Hugh Linehan: Bono and I finally have something in common – we both find U2 cringeworthy

The band’s awareness of their own ridiculousness has long been part of their appeal

Many people don't like U2, and I've been one of them for well over 40 years now. Over that time, I've come to regard the band in the same way as I do Bailey's Irish Cream: it's an admirable achievement but don't make me drink the stuff.

This is not an unusual opinion, but it was interesting nonetheless to hear it so forcefully expressed this week on the American podcast Awards Chatter, where Bono's strained "Irish macho" voice, the band's "sketched out" lyrics and their "embarrassing" songs were criticised, along with that stupid name.

The speaker was a Mr Paul Hewson, a 61-year-old Dubliner who, like me, finds most of U2's songs "cringeworthy" and switches the radio off when they are played.

Bono – for it was he, appearing alongside The Edge – also told the podcast hosts that while other U2 members had learned to love the band’s name he had yet to warm to it.

“We thought the implication and the number – in our head it was like the spy plane, U-boat, it was futuristic – as it turned out to imply this kind of acquiescence,” he said, somewhat opaquely. “No I don’t like that name.”

Many great bands have stupid names (exhibit A: The Beatles). And many singers confess to hating their back catalogues. Robert Plant despised "that damned wedding song" Stairway to Heaven. Kurt Cobain "could barely get through" playing Smells Like Teen Spirit live.

But for the most part they were reacting against the tyranny of being defined by a single hit. For a very long time, though, Bono has been deploying a broader sort of self-ridicule as a defensive weapon, and possibly even a promotional tool.

Self-deprecation

In 1991, he and his bandmates executed the most impressive pivot of their career, jettisoning the faux-buckskin earnestness of The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum and lifting a leaf or 10 from the Berlin-era Bowie book, for Achtung Baby. Ever since that injection of irony and self-knowledge, the U2 brand has offered grandiosity leavened with a little bit of self-deprecation.

After all, as Bono has observed, even in their earliest days U2 weren’t fashionable, and the band’s awareness of their own ridiculousness has long been part of their appeal.

Inspiration for this strategy may have come from the band’s own native city, which has long regarded its most successful musical sons with a conflicted mixture of adoration and antipathy.

The latter sentiment used to be characterised as “begrudgery”, a peculiarly Irish form of tall-poppy syndrome which was unwisely declared extinct during the C****c T***r years. It reappeared in the form of the “Bono is a Pox” meme and graffiti tag which spread across the city in the first half of the last decade, driven at least in part by post-crash agitation over U2’s tax affairs.

Being Bono in Dublin, one imagines, must be a unique sort of experience. All the more credit to him for sticking around.

His comments this week were widely reported around the world, usually in a surprised tone which suggested these layers of ambiguity haven’t travelled as well as the band’s music did. Or is it just that everyone has moved on?

Extraordinary determination

You might well believe that The Blades, or Microdisney, or whoever, deserved more of the limelight than U2 received in their early days. You might well find their stadium rock preposterous.

Alternatively you might admire the extraordinary determination, focus and skill with which Bono and co outstripped their more critically acclaimed peers to become the world’s biggest band, by recording songs that resonated with hundreds of millions of people and reinventing live music as a compelling audiovisual spectacle. You might even wish to revisit the old “Bono: Messiah or Eejit?” debate. But frankly, why would you bother?

The Messiah/Eejit was appearing on Awards Chatter because U2’s Your Song Saved My Life, which was recorded for the soundtrack of animated musical Sing 2, has been nominated for an Oscar.

I have listened to Your Song Saved My Life twice so you don't have to. It was five minutes ago, and I've entirely forgotten it. The same was true of the sub-Eurovision anthem Bono, the Edge and Martin Garrix provided for last year's Euro football finals.

Little-deserved Oscar nominations aside, sequel soundtracks and corporate sport anthems are not a great place for the former Biggest Rock Band in the World to end up. They suggest a neediness, even a desperation at the prospect of no longer being at the centre of a popular culture which moved on at least two generations ago.

Compared with nearly all of their peers, U2 enjoyed an extraordinarily long run at the top. But that run ended quite a while ago and there’s something a little melancholy about how Bono still doesn’t seem to have come to terms with it.