On Bono: Can A Saint Still Be A Rock Star?

(Nikki Kahn/TWP)

Big Style section profile today on the African debt-relief activist Bono Vox. The central question asked by my colleague Sridhar Pappu is what makes Bono such an effective and powerful activist and lobbyist, particularly in a city as fractured as Washington.

(Not sure this has anything to do with the answer, but I do love that Bono is willing to conduct an interview at a urinal. Seriously. It's in the story. And I've heard the audio evidence. And no, I won't send you an MP3.)

Also in today's dead-tree product, there's a Names & Faces item about Bono showing up at a London charity concert to perform a few U2 songs with The Edge. Because, you know, for all the time Bono spends trying to save the world, his number one job remains Rock Star. At least I think it does.

Anyway, here's what I'm wondering: Do you think Bono is still a powerful rock 'n' roll frontman? Are you buying what he's selling? To what degree is your impression of U2's music colored by his day job as an Important Geopolitical Figure who hugs world leaders at G8 summits, takes meetings with POTUS and travels the world with the U.S. treasury secretary?

I liked "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" pretty well and I'm dying to hear what they do next, working with the great Rick Rubin. For the most part, I enjoyed the U2 concerts at [Insert Telcom Company Name Here] Center in 2005. But I really, really, really wished that Bono hadn't spent so much time on his soapbox during the D.C. shows. Less jabbering and more pure musical salvation, please.

It's not like Bono is new to the game of mixing politics and popular music. Hardly so. It's just ... different now. Elevated. More extreme. It's certainly magnified because he plays under such a bright spotlight, on such an expansive stage. It's part of the Bono package deal, I guess; but I'm not sure I like the way it's being bundled these days. You?

By J. Freedom du Lac |  November 26, 2007; 10:00 AM ET Activism , Africa , U2
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He did get a bit talky at the DC show I saw, 1st night, but he still bring the noise and the passion when he signs. Very interesting song writer to. It's rare to hear anger sound so beautiful and happy. the actualy lyrics to alot of U2 songs are some fairly pissed off stuff.

Are they still working with Rubin? i could have sworn I hear they were working with someone else. If they are still with with him than either it's going to be all acoustic slush or it will be their heaviest album ever.

Posted by: EricS | November 26, 2007 10:30 AM

My problem (and it may well just be me) with Le Bono is that for the past five years, it has seemed like at any moment he might stretch his arms wide, point his face to the heavens, close his eyes, and wait for the streaming light from God to come down and bathe him in a golden glow. And that is distracting. He can still rock, I believe, but he's got a ton of baggage and he wants everyone to know that he's carrying it (selflessly, I'm sure).

Posted by: 23112 | November 26, 2007 11:12 AM

Bono is legion. He contains many.

Posted by: Ronnie | November 26, 2007 11:26 AM

Love U2 generally, but didn't like "Atomic Bomb" so much... not sure why really, just didn't catch me the way "ATYCLB" did. (Or "Achtung Baby" and the rest did.) Haven't seen them live since 2001, which I need to correct next time they come around.

There was a great article in The Onion awhile ago: "Rest of U2 Fine With Africans Starving".

Posted by: KR | November 26, 2007 11:58 AM

Last I heard, they were working with Eno, Lanois on new material.

Posted by: Ray | November 26, 2007 12:09 PM

I've been an avid U2 follower for over 20 years now. It's quite interesting to see Bono move from yelling at the gates of power to sitting down with the powerful and discussing policy issues. I applaud what he has done and accomplished on the Africa issue as well as the energy he has put in to it. However, it makes me uneasy that he now censors himself on issues like the Iraq war. I understand where he's coming from given he's now operating in a political environment but shouldn't rock music be void of any censorship even if it's self-imposed? Punk rock which spawned bands like U2 attacked issues be they political, emotional or ridiculous. I don't think Joe Strummer of the Clash - who Bono routinely cites to as a personal hero - would have made the same deal.

Posted by: james | November 26, 2007 12:33 PM

Thankfully, he's not British, or the Queen would knight him and we'd have to call him Sir Bono.

Bono is a ham, but he's probably a better human being than many rock stars (grandstanding notwithstanding). He's like Sting for me - I don't hate him, but I don't need to pay attention to him anymore.

