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From counter culture to corporatist voice

Bono's new revolution and the rock industry it sought to change has lost its cutting edge argues Ian Todd.

Recently the Irish rock star, Bono of U2 (real name Paul David Hewson) was featured in an article in The Guardian. In the article Bono was favourably greeted as an example of the new form of political consciousness raising in rock music, less about confronting the establishment as it did in the counter- cultural Sixties more about how to achieve realistic political goals by careful lobbying. As The Guardian rightly demonstrated Bono is no stranger to the somewhat exalted world of politics having previously been involved in campaigns that supported Greenpeace and Amnesty International.

No one can dispute Bono's genuine compassion for a number of liberal causes but sometimes when he has sought to attach his political conscience to protracted and complex political issues he has come unstuck. The example of Northern Ireland and Bosnia are two examples that immediately spring to mind. During U2's American tour of 1988 Bono was visibly outraged by the bombing of the Remembrance Day parade by the IRA at Enniskillen. During a performance in New York the day after the bombing he launched into an impassioned but ill-considered diatribe against the IRA where he argued the only response was to "Fuck the Revolution".

Similarly Bono's intervention in the debate about ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in the early 1990s contributed little to what was a highly complex and multi-faceted political problem.

In more recent years Bono has attached himself to another protracted political issue, the neo- imperialist issue of Third World debt through his lobbying on behalf of Jubilee 2000 (a network of charity organisations that have focussed on the simplistic Christian ideal of cancelling Third World debt by the year 2000), In his guise as self-appointed spokesman for Jubilee 2000 he has been espousing the cause of "sabbath economics" which he describes as "the idea that every seven days you stop consumption and exploitation and every 49 years you write off debts and free slaves". The last two years have witnessed Bono criss-crossing the globe as a modem St Paul preaching the born-again Christian evangelism of sabbath economics and the "civilising mission" of Western policy towards the Third World.

In this quest to rid the Third World of crippling economic debt he has met such strange bedfellows as Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela and George. W.Bush, This so-called meeting of minds between Bush and Bono probably surprised many of U2's die-hard fans. Was this the same Bono who wrote a coruscating attack on US involvement in Central America on "Bullet the Blue Sky", was this the same Bono who visualised America as a bedraggled Statue of Liberty on the song "In God's Country" (both on the Joshua Tree album)? In his interview with The Guardian Bono said "it's very important not to play politics with this. Millions of lives are being lost for the stupidest of reasons: money - So let's not play 'Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Let's rely on the moral force of our arguments ". According to The Guardian the meeting did achieve success in the announcement of "an historic 5 billion dollar aid package for the world's poorest countries".

So can Bono's realpolitik be judged a success? Firstly, the announcement of a five billion hike in aid is governed primarily by the need to prevent another September 11th. George.W.Bush is savvy enough to realise that poverty breeds revolution, so it is important to bind the Third World economies into a close knit economic dependency with the Western economies. And this could be an attempt at a new Marshall plan for the Third World. Secondly, this apparent success of the new realpolitik raises more questions about the relationship between rock and politics. The new realpolitik as practiced by Bono suggests that rock music has lost its cutting edge, it is no longer dangerous as an art form. In the counter-cultural era of the Sixties rock bands like The Doors and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, The Rolling Stones set themselves firmly against the establishment. For example The Doors "The Unknown Soldier" was a blistering attack on the Vietnam War, similarly Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Ohio" was about the shooting of students at Kent State University by the National Guard. In this era and later with the anti-establishment punk rock in the late 1970's the genre of rock music provided a voice and a face to a whole generation of young people alienated by conservative political culture. Now rock is no longer the voice of a counter culture instead it is dominated by corporatist ideals and values.

Many critics greeted the arrival of U2's "The Joshua Tree" in 1987 as an example of a new spirit of 1960s positivism in rock music. A close listen to this album revealed a readiness on the part of the band to deal with big political issues of the mid-Eighties. Many critics and fans alike believed that the 'generational consciousness' of the Sixties had been re-fashioned - Bono himself, talked about the ideal of creating a new "revolution in the rock industry", a rock music moulded in the attitudes and aspirations of the 1960s but with a new pragmatic agenda. Bono offered as an example of this new positivism the Live Aid concerts of July 1985. Surely he argued, here was an example of the relevance of rock music to peoples' everyday lives, an example of what some commentators described as "a conspiracy of hope". Indeed Live Aid was a conspiracy of sorts but cynics might argue that it was a conspiracy to sell more records. All the evidence suggests that Live Aid did untold wonders for U2's fledgling musical career. Before July 1985 U2 were the biggest cult band of the Eighties, after Live Aid as their biographer Eamon Dunphy has argued they became a multi-million selling rock band.

So while Bono's undoubted skill at the art of realpolitik cannot be faulted his attempts at changing political policy have met with limited success. This is primarily because the rock industry has itself undergone a transformation since its first inception in the 1950s. Gone is the symbol of rock music as a cutting edge musical genre, gone is the phenomenon of the Dionysian rock performer burning out his talents in his late twenties as Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix did. Gone is the role of rock as a voice of a whole counter-culture. Instead it has been replaced by a middle-class, middle-aged corporatist consciousness where rock stars like Bono grow old gracefully, increasingly searching for a meaning to their art form in today's post-modern rock industry. Yes today rock has a conscience but as the evidence of U2 suggests it is a highly selective one motivated primarily by capitalist and corporatist values and the odd practice of realpolitik.

July/August 2002