Apple, U2, and Losing Your Cool

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Late last week the growing bubble of excitement that customarily accompanies the introduction of a new Apple gadget — in this case, the latest iPhones and the Apple Watch — quickly popped when Apple CEO Tim Cook welcomed aging messiah rockers U2 to the stage, and announced that their new album, Songs of Innocence, was being released exclusively on iTunes as a free gift to all iTunes users.

As people began to notice that this U2 album, that they had not bought or asked for, was already present on their iTunes libraries, the collective howl of Internet outrage grew until it was somewhere between the NSA data mining revelations and Kanye stopping his show until everyone stood up.

I find 21st-century U2 as pompous, overrated, and boring as the next guy, but I have to say the reaction to this is a little overblown.

I don’t think I have ever bought a U2 record. In the ’80s and early ’90s, I didn’t need to, because they were coming out of every boombox and passing car window and television everywhere. It’s hard to overstate the total saturation they achieved with The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. I liked those records well enough, but I never owned them or any of the others. I’ve never been what you’d call a fan. Even so, when I heard there was a free U2 record on my iTunes, I checked my phone and was mildly disappointed that it wasn’t there. I shrugged and forgot about it.

But my Facebook and Twitter feeds continued to fill up with outrage, so I checked iTunes on my main computer at home, and there it was. But I noticed immediately that, like a lot of albums I’ve bought on iTunes and then tried to listen to on my phone, it wasn’t actually on my hard drive — the little cloud icon with the down arrow indicates that it is in my iCloud, and I have the option to either stream it from there or download it. (Because 90% of my music listening happens via my phone, I always prefer to download things rather than stream them, to avoid incurring data charges.)

So that’s the first thing I don’t understand. Apple did not annex space on everyone’s hard drives and fill it with a U2 album. They gave everyone the option of either listening to or downloading a U2 album if they wanted to. I didn’t want to, so I highlighted the album, right-clicked, selected “Delete” and — you won’t believe this — Songs of Innocence is no longer on my iTunes. I fail to see the problem.

It wasn’t so long ago that Metallica sued Napster for allowing everyone to take their music for free, and even though they had a point, everyone called them assholes. Then Radiohead released an album and said everyone could pay whatever they wanted for it and we called them geniuses. No U2 wants to give everyone an album for free — to even save us the trouble of downloading it, if we don’t want to — and they’re assholes?

I’ve seen the point raised that people’s music collections are very, very personal, and having something inserted there that we didn’t ask for is kind of a violation of that personal space. If we were still living in the age where we all had three shelves’ worth of jewel cases, arranged just so to allow visitors to see the both the breadth of our openmindedness and the razor sharpness of our discernment, this argument would make sense. I would have been horrified if someone slipped a Counting Crows disc into my collection, right there where everyone could see it. But when’s the last time someone came over and browsed your iTunes library? Is that something that happens?

I suppose the presumptuousness of just assuming that everyone who uses iTunes would want this album is more than a little egotistical, which fits right in with Bono’s annoying image of himself as an arms-outstretched, sunglassed messiah.

Quick messiah sidebar: I hope my friend Ezra won’t mind if I include something he posted on his Facebook page to illustrate Bono’s messiah complex:

So we went to the Festival In the Desert in Mali, outside of Timbuktu, and it was magical, amazing, the best thing of our lives, etc. And one night Tinariwen is playing, and in the middle of their set, viola, there’s Bono onstage with them, he’s flown all the way to Timbuktu to grace us all with his presence and a 20-minute or so God-awful improv. Seriously, it’s awful. Like, even if you love U2, awful. Meandering and boring, he keeps singing ‘Viva le Chansons du Desert’ and trying to get the crowd to sing along and flashing his rock star ‘V’ hand signs and wearing his sunglasses and everything.

The problem is, this is one of the last bastions on earth where the locals don’t know or care who Bono is, and the 100 or so of us white people there certainly didn’t journey all the way to Timbuktu to see Bono, so he falls completely flat. Killed the whole set, really killed the momentum of the whole night, not that Bono seemed to notice or care since he kept doing the same thing for what felt like hours.

So anyway, the next day we met this local guy who spoke English and we were talking about how bad Bono was, and he tells us that he was way up front in the crowd near the stage enjoying the show, and these two guys next to him were rocking out to Tinariwen, they and it seemed like everyone there’s favorite band, and then Bono comes out, and these guys are like, ‘what the fuck is going on?’ and they’re pissed, and one of them I guess was really pissed, was cursing and saying awful things, like who is this fucking white guy and why is he ruining our festival? And his friend just taps him on the shoulder and says ‘Be patient. He is very important to the white people.’

It is very, very easy to rag on Bono. But this is not really his fault either — it’s Apple that decided to pay U2 $100 million for the album and give it to their users, and that is little more than a well-intentioned but clueless gift.

I remember one time I went home for Christmas in the mid-’90s and on Christmas Eve my parents’ best friends came over for dinner, as they do every Christmas Eve. They are super nice, super cool people and I am always happy to see them. They gave me a CD for Christmas: Balance by Van Halen, the last record they made with Sammy Hagar, a certified piece of poo that I had no interest in listening to. I was and am a huge, massive, psycho Van Halen fan, but (as they would have absolutely no reason to know) Van Halen with Sammy Hagar was not Van Halen, it was maudlin lite-rock that I wanted no part of. Now, did I throw the CD on the floor and shout at my parents’ friends that they were lame and clueless and berate them for contaminating my carefully curated CD collection with this hunk of dung? No I did not. I said thank you, gave them a hug, and enjoyed their company for the rest of the evening. I never took the CD out of the shrinkwrap or gave it another thought. I probably left it at my parents’ house when the holiday was over.

If Apple had done this with the new Beyonce album, or the new Kanye West album, or the new Jack White album, or the new Radiohead album, would the backlash have been so extreme? Are we mad at them because they invaded our privacy (even though they didn’t really), or because they did it with such a lame album?

Apple was the cool, young-skewing alternative in computing for 30 years. It was the underdog to Microsoft and Dell and Gateway and a hundred other companies that it’s since gone on to either eclipse or outright bury. But with this one misguided but well-intentioned gesture, they showed that they are not that anymore. They are not Justin Long, they are John Hodgman.

For those of us of a certain generation, who grew up with Macs and had to deal with the fact that we were in a distinct minority, that our files couldn’t be read by everyone else’s computers, but put up with it anyway because Apple really did provide a better experience, because they made cooler stuff — this company occupied a space in our psyches not unlike that of a favorite band. They, more than almost anyone or anything else over the last decade and a half, set the tone for what was cool in terms of technology at a time that technology occupied a space in the public consciousness not unlike that of rock and roll.

So it’s kind of painful to look up and realize that they are no setting the tone, no longer ahead of the trends, but the clueless uncle that tried, they really tried, to get you the right CD but just couldn’t get it right, because they lost track of cool a long time ago. “You guys like U2, right?” And watching a band (or a company) you grew up with get old and lame is to watch yourself get old and lame.

We don’t have to freak out about it, though. It happens to everyone. Just smile, say thank you, and remember it’s the thought that counts.

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