Posted by: SSMD | November 26, 2007 12:48 PM

I think many in the UK are sick of Bono and Geldof, both multimillionaires, telling us to put our hands into our pockets when they have not led by example the way American philantrophists have. Bono is worth nearly $500million, Geldof $200million, yet have set up no foundations or given any serious money to charity. Talk is cheap, giving is dearer.

Posted by: Laurence Ward | November 26, 2007 12:52 PM

How on earth is Bob Geldof worth $200 million? Not that I don't believe you, but.... Are there THAT many Monday-haters out there? Residuals from "The Wall" just pouring in?

Posted by: Claude | November 26, 2007 1:08 PM

Laurence Ward, not everyone has to approach the world's problems the way you think they should. Bono has a heck of a lot of money, but I don't think he has enough money to pay off the debt of every country in Africa.

But on the question of Bono: I agree the preaching at concerts gets a little tiresome, and solved this on the last tour by seeing them in a country where he doesn't speak the language. :)

Posted by: hh | November 26, 2007 1:13 PM

I can't tell if you people are being hilarious intentionally or not. Maybe its because I manage an irish themed bar but I have not been able to stand their music since the mid-eighties. First off, their pop stars, not rock stars(huge difference in my book), more of Madonna's ilk than Iggy Pop. Second, spare us the self-rightousness, as if he is the only one who understands that the whole world is falling apart. The only people still putting him on a pedestal are old foggies who still believe in pedestals. You are only showing your out of touchness. The only time I want to see Bono is when South Park is ridiculing him.

Posted by: Jeff | November 26, 2007 1:31 PM

Sir Bog Geldof (Irish, but still uses the title) failed as a singer but he has a television production company and a company called 10 Alps, which is valued at about $70million. He has also sold a website and has many other media interests. Maybe he is 'only' worth $100 million, but the main point is that little, if any, of this has gone to charity. Yet he and his friend Bono are the ones telling us to put our hands into our pockets.

Posted by: Laurence Ward | November 26, 2007 1:44 PM

Re: Bob Geldof.

I see. Thank you.

Posted by: Claude | November 26, 2007 1:52 PM

well said Jeff!

Posted by: mikenimzo | November 26, 2007 1:56 PM

I enjoy the band, I have for many years. He is just a man. One i see your working to start dismantling. It's to bad we spend so much time on the dribble of a person, looking for ways in which to crack their armor. He is famous, he is a musician and humanitarian. I would not say your old fogie to be following the band I would have to say its more about loyalty. A brand of living most people don't recognize because it doesn't come packaged on your cereal box or branded on your itunes. Men are either living for selfish gain or making efforts to afford others a means in which to be more of themselves.

It just so happens this man has the spotlight for this generation of individuals who put an emphasis on stardom.
The very good thing about Bono is that he will use your idol worship for good. So keep your cynicism, he is not going anywhere. I for one am very happy to continue to supporting his efforts and listening to the music. Its the music that brought me to the party and its what keeps me coming back.

Posted by: enriqueta | November 26, 2007 2:49 PM

I've been a U2 fan through all their various phases (albeit more a fan of some phases than of others) since my mom bought me The Joshua Tree on cassette for my 11th birthday. (And let me just plug my review of the dandy new 20th anniversary JT reissue, which will appear tomorrow in This Very Newspaper/Website.)

I think Bono is an activist first and a musician second nowadays, and I'm okay with it. Despite his oft-repeated soundbytes of protest about getting back "to the day job" (he said the same thing to me at a Jubilee 2000 press conference in Sept. 1999), he's clearly more than okay with it, too. U2 have pretty much scaled every peak you possibly can in the realm of pop music. Whether or not you find Bono's blarney to your taste -- there are certainly times when I'd like him to shut up for a while -- he clearly has a voracious intellect and a sense of altruism greater even than his egotism, which is not insignificant. I don't think music is enough to keep him occupied now, if it ever was.

I'll listen with great interest to future U2 recordings, but I'm trying to keep my expectations in check. Back in 1999 I thought we'd never hear U2 on mainstream radio again; now, I'm more convinced that we'll ever get another brilliant, risk-taking album like Zooropa. Although I do think U2's post-PopMart return to their core sound was a sincere shift rather than a calculated one, I also think that sometime in the last few years the band quietly decided among themselves that it was more important to them to stay popular than to stay interesting. Atomic Bomb mostly sounded great to me if I didn't pay too much attention to the lyrics, which were among Bono's most facile and precious.

