Another day, another ageing male rock star blundering in to share his thoughts on the modern music industry.
“I think music has gotten very girly,” Bono announced in an interview with Rolling Stone. “And there are some good things about that, but hip hop is the only place for young male anger at the moment – and that’s not good.”
Ignoring his use of the pejorative “girly”, it’s quite staggering that the U2 frontman and Glamour’s Woman of the Year 2016 (that’s right) chose this – a year where festival headliners were relentlessly dominated by angry white male acts – Muse, Kasabian, Eminem, Foo Fighters, Radiohead – to state his case.
Bono’s certainly not the first to make the tedious case for rock music “not being the same” as it used to be. It’s become almost a monthly ritual (daily if you’re a Gallagher brother): musicians including Damon Albarn, Gene Simmons, everyone in Kasabian, the late Lemmy Kilmister (Motörhead), Flea, all lamenting the fact that people, fans and the industry have moved on. And they are, exclusively, male.
But Bono’s suggestion that the genre was good because it provided young men with an outlet for aggression is not just boring, it’s ignorant and misleading – particularly when he throws out The Who as an example. No one is denying The Who’s greatness, but to link their success to rage rather than talent is insulting, particularly given the death of the band’s drummer Keith Moon aged 32, after years of self-destructive – and property-destroying – behaviour, along with issues of domestic violence and struggles with addiction.
To then cite Pearl Jam, one of the few rock bands of the early Ninetied to make vocal statements in support of feminism, and who penned songs such as “Better Man” about a woman trapped in a bad relationship, is just bizarre.
Bono’s example of hip hop as one of the few channels for this male aggression he longs to hear are equally appalling given how Kendrick Lamar featured on “Get Out Of Your Own Way” from U2’s latest record Songs of Experience, and after they collaborated on “American Soul”.
Lamar, one of the most intelligent, thoughtful and progressive artists the world has seen in years, has pioneered a new wave of hip hop, inspiring fellow artists from genres that, 20 years ago, were as far away from one another as it was possible to be.
To have worked with him and still come away dismissing hip hop as a place for young male anger does a disservice to both the female pioneers of the genre, from Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah, Missy Elliot and Lil’ Kim, to newer acts like Rapsody and Syd. It also ignores male artists such as Drake, Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper, Future and Jay Z, whose best work delves into emotions more complex than pure rage.
It reduces hip hop to the laziest possible stereotype of black masculinity as “aggressive” and ignores artists like Tupac, who released “Dear Mama” in 1995 to counter those very stereotypes and to pay tribute to female strength, and Nas in 2003 with “I Can”, in which he encouraged children to value self-respect and remind them how much they have to be proud of, and all the other artists who came before and after them.
The U2 frontman also seems to conveniently forget how one of the first and most successful rock’n’roll bands of all time was The Beatles, a band who capitalised on writing emotionally complex songs like “Eleanor Rigby”, “She Loves You”, “Across The Universe” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.
He also seems to forget his own music; one of U2’s biggest songs of all time is the heartfelt, romantic ballad “With Or Without You”. Is he sneering at the millions of fans – men and women – who cried to that song? The YouTube comments that say things like: “I love this song with a passion I can’t put into words… it’s a strange connection I feel.”
Bono is clinging to a time where men were told it’s not OK to show emotions regarded as “feminine” – ergo, “don’t cry, don’t show you’re upset, don’t be a GIRL about it”. Shut it up inside instead; bottle that rage and either channel it into loud music or into actual, physical aggression.
Rock music never was, and never should be, simply a place to channel male anger. Otherwise we’d be hearing the same tired album again and again – perhaps that’s where U2 went wrong with Songs of Experience.
Music is a chance to express something universal, which connects with the artist’s audience when they themselves are struggling to put it into words. It gets people on their feet and into arenas, has them singing along, in tears at how their favourite artist has managed to pin down exactly what they’re feeling all this time, and at the ecstasy and elation that comes with sharing that feeling with thousands of people at the same time. What’s more rock’n’roll than that?
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