’s so easy to pirate music off the internet (which, by the way, does take away from the profits of your favorite band significantly). Bands have to find other ways to generate revenue. It’s also perfectly acceptable to me for them to partner with products. I’ve never been one to buy a product because my favorite band or personality is affiliated with it–I’m not that easy. (Though I do own both a Blackberry and an iPod, but it has nothing at all to do with U2… It’s an information world and I’m a tech geek.)

Big companies like Blackberry and iPod also help to fund concerts, providing an access to technology for big shows, and, really, might help contribute to lower costs for the concerts themselves. In the grand scheme of things, U2 concert tickets are not as expensive as the tickets to other shows. I haven’t checked, but I’m pretty sure Lady GaGa is far more expensive than U2. Plus, U2 always offers a General Admission option which is extremely cheap (I paid about $60 for my Pittsburgh ticket, which includes about $20 in up-charges from that damned pirate called Ticketmaster). They put on one of the best shows I’ve ever seen live, anyway, so the money spent is well worth it.

What makes U2 shows so great? They put their heart, soul, blood into every performance. They rotate their set lists out and try new songs. Every night is different even when the set list matches one that has been played over and over. Bono “snippets” other songs–U2’s or those of other artists–within the ones he sings and he changes these out quite frequently depending on the mood of the audience, the conditions of the venue, or the particular events of the day (ie, multiple John Lennon lyrics were snippeted into songs during the concert in Brisbane, Australia on December 8th to recognize the “anniversary” of John Lennon’s death). Unlike other bands who play the same set every night in the same way without changing a single facial expression, U2 brings a fresh performance on even the oldest songs. And Bono’s voice on the current concert tour is better now than it’s been in years. He’s on fire. Totally worth any amount of money spent on the concert.

U2 has not “sold out”–they’ve strategically planned out their business.  I totally resent the words “sell out.”  These words are merely the jealous rantings of people who wish they had achieved better in their own pathetic lives. Hipsters who would rather buy the obscure vinyl albums of unheard artists out of the trunk of some dude’s 1970’s yellow low-rider. I’m sad for artists that never got to see their day in the spotlight. We all want to achieve success on some level. I suppose I’d be called a sell-out if I did manage to get something of mine published. Or if I sold the rights to a theoretical best-selling novel to a movie company for it to be made into a screenplay and subsequent movie. That’s not selling out, that’s accomplishment and success. It means you made a product someone wants. U2 has been making a product people have wanted for over 30 years. And God bless them for it!!

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