That said, I'm sure Mr. du Lac must have loved the album's single most execrable line: "Freedom has a scent like the top of a newborn baby's head." (I don't sit next to him, nor have I ever inhaled me some mewling newborn babe, so I am unable to confirm or deny.)

Posted by: Chris Klimek | November 26, 2007 3:30 PM

I especially admire the charity work he's done for the homeless ipods of the world.

Posted by: Phil | November 26, 2007 4:01 PM

i see two questions; do charital acts essentially 'rock' and does Bono still rock? when a political movement is loud and proud, and breaking some rules, it can certainly achieve 'Van Halen'. Think the protestor in Tienemen Square, or the monks of Myanmar. Bono's brought in some serious dough for Africa, saved a lot of lives no doubt. Does he still rock? A lot harder then Lennon ever did, in that respect.

Posted by: mart buchwald | November 26, 2007 5:31 PM

U2 will be working with Daniel Lanois, not Rick Rubin

Posted by: sahara | November 27, 2007 1:05 PM

Wow! All the criticisms I hear make it clear that no one is actually LISTENING to what Bono is saying. He has never asked any individual to donate money to any cause. He and his various groups (ONE campaign, DATA, etc) spend the majority of their time lobbying governments for a tiny, tiny fraction of their annual spending budgets. When successful, there's a slight shift in spending focus from, say, the military to foreign aid. The money will be spent by governments no matter what, so it's people like Bono who get in there, in the dirt, slogging it out in the boxing ring and skillfully trying to persuade decision-makers' thinking on the subject.

For the love of God, there are people dying by the millions in Africa, and all you people talk about is Bono's "ego" or other such crap! He's a deeply spiritual man who has the intelligence to use what he's got - everything he's got - to try to help those who are suffering.

Of course Bono's still an amazing rock star with fantastic music to share with us. His two "jobs", as you all seem to like to put it, support each other beautifully. It's the old style rock-and-roll, where bands ineffectively yell out their anger about the injustices in the world, that is no longer relevant, that belongs to the "old fogies". All the old bands did were vent anger and frustration, not doing anything to improve things, always promoting the tiresome, worn-out "us versus them" scenario.

Wake up! The world has changed! Now is the time for an opening of people's hearts, for sincere negotiation, for kindness and caring. Bono is on the leading edge, far ahead of most people in his ability to see what's needed to help the world, even if it makes him a target for those stuck in the dark ages. Why not get over your petty little opinions and love of criticizing people like Bono and Geldof and get on board. The world needs you!

Posted by: Diane | November 27, 2007 3:33 PM

Never has a band gotten so much out of basically four chords...over and over and over. Their music is ok but DEFINITELY pop and Bono is a pop king, not a rock and roll star. If he wants to campaign to put all of Africa on the dole (which Africa does not want, they're smart enough to realize that doesn't work) that's fine, his intentions are seemingly good. But I think he gets as much or more out of being cast as a selfless, messianic character than he gives to the poor and hungry of the world. I sort of think he's really just an egomaniacal twit whose best vocal years are behind hime. But he's harmless.

Posted by: Debbie | November 27, 2007 3:59 PM

I think all the criticisms and complaining on this list is disgusting. Most of you could not point to anything you've done yourselves that remotely compares to Bono's work to improve the world. So what if he is successful as a musician and has taken the political screaming of punk to a higher level. Are the grapes really that sour? I applaud Diane's post. The complainers need to look beyond the surface (which ironically is what you keep accuse Bono of being) and see the good that each individual can accomplish. Being cynical and pessimistic does not come across as intelligent and discerning - its just plain negative.

And if you are complaining about Bono talking too much at his shows - then you haven't been a U2 fan for very long. He's been doing that since the Unforgettable Fire tour back in 1985 when I first saw them: getting on his soapbox and preaching, just the same as he does now.

Posted by: Karen | November 27, 2007 5:01 PM

23112 wrote of annoyance that "for the past five years, it has seemed like at any moment he might stretch his arms wide, point his face to the heavens, close his eyes, and wait for the streaming light from God to come down and bathe him in a golden glow."

