Got those ‘bee in my bonnet about Bono’ blues (Review)

Unless you really hate the U2 frontman you probably won’t want to spend precious hours on a book that is so negative it almost makes you want to defend him

Megaphone diplomacy: did Bono really prolong violent conflict in the North? Photograph: Reuters/Tim Wimborne

Megaphone diplomacy: did Bono really prolong violent conflict in the North? Photograph: Reuters/Tim Wimborne


Book Review: The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power) by Harry Browne. (Verso, 180pp, £9.99)

Bono. No, wait – don’t go away! It’s okay – we’re going to give him a bloody good kicking. Let’s start by warming up a little. Who said this, and about what?

“What’s actually hypocritical is the idea that then you couldn’t use a financial services centre in Holland. The real question people need to ask about Ireland’s tax policy is, ‘Was the nation a net gain benefactor [sic]?’, and of course it was – hugely so. So there was no hypocrisy for me – we’re just part of a system that has benefited the nation greatly.”

Now try this one: “I’m fond of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. They are kind of the John and Paul of the global-development stage.”

Yeah. That’s right. Want more? We got more.

Which childless 25-year-old urban avant-hipster, with no educational or agriculture training or experience, spent six weeks in an Ethiopian refugee camp, then said the following: “We developed a repeating educational programme with various one-act plays and songs to spread information on health, hygiene and other issues . . . One was called The Labour Play; it was about giving birth . . . We would teach the kids a song, and they would go around the camp singing it and educate their parents . . . I learned some of the language and wrote simple songs . . . So the children would sing: ‘We can’t eat the seeds because they’re for next year, / If we plant them right there will be no more tears’ . . . I have heard that some of the ideas lived on after we left. I hope that is true.” Apparently, they didn’t have childbirth or agriculture in Ethiopia before Bono and his wife, Ali, went there.

The mullet. The white flag. The “soaring anthems”. Live Aid. The blues affectation, poncing around in front of a cactus tree. Working for charidee. Sucking up to Tony Blair, Paul Wolfowitz, George Bush, Jesse Helms, Barack-Is-Watching-You Obama. Tony Blair. Corporate endorsements. Moving royalties offshore to avoid tax in Ireland.

It is absurdly easy to beat up on Bono. Sometimes it feels like a duty. As Harry Browne writes in the introduction to his new book, The Frontman, in Verso’s Counterblasts series: “For nearly three decades as a public figure, and especially in this century, Bono has been, more often that not, amplifying elite discourses, advocating ineffective solutions, patronising the poor, and kissing the arses of the rich and powerful.”

Having taken pole position in the cavalcade of musicians, movie stars and failed politicians who seek relevance in the Third World, the U2 singer has come to epitomise “celebrity humanitarianism”.

Is this a good thing? Not according to Browne, a former Irish Times journalist who lectures in School of Media at Dublin Institute of Technology.* He reckons that whatever good may have been achieved by Bono’s successes on famine relief, Aids and debt forgiveness is more than cancelled out by his quid-pro-quo endorsement of western political and business elites, which allows them to portray themselves as caring and engaged while forcing “the war against terror” and neoliberal economics on to fragile Third World societies.

This book has much of value to say on this point. It is likely to provoke fresh debate about the merits or otherwise of Bono and his ilk, and about how we westerners have allowed the glow of benevolent celebrity to distract us from the brute realities of our relationship with the developing world.

This is good. Even better, by following that debate, online and in the media, you will spare yourself from having to read the book itself.

Because unless you really, really hate Bono, to the point where you are happy to give up several hours of your short, precious life to the morbid indulgence of your loathing, then this turgid and mean-spirited book is probably not for you.

Browne disavows at the start the politics of envy or begrudgery, but it quickly becomes evident that no stone will be left unthrown and no nit unpicked in the single-minded quest to demonstrate, over and over again, that in every way possible Bono is WRONG.

Here are just a few of the things that make Bono WRONG: not having been black; not having gone to a GAA-playing school; having made a “borderline racist” joke about how violent Gaelic football and hurling can be; not having mentioned trad music one time when he was asked about his roots; having a moneyed Dublin accent; not having a Dublin accent; not giving all that much to charidee himself (according to a bloke who might know); not being sexy or cool; exploiting his sexiness and coolness; using the word “Gaelic” when he should have said “Irish”; publicly disagreeing in Africa with someone who wasn’t white; being from Ballymun but not the worst (best?) part of Ballymun; secretly encoding a message about his own divinity into the cover of the Independent newspaper; not having been in The Clash; being a mediocre musician; using his charm and stagecraft to leverage the early success of his band; having written only two songs about black people before he got involved with Live Aid; being complicit in an “ongoing campaign of vilification and demonisation of Northern Irish nationalist communities . . . that deepened their marginalisation and made it easier to ignore the reasons those communities supported the ‘Provos’ . . . And thus it prolonged the violent conflict.”

Yep. That was Bono who did that.

The author of this book is peculiarly blind to his subject’s human existence. For example, a fairer mind, and a better writer, would have made something much different of the following: having scorned Bono’s pretensions to possessing some insight into Northern Ireland’s sectarian divide (being half Catholic, half Protestant), Browne writes:

Oddly enough, U2 were apparently stalked for a few weeks in 1979 by a group of young toughs from Bono’s neighbourhood styling themselves the “Black Catholics”, who denounced U2 as “Protestant bastards”. But this seemingly had more to do with class than religion – “Protestant” translated in this case as “posh and stuck-up”; and after a couple of tussles the harassment was ended by Bono marching down Cedarwood Road to confront the daddy of one of his persecutors. The Christians of U2 weren’t, in any case, persecuted for their religious beliefs . . .

Young Bono must have known, as he took that long, scary walk, that he deserved to be bullied for being posh and that the sectarian attacks were all in good fun, and not really sectarian.

The author is clear from the start that he does not intend to be neutral, but the relentless, monotonous drone of negativity, innuendo and whataboutism goes far too far in the opposite direction. Each rare half-compliment or extenuating possibility is crushingly followed by “but”. The writing itself is poor, which does not help to sugar the pill.

Halfway through I was horrified to find that I had started making a case to myself for Paul Hewson. The Clash were also dreadful Third World tourists, and every good lefty loves them . . . A heartless Ayn Rand disciple, with no care for human feelings or suffering, could not have written the lyrics to One . . . If you’re going to do lobbying, you have to talk to arseholes . . . Isn’t it possible that even though he’s WRONG, he might still mean well?

By the time I finished this book I was actually sorry for Bono. No one should have to feel that.

Ed O’Loughlin is a former newspaper correspondent in Africa and the Middle East. His new novella, All You Can Eat, a pulpy satire on the Irish political crisis, is published this week.

* This article was amended on July 23rd, 2013.



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