I am not a fan of U2. I first encountered the band in 2003 at the opening ceremony for the Special Olympics, at a time I was vaguely aware of a song called Beautiful Day and didn’t even recognise Pride when they played it. I was impressed, got curious, and found The Best of 1980-1990 and The Best of 1990-2000.
Fifteen years later, I can identify all the songs on Spotify’s This is U2 list from the first note. I have specific favourite versions of nearly everything. The best Mysterious Ways can be found on the PopMart: Live from Mexico City DVD (because, you see, Edge goes up a fifth instead of down at four minutes and fifty-eight seconds).
I was gleeful when I saw that Zooropa had made it onto U22, their collection of live recordings from the 360° tour. I remain confident in my assessment that the transition from All I Want is You to Where the Streets Have No Name on the 2001 DVD from Slane is the greatest thing ever committed to an optical disc.
To call me a ‘fan’ would be a grotesque mockery. More of an anorak. I’m like one of those men standing on bridges writing down the wagon and carriage numbers of all the trains that go by, or a guy who can recite the starting XV from the day Dublin beat Armagh to retain the Sam Maguire Cup in 1977.
And so, I was in Belfast last Sunday for the first of three concerts I planned to see on this tour. I am the proud owner of two U2 hoodies, four U2 T-shirts and, for about three hours on that evening, I had a U2 hat, which somehow managed to be worth twenty-five Great British Pounds.
Oh well, I wasn’t around to buy War when it came out, so I have to make up for it.
It was my seventh U2 concert overall. That’s a pretty pathetic tally compared to some but, in my defence, I only started in 2005. I have tickets for concerts number eight and nine this week.
As usual, it was jaw-dropping. The band have always had a particular genius for live shows and have had a few decades to practise. Having a smaller indoor venue means the sound is perfect. We were standing about four feet from where the band were walking up and down between their A- and B-stages. We could almost have reached out and touched them.
I Will Follow was glorious. Zoo Station was magnificent. Stay was beautiful. Acrobat was mesmerising. Then along came New Year’s Day and City of Blinding Lights.
The morning after the concert, the Irish Independent had a picture of the set, saying U2 “proudly displayed” the flag of the European Union. They didn’t proudly display anything. Bono literally worshipped it and invited all present to do the same.
Bono has always used his musical soapbox to encourage his favourite causes. This is different. The band have now crossed into handing specific political positions to their audience.
If you have a listen to U2’s latest album, Songs of Experience, Bono will tell you what he thinks of America in a track called American Soul. Nobody seems to have pointed out to him that the USA has three hundred and twenty million people in it and it’s not exactly Bono’s place to interpret and diagnose the content of their souls. Especially if he’s going to announce that their country is “A dream the whole world owns” and “A thought that offers grace/for every welcome that is sought,” which doesn’t make an awful lot of sense but presumably means no border controls at all for any reason ever.
Fine. Ignore the track. Skip the track, it’s not very good anyway.
You can’t do that with New Year’s Day. That song has been building a relationship with fans for thirty-five years. City of Blinding Lights for the last thirteen. People already love them. People already get a rush of excitement when they hear the first bar or two. Twelve thousand people sharing the same rush has a gigantic psychological effect. Then a bait-and-switch occurs.
You love these songs, you’re enjoying jumping up and down together, now let’s all bow before an EU flag and if you don’t you’re not one of us. This is the application of Pavlovian conditioning* to politics.
Trying to bootstrap some sort of loyalty to the European Union to people’s pre-existing musical tastes isn’t OK. It isn’t any of the things of which Bono is usually accused. It isn’t naïve. It isn’t utopian. It isn’t annoying. It is purely, wilfully, profoundly unethical.
It doesn’t matter if you’re the most unhinged, gung-ho Brexiteer or the most obsequious Europhile. This isn’t the flag of Europe as an abstract concept; it’s the flag of a specific political institution with its own interests that may not always be perfectly aligned with the interests of those under its influence. This is true of all governments and states, which is why citizens are supposed to watch them like hawks and make sure they’re not doing anything dangerous (we don’t, of course, but we’re supposed to). They are not to be trusted, let alone treated as divine.
I can distinctly remember the feeling of my face starting to fall as I was torn out of the moment. It felt a bit like being the only one at a party not drinking, only with more anger. I probably wasn’t the only one; a friend with whom I’d driven up to Belfast later described herself as ‘baffled’ when the stunt was pulled. I don’t know how many others were baffled and how many others were clenching their teeth. I don’t know what came afterwards. There was some virtue-signalling about women and some more virtue-signalling about gender dysphoria during the encore, but I was no longer paying attention.
“Where’s your hat?” asked my companion, on the way back to the hostel.
“Gone,” I almost whispered through clenched teeth.
It was in a public bin waiting to make its way to some Belfast waste management facility.