23112, you must not have been to many U2 concerts. He's been striking that pose regularly for 26 years solid. I find watching Bono shamelessly adore perhaps the one Being with a larger ego than his own rather moving. However, if you don't want to see Bono do that, or hear him on a soapbox, the time to start avoiding U2 live gigs was about 1981.

The guy's used his stardom to make a massive difference for the world's poor, and I just don't get why all the sniping (though I found the fawning of the Post article a bit much, on the other side). Would people prefer it if he collected Bentleys and prostitutes, and lay around stoned all day?

Posted by: Beth | November 27, 2007 5:18 PM

Bono as a powerful frontman? I never thought he was in the first place. My fav of all time is Freddie Mercury. Compared to ol' Fred, Bono's your typical polyester-clad lounge lizard at the airport Marriott.
No, Bono's not a frontman. But he's a great singer-one of, if not the, best still working today.

Am I buying what he's selling? No. I haven't joined the One campaign or taken part in any effort to help out the seemingly endlessly starving, warring, dying Africans. Folks have been working on their behalf for decades and nothing's changed. So I doubt Mr. Bono and his colleagues can make a dent in Africa's perpetuating suffering.

What's my impression of his lobbying affecting U2's music?
On "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb", there's this beautiful song "Crumbs from Your Table" about a cold-hearted so-and-so much like myself. The part that irks me about the tune is the bridge: "where you live should not decide/whether you live or whether you die."
Beautiful thought, but what's that got to do with the rest of the song?
It's clear to me that Mr. Bono's moonlighting affects the writing.
But he should stick to a song's main point. Put your suffering in one song and your insufferable people in another.

My biggest problem about Mr. Bono's work is that all the senators in the Style story Mr. du Lac referenced just fawn all over Bono. I wonder if any of them ask him any HARD questions about the aid we're giving away.
As I said earlier, it seems like Africa's been in a hole for...gosh, at least 40 or 50 years.
The continent's had help from all corners of the world in various forms and yet the poverty, violence and sickness is still there, full force.
I would ask Mr. Bono how what he and his colleagues are doing now will help to finally put a stop to Africa's problems.
'Cause if we forgive debts, give aid and send help for the next 10, 20 years and that place is still screwed up, then I'd tell Bono to go home or just shut up and sing!

Posted by: MichelleMyBelle | November 27, 2007 7:26 PM

With all that's wrong in the world, I need my heroes. Even the unlikely, rock star ones will do. Bono is no saint. That's why I trust him! If you've ever seen him perform live, it's obvious he is filled with music and I for one am glad he's brave enough to share it with the world. It's easy to say that a fan of a band that has been around as long as U2 is out of touch, but it is not true. U2 has remained relevant. Their shows are the forerunners in artistic creation. What has kept them together this long? What is the secret to their magic? That's enough reason for me to give them a listen. Bono's fairly immaculate character was why I gave the ONE Campaign a look. Once I did, it proved to be a solid, smart endeavor. One percent of the national budget toward SMART aid, fair trade, debt relief and fighting AIDS so people can be strong enough to help themselves out of extreme poverty. And, as a bonus this helps make the world less "terrorist prone". Seems a lot cheaper and less destructive than fighting a trillion dollar war.

Posted by: Morgan | November 28, 2007 12:29 AM

I saw them a couple of years ago at the MCI/Verizon/Whatever Center for the first time since catching the Unforgettable Fire tour at the Ritchie Coliseum in 1985. They most assuredly do NOT rock anymore. They are a pop phenomenon, not a rock band. They put more passion out for my $15 bucks than any band I've seen before or since. The arena show was canned, staged, phony, right down to the closing "One" montage that made me wanna hurl.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 28, 2007 7:23 AM

"Would people prefer it if he collected Bentleys and prostitutes, and lay around stoned all day?"

And the problem with that would be what?

Posted by: Wilmot Proviso | November 28, 2007 11:59 AM

He kinda lost me when he sang "early morning, April 4." King was shot in the early evening. How the hell do you screw that up? All told, too much preaching, too much posturing. Ugh.

Posted by: Bill | November 28, 2007 10:18 PM

Just one word: Biddy

Posted by: queenanne | December 3, 2007 3:54 PM

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