ecently the Irish rock star,
Bono of U2 (real name Paul David Hewson) was featured in
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
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
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.