The whitewashing of U2

Interesting that the actual album contains no songs from the era when this photo was taken…I haven’t bought any new music in a while. See, my tastes are particular enough that my parents and relatives rely on a Christmas list from me every year – a tradition that I think most kids have but few keep going as long as my brother and I have. If I were to buy all sorts of CDs in the Fall, there would be a lot less for my relatives to choose from. So come October, my CD purchasing plummets and I tend to hold off until Christmas and afterwards to purchase new music.

Granted, I still download stuff a little, and there’s a couple of albums I’ve been meaning to critique, but I always hesitate to review downloaded albums for audio reasons – you never know how close to the actual album the sound is. Heck, at Acadia I was trying to track down a copy of Interpol’s newest album to try out and everyone on the campus network who had it downloaded was listening to a leaked mono mix of the album instead of the real one. That’s right – MONO!

But that doesn’t mean that I can’t review or discuss recently-released albums where I already own most, if not all, of the songs. Hence, a discussion of U2’s new singles collection, which leads me to ask one question: at what point does providing a mass-audience-ready overview of a band’s career amount to historical revisionism?

Let’s even ignore the most obvious criticism of this process. Of course it is impossible to do the career any notable band with decades of work behind them justice on a single disc. The reason for this CD’s existence is for the most casual of fans, the ones so casual that they can’t even bring themselves to buy the two pre-existing Best Ofs that the band has put out (each one covering roughly a decade of the band’s work). And heck, if the Beatles, Elvis and Dylan can all condense their diverse and fascinating catalogues into a single disc for mass consumption, why can’t the biggest band of our time?

And before I rant, let me state that it’s entirely possible that this whole exercise is scientific – that these songs were chosen because they were actually the top singles of the band’s career (doesn’t explain the new songs, but we’ll get to those in a minute). But in looking over the tracklisting, some simple math tells the whole story: there are more songs on this album from the band’s last two competent-but-boring albums than from The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby.

Granted, some of them are deserving (in particular, “Beautiful Day” and “Vertigo,” both fantastic, exhilarating songs). But tripe like “Elevation” and “Walk On” being included over earlier classics indicates a possible hidden agenda on this disc: to try and place the band’s recent sincere, anthemic hits on the same level as their classic sincere, anthemic hits.

In order to accomplish this goal, the band completely whitewashes pretty much anything that doesn’t fit their current image as a sincere, anthemic band. That means that the band’s early, new-wave influenced years are eliminated (especially odd considering the band drew upon their first album regularly on their most recent tour…was “I Will Follow” simply not anthemic enough for this set?) As far as 18 Singles is concerned, U2 started with War and with “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day.”

Even more telling is the near-complete absence of the 1990s incarnation of U2, the bold, loud and ironic one whose tours rivalled the Rolling Stones’ for excess (which was precisely the point) and whose musical output was hit and miss but produced some of the band’s best work. Nothing from Zooropa, Pop or the Passengers project, and the two songs included from the band’s best album are the two most obvious, accessible choices (“One” and “Mysterious Ways”). As far as 18 Singles is concerned, U2 decided to take a decade-long break in the 1990s.

And then there’s the new songs: a toss-off that didn’t make their last album and “The Saints Are Coming,” a collaboration with Green Day of a classic punk song by the Skids, released as a charity single with all proceeds going to New Orleans Hurricane relief. The song is actually quite decent, but it’s paired with one hell of a bad, unsubtle video (granted, criticizing Bono for not being subtle is like shooting fish in a barrel). More importantly, though,  these two new songs are not available for download on their own from iTunes – U2 fans have to buy a whole album of songs they already have to get them. (Not that every other band on the planet doesn’t do this with their hits CDs either, but they usually include something else value-added – a DVD, a download, something – for their hard-core fans. U2 did this with their two previous Best Ofs…not so much on this one.)

So ultimately, this who disc comes off as an attempt not only to put U2’s recent work on the same level as their classic output, but to rewrite the band’s entire history into something your mom would like. How rock and roll is that?

Watch: U2 – “Stay (Faraway, So Close)” – one of several absolutely fantastic U2 singles not included on 18 Singles:

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