On ‘The Best Thing About’ Rock

U2 has long been my favorite band. They have been able to innovate and adapt, while consistently remaining true to their roots and maintaining friendships among the band members. Their 2014 album Songs of Innocence, despite the criticism on how it was released through iTunes, was an artistic masterpiece. It captured the grunge, punk feel of their youth even as it showed the maturation of 35 years in their reflection upon that era in Ireland.

In December the band is releasing a new album, Songs of Experience, as a companion to Songs of Innocence. While Innocence focused on their youth during the Troubles, Experience will be shaped by expressions of affection to those closest to the band. They released a single from the album early, “You’re The Best Thing About Me,” which is supposed to be representative of the album’s feel.

And it is awful.

Like the Crystal Skull, “You’re The Best Thing About Me” reveals that the artists have become sappy old geezers. It feels just like what a teenager would say, “The person I love is the best thing about me, I am the worst thing about me, why do I keep jeopardizing our relationship, since you’re the best thing about me?” Innocence capture the feel of U2’s youth from the vantage point of age, but if this single is any indication, Experience captures the feel of their romantic youth by regressing into adolescence.

As penitence for my criticism of U2, below I have reposted an essay from several years ago arguing that U2 is superior to the Rolling Stones by virtue of maturing the rock genre by innovating without abandoning it.

The Rolling Stones, as well as other rock bands that emerged from the late 60s to the early 80s, are routinely criticized or mocked for still performing and touring even in old age. The Stones just did their 50th anniversary tour, and as this article notes, many fans expect–just as they have expected many times in the past–that this is the Stones’ final tour. That joke/observation has been made many times, including by The Simpsons a decade ago. It is commonly said that the Stones have had their day and that they need to retire with dignity; that 74 year old Mick Jagger or Keith Richards should not be prancing about or rocking out onstage. Examples of this from the past 15 years are countless.

The Rolling Stones are representative all the bands that emerged at the dawn of rock in the mid-60s and early 70s.

My theory is that rock started as a symbol of rebellion and teenage/20 something angst against society for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers back in the late 60s, early 80s. The Stones and the bands that emerged with them are the first generation of rock stars and have no examples to turn to when it comes to aging away from their roots. The Stones’ music, as with the music of most rock bands of that era, has essentially remained unchanged over the past 35-50 years. But the teenage, defiant ethos that spawned these bands does not translate to sexagenarian stage presence. David Bowie made a similar point in this interview.

In other words, The Rolling Stones and bands like them have become laughable because all they produce are nostalgia-infused tours and albums that try to recapture the ethos of their young angst. Rock started off as young person’s music and the leading bands do not seem to know how to break that mold. The Stones have failed to help rock evolve beyond what it was when they first shaped it upon their arrival on the musical scene. The Stones are stuck acting like juveniles as they approach 70, and that does not work for anything beyond conjuring up reminiscence from another era.

A brief scan of the most successful bands from that era and genre that still tour or produce albums after 1995 (AC/DC, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi [a notable exception], Boston, Def Leppard, Foreigner, Genesis, Guns N’ Roses, Journey, Kansas, Kiss, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ozzy Osbourne, Queen, Santana [with a brief resurgence around 2000], and The Who) demonstrates that they are not nearly as successful as they once were. A steady decline in album sales/chart positions and tour attendance is par for the course with these bands. These numbers do not prove anything on their own, and each involves a number of factors, but they seem to indicate declining relevance.

U2 is the antithesis to this. U2 showed up on the scene at the tail end of the Baby Boomer/Gen Xer reign in rock, but they still embodied the classic rock ethos early on in their career. Boy and War were typical of the albums of the era. But U2 evolved and has only been getting better. Post-1993’s Zooropa, every U2 album has been a smash hit. 2009’s No Line On The Horizon hit #1 on every major chart except Sweden’s, where it was #2. It has already been certified double platinum.

My point is not sing the praises of U2 (The Eagles and Bruce Springsteen are two other bands that have done this well, but not quite to U2’s level), but to observe that U2, though Bono and The Edge are 20 years younger than Jagger and Richards, matured and evolved beyond the defiant ethos that typified teen rock into an adult rock band. Their music styles and lyrical evolution reflect this maturation well.

Where The Rolling Stones are constantly being told to retire because of their age being inappropriate for rock stars, U2 is being lauded. U2 is not getting hit with the same calls for retirement because they no longer make music geared towards teenagers and 20 somethings or make their tours nostalgia trips, but produce music that has matured with them. U2 is the best example of a band that made the transition from essentially adolescent music to maturation.